Moving Beyond Mixers And Happy Hours: Celebrating Hispanic/Latino Heritage Month

AHORA logo recovered in 1997, Brandeis University.

By Guest Contributor Blanca E. Vega

The days between September 15 and October 15 have been federally recognized as Hispanic Heritage Month. This is the time in which many Latin American countries (e.g. Mexico, Chile, Guatemala) have struggled and won independence from Spain. The struggle for freedom has been memorialized into a cultural celebration in the US since 1968, celebrated as Hispanic Heritage Week, and then extended into a month in 1988. It is popular to coordinate mixers and happy hours to honor this month. During this time, we may also want to think of finding ways to fight against the poverty affecting 25 percent of Latino/a populations, struggle against policies like Secure Communities that aid in incarcerating Latinos/as who now comprise of over 50 percent of federal felony offenders, and work against the fact that Latinos still lag behind many racial/ethnic groups in (K-16) educational attainment.

Brandeis University was the place where I began to understand the importance of these celebratory months. For young people, college is often the place where they experience the most diversity in their lives. Thus, the absence of a group that has significantly shaped this country’s historical and political landscape, such as Latinos, can be of great detriment to the learning and social enhancement of a college community.

As a college student, I could never have articulated what I just stated. At the time, I felt the impact that a lack of Latina/o populations in higher education had on me academically (e.g. lack of mentors who shared my background), emotionally, and socially. Personal reflection and my degree in higher education helped me articulate that impact later. During that time, I witnessed my peers who were black, South Asian, or women have their particular groups recognized in meaningful ways that were encouraging to me. In fact, many of my peers who were involved in promoting group recognition, encouraged me to coordinate the first Hispanic Heritage Month at Brandeis University in the fall of 1997.

I remember our group was intent on producing a well-rounded month. We included celebratory events (e.g. Latin Jazz cafés, food festivals), social awareness events (e.g. discussions panels on immigration), and institutional planning (e.g. curriculum, admissions). We discussed ways to improve the numbers of Latinas/os on campus. We started generating interest around courses such as “Spanish for Native Speakers” and Latina/o literature courses. We brought to campus Latina/o alumni who were vital to Brandeis’ history. It was a very challenging–yet exciting–time.

But throughout that planning, we also ran into thought-provoking and politically stirring difficulties. We had our posters torn down or burnt; we were often asked by peers what was the necessity for such a month and asked if we were promoting segregation; we were threatened with no budget for the following year by some members of Student Government.

Despite these challenges, coordinating Hispanic Heritage Month taught us the value of collective responsibility that inspire me to write about this topic today. One challenge involved planning a movie night. When one of our advisors suggested we watch Mi Vida Loca, we looked at her like she was crazy. Turning to me, the students gave me the look: “No way!” they screamed with their eyes. As president of the Latino organization, AHORA, and coordinator of the month, I respectfully asked and stated “Why? I think we all want to show what is positive about our community, not a movie about what is wrong with our people. Students at Brandeis already hold negative views about who we are. Why give them more information that perpetuates more negative stereotypes?” And our advisor, very seriously, looked at me and said “Blanca, if you don’t embrace our community, if we don’t embrace our people, the good and the bad, then who will? How do you expect to move our community forward?”

This was also the professor who taught me to keep up the fight.

Those words carry me today. Those words bring me to today as I watch my own students grapple with their Latino identities at colleges that discuss Latinidad from just a cultural celebratory perspective.

I wonder: Is it possible to celebrate and cerebrate Latino/Hispanic Heritage Month? What are the issues affecting the Latino community today?

Mass Imprisonment of Latinos: In 2011, 50.3 percent of all federal felony offenders comprise of Latinos, making Latinos now the largest racial/ethnic group to be in federal prisons. This was also a sharp increase from 40% in 2009. Researchers and policy analysts directly relate this to harsh anti-immigrant policies, such as insidious ones like Secure Communities, a program sponsored by our federal government, and state policies like SB 1070 in Arizona. As demonstrated by local political leaders and community advocates, Jumaane D. Williams and Kirsten John Foy, young black and Latino men are being disproportionately harassed by police through policies such as “Stop, Question, and Frisk”. For Hispanic Heritage Month, perhaps this might be a worthwhile topic to understand the ways such federal and local policies affect our communities and come up with social movements that will continue to make us aware and provide solutions to these reoccurring problems.

Poverty and Decline of Household Income: Another area that can be moved by Hispanic Heritage Month is in the area of poverty and unemployment. A report recently revealed that almost 1 out of every 4 Latinos are now living under the poverty line. Additionally, household income declined by a little over 2 percent in Latino households. Hispanic Heritage Month could be used to collaborate around possible strategies to support our people who are being affected by these conditions–conditions that will eventually affect our society as Latinos now comprise of 16 percent of the US population.

Miseducation of Latinos: As stated earlier, education is another major area in which Latinos/as are still underrepresented. While Latinos make up 16.5 percent of the college population with Latino enrollment in higher education increased by 24 percent, this enrollment is largely seen at community colleges, and students still lag behind white, Asian, and black students. Perhaps educators might want to start finding out how their institutions create pathways from community colleges to four-year institutions to graduate schools. I mention graduate schools because another study coming out of Georgetown University found that people of color need to earn master’s degrees in order to earn salaries similar to those of whites who have only earned bachelor degrees.

Celebrating our accomplishments and our heritage are wonderful and necessary–but those accomplishments are on the backs of others enduring the aforementioned conditions. While we take the time to plan and coordinate mixers and happy hours to celebrate, others are creating and enforcing policies like Secure Communities…all in the name of advancing our people’s mass imprisonment, poverty and unemployment, and miseducation.

Let’s use Hispanic Heritage Month as more than just a cultural reminder and produce a political movement.