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It’s Our Differences that Make us Stronger: A Reflection on Hispanic Heritage Month

By Leani García Torres

In a lot of ways, September can feel like an “in between” month. It’s the unofficial beginning of fall, with kids heading off to school, the first hint of cool mornings and changing leaves in much of the northern hemisphere, and of course pumpkin spice overload everywhere you look. But in many parts of the country, the early days of September are still hot and sticky, indistinguishable from the August summer days that preceded it. September ushers in the promise of cooler and shorter days, the moment of transition from slow summer to hectic activity all before the parade of holidays to come, and every couple of years the calm before the election storm to come in November.

It’s quite fitting, then, that Hispanic Heritage Month falls in this in between, beginning on September 15, right in the middle of month. What began as a weeklong celebration under President Lyndon B. Johnson — chosen because of its proximity to the independence days of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua (September 15), Mexico (September 16), and Chile (September 18) — was stretched into a month-long opportunity for reflection by President Ronald Reagan in 1988. 

I can’t help but reflect on the unintentional symbolism. So many of us whose families hail from Latin America and the Caribbean often feel like we’re in the in between. Are we Hispanic, Latino/a/e, Latinx, just plain American, or something else entirely? None of the words seem to fit, perhaps because there’s no way they could. How do you choose one word to represent 18 different countries and one U.S. commonwealth who share Spanish as an official language, and that’s about it? 

Many of us carry the blood of the Taíno, Carib, Maya, Guaraní, Aymara, Mapuche, and so many others who were, and continue to be, marginalized, displaced, and often killed. We are also the descendants of African slaves brought against their will to mine gold and silver or harvest sugar cane, coffee, and cacao. Still others of us carry the DNA of Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino ancestors who came, or were often forced, to Latin America to work. Many of us also carry the legacy of the Europeans who sailed West in the 1500s, but also the conversos, or the Spanish Jews escaping the Inquisition. The Italians, Germans, Lebanese, and Syrians who migrated in the 19th and 20th centuries, the European Jews fleeing the Holocaust and Post World War II anti-Semitism. We don’t even all speak Spanish, but even those of us who do, don’t speak the same type of Spanish — just ask any other Latin American who has used a certain seemingly innocuous word for insect in Puerto Rico.

Considering our varied history and experience, how can we be so different and yet be viewed as a monolith, our individual identities being blended out until we’re lumped into a Hispanic/Latino/Latinx category? Is it any wonder that every two years political analysts are shocked that the Cuban-American who left on the Mariel Boatlift, the Mexican-American whose family has lived in Texas since before it was part of the United States, the Puerto Rican who found a new home in Orlando after Hurricane Maria, and the Salvadoran who moved to Northern Virginia in the ‘80s all speak differently, think differently, and vote differently? These differences are the reflections of our stories and our experiences; and, they don’t need to divide us. If we choose to, they can make us stronger.

I’m grateful for this month. That our country chooses to recognize the many contributions of our shared community — from the sciences to sports and from civil service to the arts. And I hope that as our nation continues to reckon with identity and belonging, we see each of these 19 different identities as different threads that together help make the fabric of our country stronger. 

Stronger because of, not in spite of, the differences in perspective, cuisine, art, and language. Stronger because we have the incredible opportunity to learn from one another, to change our minds, to grow.