The sounds of mariachi and other Latino music along with the voices of persons of Hispanic heritage lessen somewhat as the celebration closes this month.
That celebration is Hispanic Heritage Month which has been going on for over 20 years, yet the question remains after all this time, is the American public more informed about Hispanic culture and its people? And what about us Hispanics, is our pride in being of Hispanic heritage busting at the seams or are we conflicted about our identity and place in America?
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Indeed its an honor that our country grants an entire month to celebrate the positive contributions of our community along with a month being set aside for Women, Asian, African and Native Americans, albeit at other times of the year. But what of it, does this celebrative period actually help or hurt our standing in how non Hispanics view our community?
A few years ago, I was invited to address several American army battalions stationed in Germany and Bosnia. While my visit went well I quickly learned that not everyone was enthused about my talk about Hispanics. At one particular stop, several of the army personnel interrupted my speech by shouting that we should celebrate being American.
Their objection to having me speak about a specific group of people was loud and clear. Certainly, that was a long time ago and much has changed since then, or has it? I cant help but think the behavior of that audience might not have been an anomaly but more the norm, it’s just that other audiences dont protest as loud.
Our community continues to struggle to be understood and in many cases to be appreciated by the public at large. Many stereotypes about Hispanics continue; if we arent illegals, we are drug dealers, we are taking jobs from other Americans, we are too dependent on public welfare, and the list goes on and on. Hispanic heritage month is, no doubt, our forum to address such stereotypes but what about the rest of the year?
Is our community worthy of being seen and heard only on a certain time of the year or are we a continual part of the American cultural scene?
Think about it, how often do you hear mariachi music or other Latino type music as much as you do during the September-October time period. At the same time, how often do you hear about Hispanics delivering a major college or university commencement address, or speaking to a large group of business or academic leaders? Lets face it, its only during a certain time of the year that we hear Hispanic voices speak to other groups, all other times we are basically talking to ourselves.
Our community is indeed a part of the American fabric, all 50 million or so of us. Yet the non-Hispanic public, in a way, continues to grapple on how to include us in their every day lives, while we, in turn, are a work in progress on how to incorporate ourselves in theirs. Look around you; we are a community pretty much isolated from the rest of the country.
We reside principally in Hispanic dominant enclaves and for all intent and purposes, rarely socialize outside our circle. Interestingly, its fair to say that while our music is appreciated by the public at large during Hispanic Heritage Month our food is appreciated year round and that could be a good thing, if we think that food will be what bonds us in the end.
So I ask, what do we as a community learn from celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month?
Is it a time when we take the opportunity to learn about ourselves as much as about our place in America? In explaining the difference between Mexicans and North Americans, the Mexican author Octavio Paz , states in his Nobel Prize winning book Labyrinth of Solitude, The North Americans are credulous and we are believers; they love fairy tales and detective stories and we love myths and legends. We get drunk in order to confess; they get drunk in order to forget. They are optimists and we are nihilists. We are suspicious and they are trusting. We are sorrowful and they are sarcastic and they are happy and full of jokes. North Americans want to understand and we want to contemplate.
Certainly, one can argue that Paz made these observations over 60 decades ago and much has changed for both groups since then. However, these contradictions between the largest ethnic group in America, Mexicans and Americans cant be dismissed outright.
So many of us still hold on to our cultural traits, Mexican or not, and much of that can be attributed to the fact that Hispanics arent necessarily assimilated in all aspects of American society, thus these difference can only serve to divide us rather than to bring us together. On the other hand, are these cultural trait differences applicable only to foreign-born Hispanics living in America as opposed to those of us born and raised in this country?
It goes without saying that the more we live and learn in America, the more we are apt to become a part of its fabric. Surely, Hispanic Heritage Month cant continue on without us learning more about our own culture while appreciating the lives we built-in this country with our non Hispanic friends and in many cases, relatives. And the same thing applies to non Hispanics, the more they learn about us, the more they appreciate us.
In the end, its our responsibility to make sure our voices are heard year round not only during Hispanic Heritage Month. We shouldnt allow ourselves to be shelved for 11 out of the 12 months of the year; we have much to offer and much to share, all of it for the greater good.