Marking Hispanic Heritage Month


From official proclamations to ‘Ugly Betty,’ from ‘Hispanic’ to ‘Latino,’ who is celebrating what?

“It most be Hispanic month again,” I thought a few days ago, when after turning on the tube there was a documentary about the history of Latino portrayals in movies and television. As a Latina living in Minnesota, I’m always excited to see this kind of program. The documentary showed how Latinos in the entertainment industry have come a long way from Carmen Miranda films in the 1950’s to America Ferrara’s “Ugly Betty” today.

In the United States we measure both the advancement of a population and their acceptance by the rest of society, by how they are portrayed on TV and movies. If television makes fun of a certain group in a negative and insulting way, then it means that these people have a long way to be accepted by mainstream society. But if it makes fun of the same people in an endearing way, and if we see enough of their brown faces on the tube doing what regular people are supposed to do, then it means that this population has made it. From the TV line-up this month, that includes a sexy Mexican-American housewife, a nerdy young Mexican woman working in the fashion industry and a rich Cuban-American family, not to mention all those Latino detectives, it seems that we, the Latinos, have finally been accepted by U.S. society. Or have we?

The state of Minnesota proclaimed Hispanic Heritage Month starting on September 15 of this year. This means that in the Twin Cities and in greater Minnesota, Latino communities are celebrating with events and activities to remember their heritage. It also means that organizations, schools, universities, public libraries and art museums sponsor events and activities to commemorate the achievements of Latino/Hispanic people.

So, who are the Hispanics that this month is supposed to commemorate? For the Census Bureau, “Hispanics” are people of Latin American heritage, immigrants from Latin America, people who speak Spanish (or not, because many second and third generation Latinos/Chicanos don’t speak Spanish), and people of Spanish heritage. This includes white, indigenous, “mestizos” and African Latinos. It includes people who have always been U.S. citizens by definition–the people of Puerto Rico–and those who trace their heritage to the time before Texas and California were part of the Union. It includes the descendants of immigrants from Latin America and Spain, and the new immigrants.

Even the terminology is confusing. The word “Hispanic” was coined by the Federal Government to use for census purposes, but many people prefer to be called Latino (immigrants and people with Latin American heritage) or Chicano (Mexican-American). The term Latino is being more accepted and used by the media and entertainment. As a Mexican immigrant in the United States, I prefer the term Latina. After all, I come from a Latin American country, and I can trace some of my ancestry to Texas before it was part of the United States.

Culturally and politically, the Latinos/Hispanic/Chicanos are not a block and cannot be considered to think, act or vote as a block. Latinos have many different cultures and political ideologies, from extreme conservative to radical liberal, and everything in between. We know that both the Republican and Democratic Party want the Latino vote at election time. We also know that Latino issues—such as immigration reform, educational opportunities for our children, comprehensive health for our families and development of our communities—are forgotten after the election, and we have to wait for the next election to be wined and dined or for the next Hispanic Heritage Month to be remembered again.

Teresa Ortiz is a writer and organizer living in St. Paul.