Hispanic Heritage is Not Just Fiestas and Margaritas

4 years ago

I drink tequila and Pabst Blue Ribbon.

I listen to mariachi music, but I saw all the new wave 80s bands when I was in high school.

I write about immigration reform and have traveled all over Mexico. But I also have taught courses in Italy and explored Europe.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, I'm Hispanic.

But that is not my word of choice. Who I am is far more complex.

The Census asks me to check off whether I am Hispanic or non-Hispanic. It also asks me to select a race. Among my choices are:

"White, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander." In 2000, the Census also added "Some Other Race."

I check some other race.

My grandparents were born in Mexico. We are mestizos, the word used to describe people of indigenous and European origin.

L-Mexican Food, R-American flag and apple pie, Image Credit: Shutterstock

But I wouldn't say I am Indian or Spanish. My ethnicity and culture are a fusion of Mexican and American culture.

These are all labels that I use to describe my ethnic identity. I Identify as more Latina, or Chicana, or Mexican-American.

I use the hyphen, because I'm not an immigrant either. That doesn't mean I don't have great empathy for the struggle of immigrants, as I have spent much of my career writing about this community.

But I was born on the West Side of Chicago. Most Latinos, around 64 percent, according to Pew Hispanic, also were born in the United States.

My parents also are U.S. citizens. They were born in Texas.

When I travel to Mexico, despite my appearance as dark-haired and "morena," or brown woman, they sometimes call me a "gringa."

It's not because I have a slight accent when I speak Spanish. It is because I was born north of the border.

English is my first language.

One time a former co-worker told me that I was lucky to be bilingual. He described it as a "gift."

Nobody gifted it to me. I wasn't born bilingual. I worked at it.

I heard Spanish growing up but my parents insisted on speaking to us in English so we wouldn't have an accent. This was in part generational. They grew up at a time in Texas when there were signs in restaurants that said, "No dogs or Mexicans allowed."

My mom was once locked in a closet by her teacher. Her supposed offense: speaking Spanish on the playground.

Today, I am proud to speak Spanish. I studied it for four years in high school and in college. I also took literature and writing classes in Spanish.

I knew that speaking Spanish would broaden my world. It has allowed me to interview people in Chicago neighborhoods and also in Mexico, Peru and the Dominican Republic. It even helped me when I traveled to Morocco, where many of the merchants speak Spanish.

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when on a date years ago, a guy once told me, "You speak English so well."

Almost 60 percent of Hispanics over the age of 18 said they speak English very well or only English at home, according to Pew Hispanic. For the age group 5 to 17 that number rose to 86 percent.

There are more than 53 million Hispanics in the United States around 17 percent of the U.S. population.

That number is expected to more than double to almost 129 million by 2060, according to U.S. Census bureau predictions.

Hispanic Heritage Month kicks off Sept. 15. It started as a week of celebrations under President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 and was expanded to a month by President Ronald Reagan in 1988. No small irony since he was the last president to pass immigration reform.

September 15 marks Independence Day for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Día de la Raza, a day to celebrate all Latin American culture, is Oct. 12, rounding out the month. There will be all kinds of events, parties and celebrations of Latino culture.

So when you order your margarita special at a fiesta this month, remember that all Latinos aren't immigrants, don't speak Spanish only and dance to salsa music. Some of us like our chiles rellenos followed by an apple pie for desert.

Teresa Puente is a journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago. She also writes the Chicanísima blog and is the editor and founder of Latina Voices.

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