In August 1988, Congress wrote Hispanic Heritage Month into law starting every year on Sept. 15 and ending on Oct. 15. The month coincides with several Latin American independence celebrations and highlights the history, culture and contributions of people with Hispanic heritage.
For Hispanic Heritage Month, the Record-Journal spoke with Dr. Carmen Coury, an associate professor of Latin American History at Southern Connecticut State University. She teaches courses on Colonial and Modern Latin American history. The following are some excerpts from the conversation.
RJ: We’re celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month and I wanted to talk about the title. “Hispanic” is kind of a catch-all term that encompasses a number of things. I noticed you used “Latin@s” and was curious if you could tell me a little bit more about why you chose that specific way to refer to the people group.
A: I think that lately there has been some pushback by people in the Latino community against the term Latinx. And I think there are several reasons for this pushback.
One, in my opinion, it is the imposition of English genderless language on a language that has gender. I understand the desire to be inclusive, and I think that the @ is is much more inclusive, because it's saying “it's not about women or men or anything like that.”
I don’t know how you’re supposed to pronounce Latinx in Spanish. Is it “Latin-cha” or “Latin-k”? It's outside of the language. Now, having said that, the term “Latino” or the term “Hispanic” are absolutely born out of imperialism and colonialism.
RJ: As is the case for places like Mexico and Puerto Rico, the United States ends up occupying the territory and then they extend citizenship, but conventional wisdom tells us that Latino people are the descendants of immigrants. I was wondering if you would be able to explain a little bit why that happened.
A: I think one of the fundamental misconceptions of U.S. history is that we don't consider ourselves to be an empire. The United States absolutely is an empire and it has been an empire for quite some time.
A group of slaveholding southerners wanted to expand slavery into what was northern Mexico. And when the Mexicans said, “No, you can't have slaves,” they broke away and created the Lone Star Republic, which becomes Texas.
There are conflicts over the border between Mexico and this Lone Star Republic and the United States, who will take over half of Mexican territory. Now, as part of the peace negotiations, you have the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. This treaty says that the people that are now in the United States that were in Mexico will be afforded the same rights as U.S. citizens.
Of course, that is theoretical. We know that is not the case. We know that they were treated very much like secondary citizens – a lot of discrimination and lynchings. Texas attacked Mexicans. It made sure Mexicans understood where their place in society was as well.
And we have failed settler colonialism, which we call filibustering. And we have a lot of filibustering in Cuba. We had a lot of filibustering in Central America, the most famous case was that of William Walker in Nicaragua.
The U.S. & Latin(o) Americans
According to Dr. Coury, historically, the U.S. doesn't want people of Hispanic-Latino heritage. “It may want their resources and may want the labor, but it doesn't actually want Latin Americans. I know that's not a nice thing to say, but the truth of the matter is it's a racist history. I think that it's telling that Puerto Rico gets the status it does and Cuba doesn't. Cuba has a larger African population.”
RJ: You were talking about how the United States doesn't historically want people of Hispanic heritage, and I was looking at census data and this problem of counting people.
There’s briefly a “Mexican” category in the 1930 census, but this idea of being Hispanic or Latino or Spanish wasn’t on the census until 1970. You have all these people from different national origins, so I was wondering if you had an insight on where the idea of where being Latino comes from.
A: I would begin by saying that Colombians understand themselves as Colombian first and foremost, right? And so it's only in the United States that this idea that you're now Latino really is established in the same way that Native Americans didn't know they were Native Americans until Europeans came and said “no, you guys are all the same.”
During the Cold War, there was going to be a tremendous amount of state violence in Central America –lots of it supported by U.S. military aid. That is going to lead to massive out migration from these countries to the United States. That's really when we begin to see much more diversity.
Puerto Ricans came in the beginning with World War I to take over jobs because the U.S. American men were fighting in Europe, but really, it's much smaller than the Mexican community. After Fidel Castro, there was an influx of Cubans in Miami.
When you really start to see a much more diverse community it's going to be in the 80s and again, a lot of this has to do with U.S. imperialist actions and Cold War actions.
That's also when we begin to see a more sizable Hatian community. And something that a lot of people don't realize is that it's anti-Black, anti-Hatian racism that leads to our nation’s detention system of immigrants and asylum seekers. The origins really merge with the arrival of Latinos and Hatians.
RJ: You talked about a lot of the nuances that come with imperialism and immigration and these Cold War tensions. Keeping all those messy historical things in mind, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about whether celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month matters.
A: Well, I think that it does, but obviously as somebody who studies Latin America and teaches about Latin America, I would hope people think about these topics and these people all the time.
Having said that, I do think it's important to draw attention to the growing community of Latinos in our country, and also to hopefully shine up a positive light on this community, especially given the way that immigration was oftentimes used as a political football by both sides and the humanity of an entire group is often lost.
I think it's important and it's a growing community. Soon it will not be a minority, and so it’s important to learn about these diverse people and their diverse history.
Latino Communities Reporter Lau Guzmán is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Support RFA reporters at the Record-Journal through a donation by visiting https://bit.ly/3Pdb0re. To learn more about RFA, visit www.reportforamerica.org.