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Hispanic Heritage Month Is a Problem — But I’m Still Teaching My Kid About It

When Hispanic Heritage Month starts on September 15, I have some predictions. As usual, it will be A) largely ignored, B) used occasionally by politicians and educators to make up for all the times they’ve forgotten about a significant portion of the population, and C) a jumping off point for people to discuss how outdated and inaccurate the term “Hispanic” is. That’s not to mention the weird way someone decided to make a “month” start in the middle of one month and end in the middle of another?

As a mom, I’m going to take all that in, and then roundly reject it. This year, I’m going to use Hispanic Heritage Month for my own purposes, to educate my son on the heritage he and I are in danger of letting slip through our fingers.

So, yes, “Hispanic” is an awkward way to lump together a group of people from such a large region of the world along with the one country that colonized them, enslaved them, raped them, and stole their land. If you’re going to treat everyone as a group, it’s much better to leave Spain out of it (and believe me, they’re fine with that) and go with another slightly meaningless but much more musical word like Latino. (Or, sure, go with Latinx if you like, but I wish we could be inclusive in our meaning without having to end a word in a hard consonant like that.)

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#COLLECTION Hiram Maristany is a social activist, documentary photographer, lifelong El Barrio resident, and was the acting director of El Museo between 1974 and 1977. Maristany has dedicated much of his practice to capturing life in East Harlem, where he documented the activities of the Young Lords Party of which he was a member. This image captures an early moment in El Museo’s history, when the museum was located in a townhouse on 116th Street. Taken from a perspective that looks through an exhibition vitrine, the image centers on two young visitors who appear captivated by the artworks on display. A testament to El Museo del Barrio’s early focus on exploring both the African and indigenous Taino heritage of Puerto Rico, this image also reflects Maristany’s interest in photographing the children of El Barrio, who he sees as future generations of cultural leaders. This photograph was used as the cover image for the June 1972 issue of El Museo’s bilingual quarterly publication, Quimbamba. . . #COLECCION Hiram Maristany es un activista social, fotógrafo documental, residente de El Barrio de toda la vida y fue director interino de El Museo entre 1974 y 1977. Maristany ha dedicado gran parte de su práctica a capturar la vida en East Harlem, donde documentó las actividades del Young Lords Party del cuál era miembro. Esta imagen captura un momento temprano en la historia de El Museo, cuando el museo estaba ubicado en la calle 116. Tomada desde una perspectiva que mira a través de una vitrina de exhibición, la imagen se centra en dos visitantes jóvenes que parecen cautivados por las obras de arte. Como testimonio del temprano enfoque de El Museo del Barrio en explorar la herencia africana e indígena taína de Puerto Rico, esta imagen también refleja el interés de Maristany en fotografiar a los niños de El Barrio, a quienes ve como futuras generaciones de líderes culturales. Esta fotografía se utilizó como imagen de portada para la publicación trimestral bilingüe de El Museo, Quimbamba. . . . 📸Hiram Maristany. El Museo del barrio, 206 East 116th Street, New York, ca. 1971-1972 (printed 2019). Gelatin silver print. Collection of @elmuseo #elmuseoentucasa

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Besides imprecise language, there’s the fact that Latinos are not a monolith. What does a Peruvian who speaks only Quechua have in common with a Cuban who speaks only Spanish and a second-generation Puerto Rican New Yorker who only speaks English? If you had to pick one thing, it’s probably the fact that white Americans think we’re all the same.

Even though so many diverse peoples are encompassed into that one definition, I have tried all my life to be Latina while never quite feeling like I “count.” My Dominican mom raised me on merengue music, platanos and rice and beans. She told me we were Hispanic, because that’s what people called her then. But I didn’t get her curly dark hair or hazel eyes, and she spoke to me only in English until I reached college. Still, there are blue-eyed, light-skinned people across Latin America. There are Mexicans for whom Spanish is a second language. Those characteristics should only disqualify me in the eyes of outsiders.

If I tell people I’m Latina, they laugh. If I tell them I’m Dominican, they laugh louder. It’s the fact that she raised me in predominantly white neighborhoods of predominantly white suburbs that rendered the other details of my upbringing more alienating than unifying.

When I came to college in New York City, I went to the first few meetings of all the Latino and Dominican affinity group meetings. Then I shrank away, too shy to figure out how to fit in with the kids who’d grown up in cities, grown up speaking Spanish, grown up facing racism. And with the special bias of a shy person, I didn’t bother to consider that the other members weren’t all the same as each other any more than they were the same as me, and that I wasn’t the only shy person there. Instead, I dove into the Spanish-language literature, and learned to connect to my culture and all the others of the region, through words. I went to school two miles from Washington Heights, and none of my college friends are Dominican.

So now, here I am, with a very light-skinned, blue-eyed 7-year-old son, and I am looking for a chance to undo the mistakes of 17-year-old me. With my mother gone, I need to turn to the outside world to teach him about this culture that I’ve all but lost. Why not use Hispanic Heritage Month as a tool for this purpose — however awkwardly it is named?

Here is my plan: We’re going to buy books from Hispanic Heritage Month reading lists. I’ll find bits and pieces from museum programs, like this one from the Smithsonian, that he’ll find entertaining. We’ll watch videos about. On September 15, the independence days of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, we’ll look up traditional costumes of each country and listen to their music. We’ll do the same for Mexico on September 16 and Chile on September 18. We will work on Spanish game apps until he finally agrees to let me enroll him in a real online Spanish language course.

Will we celebrate the so-called Dia de la Raza, a.k.a. Columbus Day? Not exactly. But I will search for photos of artwork of the Taino people, who were wiped out shortly after Columbus landed his ships on the island that eventually became my mother’s homeland. I will talk about how there are no traces of their blood in mine — if an AncestryDNA test is to be believed — but there are of the slaves and the Spaniards who followed. We may venture into the dark history of what our ancestors both perpetrated and endured, and what others like us and not like us are going through today.

But how will I take the next necessary step that I never did, finding a way to introduce my son to other Dominicans and Latinos IRL? My super Americanized extended family doesn’t cut it anymore. I am going to have to swallow my shyness and start talking to other parents in my neighborhood that I’ve never talked to before. I don’t know what I’ll say. “I’m also Latina, so can our kids be friends for the sake of our ‘Hispanic Heritage’?” doesn’t exactly seem like a good script to follow. I’ll have to come up with something. The kid doesn’t deserve to have a quarter of himself melt away into oblivion just because his mom has social anxiety.

If you guys have any ideas for me, I am SO open to suggestions. In the meantime, we’ll be over here reading some books.

These beautiful children’s books all feature boys of color.

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