A Personal Reflection and Invitation on Hispanic Heritage Month
This year more than ever, the celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month has brought with it a number of contradicting emotions for me. I am learning, in my own growth journey, that life is complicated, and that seemingly opposing facts can be true at the same time. For example, I simultaneously believe that I am free, and that nobody is free until everyone is free. I also can hold in my heart at once both the grief and sorrow of this moment in time, as well as the hope and joy of how love shows up daily in miraculous ways.
I am thankful that this month's celebration was coined as a “Hispanic” celebration, rather than a “Latino/a/e/x” celebration, because as of last June, I no longer identify as “Latina.” I felt the need to divest from Latinidad because I awoke to the problematic and oppressive nature of a social and political construct that is deeply entrenched in white supremacy. Latinidad occurs to me as a celebration of the occupying force of European people, language, and culture over Indigenous people and descendants of enslaved Africans.
I was not always a Latina, I was tagged with the label when I migrated to the US from Panama when I was 13 years old. I now understand that this grouping was developed as a tool for political solidarity for people from many diverse countries and cultures across the Americas, who shared a common bond: the Spanish language. This solidarity was meant to be bring political power and voice to marginalized and disenfranchised people of Hispanic descent, in order to make demands for civil rights and better working conditions. However, it systematically excludes too many people living in the region and in the US.
Even in my early days as a Latina, I understood that there was something that seemed to set me apart from other Latines: my African heritage. I always found it interesting when other Latines in the US expressed surprise when I spoke Spanish, since approximately 80% of kidnapped and enslaved Africans made their way south of the US/Mexico border. Black Hispanics are plentiful across the Americas, but we are invisibilized by the media and by the political and corporate powers that concentrate wealth and power in the hands of white and other non-Black Latines.
Black and Indigenous people across the Latin America region experience similar, and sometimes greater, levels of exclusion and marginalization, as we do in the US. Latinidad, at its core, seems to never be willing or able to center Black and Indigenous people in its priorities. Many Indigenous groups do not consider themselves Latines, since that would be to celebrate and center the culture, language, and interests of those who murdered their ancestors, and stole and colonized their resource-rich lands, pushing so many people from the pueblos originarios into poverty and need. In the United States, the majority of celebrations of Latinidad or Hispanidad simply focus and center white or non-Black or non-Indigenous people.
One clear example is the board of the new Smithsonian National Latino Gallery, which does not include anyone from clearly visible African or Indigenous descent. A quick glance at Hispanic TV shows demonstrates that white Latines far outnumber those of Black or Indigenous people. A recent outcry about dark-skinned Afro-Latines being excluded from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights production exposed not only the deep and concerning blind spot around our exclusion (while appropriating our sounds, culture, and music,) it also exposed just how unapologetically anti-Black the dominant Latine culture can be. I was particularly hurt when I experienced not only in social media, but from actual people in my life, the complete lack of understanding, compassion, and humanity that non-Blacks demonstrated in not only defending Lin-Manuel, but also in how they protested his timely apology.
Rita Moreno, someone I had previously admired as pioneer Latina actress, perfectly expressed what most white and non-Black latines are constantly expressing to us in both private and public: “Can’t you just wait a while and leave it alone?” And here is the crux of the thing: we believe we have waited long enough. How much longer do Black and Indigenous people have to wait to have our voices heard, our contributions valued, our harms repaired, our ancestors honored?
I want to be clear, this is not about Lin-Manuel, or Rita, or any other individual, this is about the systemic ways in which white supremacy, colonialism, and cultural domination in Latinidad have harmed and continue to harm Black and Indigenous people and communities across the Americas. While I no longer identify as Latina, I do continue to identify as Hispanic. This is because Hispanic denotes a language affinity, and Spanish is and will continue to be my mother tongue (which saddens me because I would have loved to have learned to speak a Mayan or African language, but we were robbed of that too.) My two abuelitas were of Spanish descent, and I honor their ancestral lineage, just as I honor the incredible journeys of survival and resilience in the ancestral lineage of my abuelitos who were Maya-Ch'orti' displaced illegally from their lands in El Salvador, and also descendants of kidnapped and enslaved Africans. Despite the problematic and colonialist nature of some of my ancestors, they live in me, and I work daily to reconcile the internal struggles of being someone with such a complex and traumatic lineage, which is the case for so many of us on this occupied land. I am thankful for the spiritual practices that allow me to find peace in the complexity, particularly after reclaiming some of my ancestor's wisdom, cosmovision, and spiritual legacies, which had all been demonized by Christian domination.
My multicultural lineage is a source of both contradictions and honor, and my deep commitment is to be informed by ALL of my ancestors in my work to advance justice that leads towards peace. I sense that in Latinidad, multiculturalism becomes erasure of those who are not white or aspiring to whiteness, and I believe that this is something we must heal from. I recently heard an interview with Edgar Villanueva, a member of the Lumbee nation in North Carolina, and author of the wonderful book Decolonizing Wealth. Edgar said, and I am paraphrasing, that we must all do our healing work, in order to be willing to SHIFT POWER to those who are most impacted, in order to advance justice.
The power that comes from the privilege of whiteness or proximity to whiteness (which I admit I benefit from as a light-skinned Black-identifying person) can be used, in solidarity with those most impacted by the harmful and deadly effects of white supremacy and systemic racism - namely Black and Indigenous people, to finally eradicate the systems that harm and oppress the majority of us. Consider this an invitation for non-Black and non-Indigenous Hispanic people, and all European-descended settlers of our beautiful shared land to enter into a journey of dialogue, listening, learning, compassion, repair, and healing, so that we may advance justice, experience peace, so that we ALL may be free.
The liberation of Black and Indigenous people does not necessitate the oppression of any other group, but it does require the healing and the learning on the part of those who enjoy racial privilege. For those interested in healing, learning, and shifting power, I will be sharing tools for racial dialogue later today on Twitter and will be sharing more on this blog in the days and months to come, and I hope you will engage with love and in compassionate dialogue towards our collective liberation. If you would like to be notified when those tools are posted, please sign up to receive updates from the BridgePeople blog.
In love and solidarity in the relentless pursuit of justice and peace,
 Latine is the gender non-binary term preferred by people across the Latin American region. In the US, gender non-binary folks prefer to use Latinx. I use these two terms interchangeably, with some preference for how it is used in the Spanish language, with an ‘e.’  Spanish for Indigenous peoples.