Understanding Hispanic Heritage Month

The Latinx community in California has a complicated history that continues in the current battles over migrant workers, the undocumented, and dreamers. Gloria Anzaldua beautifully describes the bind in her poem “To Live in the Borderlands means you.” “In the Borderlands / you are the battleground / where enemies are kin to each other; / you are at home, a stranger, / the border disputes have been settled / the volley of shots have shattered the truce / you are wounded, lost in action / dead, fighting back”.  She concludes the poem with the determination that in order to survive, one must become a “crossroads.” Indeed, the community is a complex crossroads of cultures, traditions, and activism. All this is being played out during Hispanic Heritage Month.

Gloria Anzaldua

The month traditionally begins on September 15th and continues to October 15th. The September start date coincides with multiple countries that honor their independence days, the 15th – 21st. The celebration began under President Lyndon Johnson and was originally a week in length. President Ronald Reagan later expanded it to one month in 1988, and it was enacted into law that same year. The month is intended to celebrate the contributions and history of the Latino community. Many educational and cultural organizations take this month to focus on the profound impact that Latinos have made across the country.

Mural commissioned for Gateways/Portales exhibition, Rosalia Torres-Weiner, Charlotte, North Carolina, 2016.

It is important to note that there is tension around the naming and commodification of Hispanic Heritage Month. There is existing strain among the varied Latino communities around the umbrella term Hispanic. The term lacks geographic accuracy and leaves many outside its definition. NPR’s Vanessa Romo emphasizes “Many of us bristle at the persistence of the term “Hispanic,” given its connection to Spain and colonization. Those with African and indigenous roots often feel left out of conversations and celebrations under that label”.  

Northern Virginia Magazine

The term seems to have evolved as a census categorization that has outlived its use. But there does not seem to be a consensus on a word to replace it. Latinx has emerged in the last decade as a viable option that is also gender-inclusive. Some organizations have gone rogue and renamed their celebrations Latinx Heritage Month but, another year has gone by without an official change. However, the marketing continues to increase. New York Times author Isabelia Herrera laments, “That’s what Hispanic Heritage Month has been reduced to in my eyes: a month when brands pander to us, hoping to convince us to spend our last few centavos”

Awareness of and focusing on art as a tool to understand, unravel, and possibly better understand the tensions is critical. An artist that does that with honesty and generosity is Judith Baca. At long last, she has the first comprehensive exhibit of her work at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach, California. Judy Baca: Memorias de Nuestra Tierra, a Retrospective is a look at the extraordinary work of an artist, educator, and activist. Much of her work investigates and documents the complex problems addressed by the New York Times and NPR articles. Memory – historical, political, and cultural, is embedded in her art. During the 1970s, “Baca pioneered a collaborative model that enabled young people to weave “hidden” histories of their underrepresented communities into monumental public artworks.” She created public art that investigated the lives of the disenfranchised and sought equity opportunities for young artists. An early and memorable work is The Great Wall of Los Angeles mural, a half-mile long on the Tahunga Wash in the San Fernando Valley. The piece involved the entire community and continues to grow as young artists add their contributions to the mural.

The exhibit is in three parts. The first explores Baca’s feminist history in the Womanist Gallery. The second looks at her seminal work as the founder of the Social and Public Arts Resource Center. The Center is responsible for funding and completing over 400 murals. Finally, the exhibit highlights The Great Wall mural in a digitized video format. It provides a visual and historical context of the vital project. The exhibit will continue in person through January 2022. Virtual group reservations are also available.

New Neighborhood Public Art Mural by Judy Baca in Richmond, California

There is so much art to explore this month that will open doors to histories that have been left out of the canon. Hopefully, the somewhat artificial context of a “month” seeps into the lexicon of our daily lives and Baca becomes part of our “public memory.”

Dr. Kathryn Sonne is professor of Literature at Cypress College.

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