Each year Hispanic Heritage Month — September 15 to October 15 — celebrates the contributions and histories of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central or South America. It is a national observance that stretches back over 500 years. But the word Hispanic itself can be controversial, especially in the wake of its historic association with a European colonial project that erased centuries of indigenous history. And as the Latinx and Afro-Latina movements have gained momentum, they are calling on Hispanic Heritage Month to be more inclusive.
The problem, say activists, is that Hispanic Heritage Month, like most Hispanic cultural celebrations, tends to focus on the Spanish side of Latinidad. They overlook the fact that there are many other cultures, countries and languages from which a person can be considered Latina or Latinx. “It’s time to disrupt how Hispanic Heritage Month usually goes and amplify Black, Asian and Afro-Latina voices,” says Margie Del Castillo, the national director of field and advocacy at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice.
Hispanics are the nation’s second fastest growing group, making up 18.7% of the U.S. population in 2021, according to the Pew Research Center. They are also the country’s largest minority group and have the highest rates of poverty among all ethnic groups. Yet, despite their rapid growth, the Latinx and Afro-Latina communities are still underrepresented in leadership roles. In addition, the umbrella term Hispanic — which has long been a census designation – erases important differences between cultures and races within the community, advocates say.
During the 1930s, Hispanics were all marked as Mexican by door-to-door Census Bureau staff if they checked the box labeled “Hispanic or Latino.” That practice continued until 1970 when the bureau began asking respondents to self-identify as Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Other Spanish and Central or South American, or None of these. This led to an underrepresentation of people who are a part of the Latinx and Afro-Latina populations, according to the Pew Research Center.
In a society where the idea of multiculturalism is often framed as a problem, these communities are looking to make sure they have a seat at the table. One way they are doing this is by reclaiming the language of Hispanic Heritage Month to honor all their different experiences and backgrounds.
The Hispanic Heritage Month website explains that Hispanic Heritage is more than just a holiday. It is a time to share the unique culture and rich traditions of people from all over Latin America and the world. Those traditions range from cuisine to music to art to literature. They include a deep spirituality and reverence for family. The site encourages people to celebrate Hispanic Heritage by donating to charities, cooking and eating traditional dishes, celebrating the cultures of various Latin American countries, volunteering to help communities in need and learning about their history.