The following blog post was contributed by Kezia McKeague, Director of Latin America Practice at McLarty Associates.
As the daughter of a Latin American immigrant to the United States, I applaud the intent of “Hispanic Heritage Month,” even as I often tire of the platitudes so frequently associated with it. The goal of the annual celebration, as originally conceived in 1968, was to honor the long history of Americans whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. These are worthy objectives, to be sure, but we need more than clichés about Hispanic culture to recognize the contributions and needs of the largest minority group in the United States.
My background explains some of my personal ambivalence about where I fit in these kinds of heritage celebrations. Raised on islands on opposite sides of the world, my parents jokingly refer to my brother and me as “cultural bastards.” Indeed, I was shaped by both the British mores of my father, who is from New Zealand, and the Latin values of my mother and her large extended family, who left Cuba in the 1960s. As a first-generation American with dramatic cultural differences within my own family, I struggle with the seemingly ubiquitous forms that require checking a neat box for one’s ethnicity. Does 50% Cuban make me Hispanic? How do I choose between two halves of my family tree?
Moreover, as a Latin Americanist in my professional life, I have discovered the great cultural diversity within the Western Hemisphere. My years living in Buenos Aires and traveling the entire region –, from the U.S.-Mexico border to the southern tip of Tierra del Fuego –, have reinforced my view that Latin America is more of a cartographic convenience than a monolithic civilization. Similarly, as Ray Suarez lays out in his excellent book Latino Americans: The 500-Year Legacy that Shaped a Nation, the emigrants from this vast region are far from homogenous.
Nevertheless, I feel a personal stake in any effort, however symbolic, to strengthen ties with our Latin American neighbors and deepen our understanding of the region and its descendants on their own terms. As institutions, politicians, and corporate marketers continue to promote Hispanic Heritage Month through October 15, let’s abandon the empty clichés that only perpetuate the stereotypes embedded in our popular culture. Instead, this is an opportunity to invite debate about the definitions of Hispanic and Latino and the complexity of our intertwined histories.