Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month
This year’s National Hispanic Heritage Month theme is “Unidos: Inclusivity for a Stronger Nation.” Texas A&M Today spoke with history professor Felipe Hinojosa, who is also assistant provost for HSI Initiatives, about how and why to honor Hispanic heritage this month.
What is Hispanic Heritage Month?
Hispanic Heritage Month (HHM) is a time for all of us to celebrate the histories, cultures and contributions of Latino Americans in the United States. The observation first started as Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968 under President Lyndon Johnson and was later expanded by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 to a 30-day period beginning Sept. 15 and ending Oct. 15. Why start on Sept. 15? That date marks the anniversary of independence for several Latin American countries including Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Sept. 16 is the anniversary of independence for Mexico and Chile.
Celebrating HHM is important because it allows us to learn about the diverse and significant contributions Latinos have made to this country. An overwhelmingly young population — the median age of Latinos is 28 — the numbers are expected to grow, driven by a combination of births in the United States and continued immigration. And more importantly for us, Latinos are now Texas’ largest ethnoracial group. This means that no matter what industry you work in — from healthcare to business to education — having some understanding of Latino culture and history is critical.
How important is it to acknowledge and celebrate Hispanic heritage?
It is more important than ever. Not simply for the cultural celebratory aspect (music and food, as important as those are), but also because it is an opportunity for all our students to better understand how immigration, racial discrimination and poverty continue to stifle our collective progress. Today, Latinos are more visible than ever and are an increasingly important part of American society. Yet, even as the population continues to grow, Latinos lag behind in political representation, graduation rates, college attendance and socio-economic status. Demographic changes on our campus and across the country alone are not enough to bring about political change.
What is the difference between the terms Latinx, Latino and Hispanic? Are they interchangeable?
Each of these terms are pan-ethnic markers of identity used to group the Latin American diaspora in the United States. Although the terms are used interchangeably, each term carries significant political meanings and historical contexts that explain the nuance and differences inherent within each term. The term Hispanic, for example, emerged in the Nixon-era 1970s as a pan-ethnic marker to identify Spanish-speaking populations in the United States. It appeared for the first time in the 1980 census and quickly gained currency as a popular pan-ethnic identifier. But because “Hispanic” emerged as a federal designation, and over time it came to be identified with conservative politics, it has since lost some currency. “Latino” has increased in popularity and to a large extent surpassed Hispanic as the pan-ethnic term of choice. Although not a perfect term, “Latino” emerged out of community, most notably in social movements, print culture (newspapers) and cultural expressions (especially music). “Latinx” is a recent term that uses the “x” to move beyond gender binaries inherent in the Spanish language and acknowledges the full range of identities in the community. In some sectors of the community, Latinx is a controversial term, but I should note that it is popular among young people.
You were born and raised in Brownsville. How does your heritage allow you to bring a different perspective to your classes, campus activities or academic work?
Brownsville, and the entire Rio Grande Valley, is such a special place. I grew up surrounded by teachers, parents and a community that affirmed my Mexican-American culture and identity. That kind of affirmation prepared me to live, work and teach in culturally diverse settings. I tell my students all the time that if you know your own story, your family’s history, and if you have some sense of your cultural identity, you are in a much better position to understand people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Growing up in Brownsville, right on the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, prepared me for the world and prepared me to teach in diverse classrooms here at Texas A&M. That’s why I encourage all my students, regardless of background, to get to know their family’s history and their own identity. Sometimes people are in such a rush to leave home, or to run away from their own cultural background, or they assume that cultural identity has little significance, but the truth is that it matters very much. Being grounded in who you are, and understanding your history and cultural identity, is key to showing empathy, love and grace to those around you.
Where can people learn more about Hispanic heritage?
I would start with encouraging every Aggie to sign up for one of the many Latinx-themed classes offered on campus, whether in education, history, communications, sociology or anthropology. Or maybe start a reading group or movie club that is focused on Latinx topics and themes or sign up to volunteer for a Latinx non-profit organization in the local community. Also, go out and support local vendors like taco trucks and bakeries or Latinx-owned beauty salons. As we learn the story of Latinxs in the United States, we learn much about the core fabric of this nation in terms of immigration, civil rights and the democratic principles that guide our hope for the future.