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Yes, We're Calling It Hispanic Heritage Month And We Know It Makes Some Of You Cringe

As the nation begins its annual celebration of Latino history, culture and other achievements, it's not too late to ask why we lump together roughly 62 million people with complex identities under a single umbrella.
Peter Pencil
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As the nation begins its annual celebration of Latino history, culture and other achievements, it's not too late to ask why we lump together roughly 62 million people with complex identities under a single umbrella.

Updated September 17, 2021 at 11:54 AM ET

As the headline unambiguously states, here at NPR we've kicked off Hispanic Heritage Month.

Not Latino Heritage Month. Not Latinx Heritage Month. Not even a compromise or a combination of the three: Hispanic/Latino/Latinx Heritage Month.

To be honest, NPR began to participate in the national event that is called Hispanic Heritage Month with no discussion about existing tensions within Latino communities regarding the use of the word Hispanic, its origins and whether it may be time to swap out the catchall label for something different.

Perhaps that has something to do with the rapid pace of the news recently regarding the end of a 20-year-long war in Afghanistan, another terrifying spike in the COVID-19 pandemic or this week's recall election in California.

Or, in full transparency, it could have something to do with the fact that as of 2020 only 6% of the NPR's newsroom and on-air journalists identify as Hispanic or Latino.

But it's not too late to pose the following thorny questions: What's the harm in lumping together roughly 62 million people with complex identities under a single umbrella? Is a blanket pan-ethnic term necessary to unite and reflect a shared culture that is still largely (infuriatingly) excludedfrom mainstream popular culture? Or the more basic question: ¿Por que Hispanic?

How Latinos/Latinas/Latinx people became Hispanic

Hispanic Heritage Month initially began as a weeklong celebration in 1968 under President Lyndon Johnson who, at the time said, "The people of Hispanic descent are the heirs of missionaries, captains, soldiers, and farmers who were motivated by a young spirit of adventure, and a desire to settle freely in a free land."

"This heritage is ours," he proclaimed.

It wasn't until 1988 that President Ronald Reagan extended the week to a full 31 days — through Oct. 15 — keeping the Sept. 15 start date because it coincides with national independence day of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Similarly, Mexico celebrates on the 16th, Chile on the 18th and Belize on the 21st.

But even before Johnson landed on the term Hispanic, there was a lot of debate within government entities on how to refer to Latinos in the United States, Cristina Mora, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, tellsNPR.

Mora, who wrote about the adoption of the term Hispanic in Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Created a New American, found that use of the umbrella categorization is inextricably linked to the U.S. Census and its attempts to identify and quantify different groups of people.

The Pew Research Center reportsthat in the 1930s Latinos living in the U.S., regardless of their place of birth or family origin, were all noted as "Mexican" by door-to-door U.S. Census Bureau counters. It wasn't until 1970 that the agency began asking Latinos living in the U.S. to self-identify as either "Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, Other Spanish" or "No, none of these." This, however, led to a bizarre and unexpected underrepresentation of white Americans who misunderstood the classifications. Apparently, hundreds of thousands of confused people living in the South or central regions of the U.S. mistakenly identified as Central or South American, according to Pew.

But even with the added Latino subgroups, Mora says the 1970 Census once again resulted in a severe undercount of the minority but growing population, which in turn led to a national backlash from activists, academics and civic leaders who demanded fair representation.

Latinos could have been called "Brown"

New groups were formed to tackle the problem, including the Census Bureau's Spanish Origin Advisory Committee and a group of Spanish-speaking federal employees called the Ad Hoc Committee on Racial and Ethnic Definitions. Mora recalls several of the options being floated at the time included "Brown," "Latin American," "Latino" and Hispanic.

"One of the problems is that Latinos were seen as foreigners, invaders and not inherently American. And one of the jobs of the advisory board was to really show that Latinos were an American minority group, like African-Americans — a minority that stretched from coast to coast and that were patriotic, that fought in wars, that contributed to American history, that built American cities. So when a term like Latin American was used, right away, it seemed to strike discord because it was seen as too foreign," Mora explains.

She adds: "Hispanic was never a term that everybody loved, but it was a term that got a lot of support from within Latinos in the Nixon [administration] and, later, the Ford administration." It was eventually added to the 1980 census.

Many Latinos had an immediate disdain for the term

"We hated the term Hispanic because it was a term that we felt was forced upon us by the U.S. government," Paul Ortiz, author of An African American and Latinx History of the United States, tells NPR.

"It wasn't a natural fit for anyone that I knew. I didn't know anyone growing up who said, 'Oh, hey, I'm Hispanic.' It was always either, I'm Mexican, Mexican-American, Chicano or Chicana," says Ortiz, who is also a history professor at the University of Florida.

A large part of that, he says, is based on the origins of the word Hispanic, which is the English translation of the Spanish "Hispano," meaning a person whose cultural traditions originate from Spain.

When that is the starting point, he says, "That immediately erases all of the centuries of pre-Columbian history, culture and civilizations that existed before the European conquest and colonization of the Americas ... and that's understandably upsetting to people who are not white." It alienates indigenous and Afro-Latino communities whose history includes deep resistance to the Spanish invasion and is not necessarily tied to Spain, Ortiz says.

The term Latinx is rising in popularity

The recent popularity of the word Latinx in the U.S. presents another alternative to the contentious Hispanic label that proponents say also offers gender inclusivity. Ortiz marvels at the way it has so quickly been adapted by young people, academic institutions and corporations alike, though it is not without its own critics.

When naming his book, it was his students who suggested using Latinx in the title. "Originally it was going to be African-American and Latino History in the United States. But my students really impressed upon me the themes of inclusivity and diversity, [saying] we have to be open."

He's also noticed that in the past two years or so, many of the speaking requests he's received from corporations are for Latino or Latinx Heritage Month not Hispanic Heritage Month — that includes an invitation to speak at a Deutsche Bank event later this week.

Ortiz suggests that one theory for the shift is that it is being driven by diverse employee organizations within the companies. "Almost all of them — the ones that have reached out — have taken on the term Latinx."

"I find this fascinating because the stereotype is that the term Latinx is being foisted upon us by academics but that's just not true," he says.

The types of stories told during Hispanic Heritage Month are also important

Beyond the dispute over what to name the month-long celebration, there is another concern: that in an effort to make it more palatable or commercially viable, stories of oppression, prejudice and injustice are whitewashed or ignored.

"Too often the focus is on the musical contributions or dancing or other happy artforms," Mario T. Garcia, professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, tells NPR.

"But we also need programming that reflects historical problems ... because you can't assume that Latinos already know about thelynchings in South Texas in the 1910s," theZoot Suit Riots, the segregation of Mexican kids in schools, or the Chicano-led high school walkouts of the 1960s that permanently changed higher education enrollment for Latino students.

In his experience, Garcia notes, the U.S. public education system does such a poor job of teaching Latino history in this country, that often Hispanic Heritage Month is the only opportunity for any students to learn about it. "It is a real shame," he says.

But approached in the right way, he adds, even these stories can be ultimately seen as happy. "Because the historic struggles of Chicanos, Mexican-Americans, other Latinos are happy stories ... because only through those struggles have we been able to achieve more social justice in this country, more education."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Vanessa Romo
Vanessa Romo is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers breaking news on a wide range of topics, weighing in daily on everything from immigration and the treatment of migrant children, to a war-crimes trial where a witness claimed he was the actual killer, to an alleged sex cult. She has also covered the occasional cat-clinging-to-the-hood-of-a-car story.