My first recollection of Hispanic Heritage Month was when I was around 14 years old and had recently arrived in Nashville, TN when we moved from Puerto Rico, because my mother took a position as an editor of a Spanish language magazine whose offices were based there. My previous experience in the U.S had been in extremely diverse places—New York, Chicago, Texas, Florida— but here, in 1988, I was the only “Hispanic” student in my high school, and it was the first time the full month would be officially celebrated in the U.S.
“Are you excited for Hispanic Heritage month?” someone asked. My overactive frontalis muscles must have engaged, because they seemed put off when I didn’t jump for joy. I went to the only other Latina in the school—the Spanish teacher—and asked, “Que es y como van a celebrar Hispanic Heritage Month?” She explained that it was a month running from mid-September through October that had been designated to highlight the accomplishments of “Hispanics” in the United States and that she would be throwing a fiesta. It felt insufficient, inadequate, and simplistic.
As I stood in this fiesta decorated with sombreros and piñatas, serving Doritos with salsa, and playing La Bamba in the background, my heart sank. As my fellow students walked around yelling “Arriba! Arriba!” in the style of Speedy Gonzalez and wishing me a “feliz Hispanic heritage month,” I realized that what I had been told about Estadounidenses was true—we are viewed as a monolith. I immediately became the expert in the room and the authority on all things “Hispanic” as I was bombarded with questions such as: “Is your mother a housekeeper?” “Can we see your green card?” and “How do you make tacos?”
I was exhausted and upset when I arrived home and told my parents what had happened. “Tienes que educarlos porque son ignorantes,” my madre and padre—educators and activists—instructed me. “But they don’t even know who Simon Bolivar was!” I replied. It was the first time I felt the weight of representation on my shoulders and a deep sense of responsibility for clarifying the richness and diversity of those of us colonized by Spain.
At that age, I did not have the language to recognize what I have come to know as microaggressions (my favorite being the “what are you?” question leveled at me some of my teachers, and for decades by a variety of Caucasian people), nor did I have the maturity to negotiate them. What I did have was a deep understanding of my Taino, African, and European ancestry, extensive historical knowledge, and a clear point of view on how the dynamics of colonialism create systems of oppression from which my people must rise; this was the solid foundation that allowed me to navigate this new world.
Years later, when I started my career as an educator, I intuitively centered the margins in my lesson plans, classroom discussion, and décor. I grappled with what to do with these designated times of recognition, ultimately deciding to utilize them as times of focused learning rather than cursory celebrations. We discussed the rich indigenous cultures that thrived pre-Columbus, Spain’s conquest, the slave trade, the abolition and independence movements, and the heavy impact of Latines on U.S culture. I intentionally continued these lessons throughout the year in order to not constrain their value to a one month period.
The real work, however, occurs in the months outside of these designated times. How do we support and honor the heritage, culture, and background of all of our students throughout the entire year? I have seen teachers decorate their rooms and prepare exceptional “Hispanic” Heritage Month units for their students, then punish a student for not doing their homework on the night their parents were deported. I have seen administrators send out memos regarding decorating hallways and classrooms for this celebration, then refuse to find an interpreter for a parent who wanted a conference. I have seen colleagues who, minutes after discussing the contributions of César Chávez and Dolores Huerta, yelled at students in the hallway for speaking Spanish.
“Hispanic” Heritage Month serves as a starting point for surfacing the essential voices that have been silenced by a system built on the principles of white supremacy. How are we, as educators, continuing this practice throughout the year in order to show ALL students that they are an integral part of our classrooms? Are we allowing students to self-identify or are we labeling them as we have been conditioned (e.g. Hispanic or Latinx), and therefore lumping them into one culture? Prescribing a label rather than asking students how they choose to identify dismisses the richness and diversity of these populations and perpetuates systems of oppression. Telling someone how they should be identified—especially in their own language—is language colonialism.
As “Hispanic” Heritage Month closes and we look forward to the remainder of the school year, I encourage you to continue to uplift students who identify with cultures from Spanish colonies by centering them into the curriculum, listening to them and their community, and by realizing that, in the words of Pedro Albizu Campos, No somos pequeños, es que estamos de rodilla. [“We are not small, we are on our knees.”]