Editor’s note: This week starts our new schedule of columnists in the slot that’s typically been filled by Arlene Violet. As a reminder, Arlene will now be writing once per month in her retirement, starting next month, and three other columnists will be writing on other weeks, including Marcela Betancur, Tom Ward, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley.
Since Sept. 15, the U.S. has been celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month. This month-long celebration, running to Oct. 15, was first observed in 1968 under President Johnson and enacted into law in 1988 by President Reagan. Hispanic Heritage Month was established with the goal of commemorating the contributions and history of the millions of Americans of Hispanic descent from places such as Spain, Mexico, and countless other countries in the Caribbean.
As someone from Hispanic descent, I can appreciate that other Americans get to learn and hear a bit more about our cultures, history, and people. However, there have always been a few things that don’t sit well with me about this. It might be the strange mix of big companies suddenly displaying a few more colorful faces in their commercials, it might be the increase of white elected officials “showcasing” the diversity of their communities, or it may even be the complicated use of the term Hispanic vs. Latino.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s incredibly important that we celebrate and honor the histories and contributions of our Hispanic and Latino community, every day. In addition to Hispanic Heritage Month, during February, we celebrate Black History Month, May is Asian Pacific Heritage Month, and Jewish American Heritage Month, and November celebrates National Native American Heritage Month. However, assigning a month to the celebration and observance of the history and heritage of groups that have had such deep impacts on American history seems ridiculous and short-sighted.
The performative nature of these heritage celebrations by certain companies and government officials is what really gets under my skin. There is nothing cringier than seeing big-name companies using Hispanic or Latino “themes” in their advertisements during September and October. Trust me, having salsa music in your commercials won’t make us buy more of your product, as highlighted by the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer. Having leadership positions filled by Latinos within your companies and honest social connections with our community will.
The same happens for government officials. During Hispanic Heritage Month, elected officials go above and beyond to attend or throw events highlighting some of the Latinos in their community, however, some of these elected officials rarely make an effort to have true meaningful connections with this community the rest of the year. Truth is, our community doesn’t just need government officials to celebrate us once a year, we need them to invest in us, always.
In Rhode Island, people of Hispanic and Latino descent have been part of our state for decades. In fact, our community has helped save Rhode Island’s congressional seats more than once. Nevertheless, without missing a beat, every year during Hispanic Heritage Month countless government officials, nonprofits, companies, and news outlets fall into a performative dance of “Look at all the Latinos we have! Where did they come from?”
We have always been here. We have been part of the industrial boom of Rhode Island. We have been part of the growth of our state. We have been trailblazers in business and philanthropy. We are essential to the future of Rhode Island.
So, how do we fix it?
Simple, we must commit to learning and embracing the vast histories, cultures, and differences that exist among the Hispanic and Latino community. This means including the history of Hispanic Americans into our curriculum and investing in the education and economic stability and growth of the Hispanic and Latino community.
Marcela Betancur is the proud daughter of Colombian immigrants and currently serves as the director of the Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University. The opinions expressed in this column are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Latino Policy Institute or RWU.