Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month- Sept.15 – Oct 15, 2021

Heritage Month begins in the United States on September 15 of each year and celebrates several of the independence struggles in Latin America from 1810- through the 1820s. 

Spain ruled most of Latin America from 1521 until 1820. The movements of independence from Spanish rule began most notably on September 15, 1810 in Dolores, Mexico with the Grito de Dolores when Father Miguel Hidalgo declared Mexico’s independence from Spain.

This year, 2021, marks the 500th Anniversary of the fall of Tenochtitlan, the ancient capital of the Aztecs, today’s Mexico City, and also the 200th anniversary  of Mexican Independence. To commemorate these dates, the Mexican government declared 2021 as the Year of Historical Reconciliation.

The war of independence in Mexico  lasted until 1821.  This  challenge to  Spanish power in Mexico led to the collapse of Spanish power in the Americas,  with independence struggles winning in Chile, Colombia, Venezuela , Ecuador, and Peru, among others.  Five Latin American countries–Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua–celebrate the anniversaries of their independence on September 15.

After 1810, the independence movements went through several stages. Many of the leaders were imprisoned or executed by forces loyal to Spain. Simon Bolivar organized and fought for over a decade to liberate the area that now takes in parts of Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, and Peru. By  1820, many of the leaders went beyond a demand for independence and took more radical positions, including the abolition of slavery.

In some ways, the battles continue to play out in this country both in anti-immigration efforts in the, struggles over how history is taught (remember the Alamo or forget what you learned in grade school?), and even what term to use for the people from those countries once dominated by Spain

People of European heritage often use the term Hispanic or Latino to refer to people in the United States who come from or whose forebears came from Puerto Rico, Mexico, South or Central America, as well as the  Indigenous people of the once dominant Spanish empire in the Americas. The majority of these people do not call themselves Hispanic. 

The divisions and contentions over the terms Hispanic, Latino, Mexican Americans, Chicanos and others have complex historical antecedents. We are not going to resolve them here. 

The development of the term “Hispanic” was promoted by Richard Nixon’s administration to describe the collective of the variety of people whose roots were/are in Latin America. Choosing this term, however, had significant political connotations and results.  In general, the word  Hispanic promotes the idea of a broad, inclusive Spanish influence.  At the same time, it tends to ignore the very vast ethnic and cultural influences of the millions of Indigenous people in the Americas. 

Some people prefer Hispanic; some would rather use other terms, including Latino/a, Latinx, Latin@.  So, what is a person seeking to interact with these communities to do?

Relax.  Listen to what people say about themselves.  You will hear a diversity of terms. First-generation immigrants tend to name their native country — i.e., “I am Bolivian, or Argentinian,” while second- and third-generation people use the more universal terms Hispanic or Latino.  People who speak only English tend to use Hispanic more, while bilinguals tend to use Latino or other terms.  Note: not all Latinos are immigrants; some, such as this writer, come from families that were here long before the government of the United States claimed the west.

One caution   Please don’t tell people how to define themselves. They can do that for themselves.  It is particularly not our role to define other peoples’ identities.  Listen and learn.

On population matters, the  results of the 2020 Census for redistricting purposes are just in. The nation’s population is becoming increasingly diverse due to major growth in the Latino, Asian, and multiracial populations and an aging white population that declined for the first time ever.

A total of 331.4 million were tallied in the 2020 Census, an absolute increase of 22.7 million people in the country. The Latino population led the way with slightly more than one of every two persons added to the country’s population through birth or international migration between 2010 and 2020 being Latino.  Overall, the Latino population increased by 23% during the decade while the white population declined by 8.6%.

In California, the country’s most heavily populated state, white people are no longer the majority. In 2020, more than 39 % of Californians identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino, compared with the approximately 35% who reported they were white and not Hispanic.

The shift makes California one of five states or territories where white people do not make up the largest population group. The others are Hawaii; New Mexico; Washington, D.C.; and Puerto Rico.

Also note that Asians, who come from many different countries, are among the fastest-growing ethnic group.The percentage of Californians who identify as Asian or part-Asian grew by more than 27% between 2010 and 2020, one of the biggest increases among ethnic groups.

The proportion of Californians who identified as Black or part-Black increased by 5%.

Even as a long-overdue reckoning with the legacy of slavery plays out, our country’s complicated history with its neighbors to the south is also receiving attention.

This essay is updated from a piece posted in the online version of Democratic Left in 2014.

Recommended Readings:

Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth, by Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford, Penguin Random House, 2021

An Indigenous People’s History of the United States., by Roxanne Dunbar- Ortiz, 2014.