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A Solutionary Reflection on Cultural Heritage Months

Mafe Farias Briseño, program assistant at the Institute for Humane Education, examines if and how we can humanely celebrate a culture with a day, week, or month on the calendar. While Mafe focuses specifically on Hispanic Heritage Month, her reflection can be applied to how we think, talk, and teach about all heritage months.

I was born and raised in Queretaro, Mexico, and came to the United States under a student visa four years ago. My relationship with Hispanic Heritage Month started four years ago and is different from the experience of Americans from the United States because I was not born or raised here. I am not a representative of all Hispanics/Latines1 living in the U.S. I am writing as a humane educator wanting to invite people to reflect on how to deepen our understanding and year-long reflections on culture and to critically question the purpose and hope of celebrations designed to foster inclusion.

The “official” time for Hispanic Heritage Month goes from September 15 to October 15. However, that does not mean that the time for reflection is over, or, more importantly, that discrimination is over, or that the time to be proud is over. For some people, Hispanic Heritage Month is a time to celebrate their heritage and traditions and to feel a sense of pride. For others, this month is a time to shed light on the shared struggles and oppression experienced in the United States. For many, it is a mix of the two, and perhaps we best honor the intent of this month by reflecting on this range of experiences.

Hispanic Heritage Month can be traced back to 1968 when it was a week-long celebration before it transitioned into a full-month celebration in 1988 under the Reagan administration. The initial intent of this celebration is to provide more time to properly recognize the significant contributions that “Hispanic/Latino Americans” have made in the United States. However, it is important to question what, who, and how  we celebrate, and who is included in that “we”:

What is being celebrated? People and/or the idea of a “culture”?

Who is included or left out?

How is the “Hispanic Heritage” honored during this designated month? Is it through celebrations? Story-telling? Targeted consumerism? Performative statements? Hard – but necessary – dialogues? 

These are just a few of the many questions I invite you to think about. 

I believe this month should be a time to reflect not only on the contributions of Hispanic/Latine people to U.S. society and history but also on the multiple factors that have forced people to migrate. This month opens up an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of power, violence, and economic drivers. It also invites us to consider the impact of U.S intervention in other countries that created conditions that forced Latines to migrate to the United States and other places – interventions such as the Condor Operations in the 1970s in which the U.S. covertly supported the rise to power through coups and oppression of anti-left wing governments in some Latin American countries.

The opportunity to critically engage with the history of Latine migration invites us to investigate beyond questions of “how people cross borders” into “how the border crossed them.” By this I mean not only how people from Latin America emigrate to get to the U.S., but also how they were and are impacted by treaties that usurp their land. For example, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 redrew the map, and the Northern states of Mexico became part of the U.S. Similarly, the Treaty of Paris in 1898 added Puerto Rico and Guam to the United States. Latines did not cross the border in these cases; the border crossed them. These and more examples invite us to think critically about the violent process of territory formation, and how systemic oppression continues regardless of the celebratory efforts during one month. 

Hispanic Heritage Month brings up questions of how labels like Hispanic or Latine/Latinx/Latino-Americans can alienate and demarcate people as “not from here.” The term “Hispanic” has its origins around 1980 when – according to Cristina Mora – the term was included in the census for quantitative purposes. “Hispanic” was never a term embraced by everybody, but it was a term that got a lot of support from Latinos in the Nixon administration and later in the Ford administration. Hispanic Heritage Month raises questions about generalizations and group labels that do not do justice to the more than 62 million people living in the United States who migrated or whose families came from Latin America and Spain. What happens when one term tries to put everybody together under one umbrella? Can that term fit people’s different race, gender, economic status, and nationality?

I invite you to engage in this celebration – and similar historical and cultural celebrations – with a solutionary approach: A solutionary brings critical, systems, strategic, and creative thinking to bear on pressing and entrenched challenges in an effort to create positive change that doesn’t have unintended negative consequences. However, prior to solving a problem, you need to understand it. Ask questions. Foster your curiosity and inform yourself! The focus of solutionaries is on changing the systems that contribute to – or cause – the problems in the first place. Once you have identified the unsustainable and unjust systems, you can start developing solutions that are restorative, healthy, and equitable. And your action can take multiple forms: reflection work, education or awareness campaigns, advocacy, petition, policy change, or service learning.

If you want to dive deeper into the history of Hispanic Heritage Month, I suggest reading the articles linked below about what this celebratory month meant, means, and could mean in the future. This blog is an invitation to use your critical and systems thinking to reflect on the entrenched challenges that Latines and Hispanic people face in the United States. Simultaneously, this is an invitation to think about questions of reparations and responsibilities. Is celebration and commemoration the type of redress that is needed? How can one find a balance between celebratory efforts and work that addresses structural oppression?  

As is the case with other heritage months, it is important to critically engage with these celebrations while acknowledging the preceding work and efforts. I invite you to listen to Latine and Hispanic voices around you and to become familiar with the work of local and regional organizations that support intersectional liberation. The work that Hispanic Heritage Month has accomplished in the past thirty-five years is not to be wasted; we can build on this foundation.

1) “Latine” is used when referring to a group of people of multiple genders or for someone identifying as nonbinary, gender fluid, or gender nonconforming. The term Latine is what’s commonly used among Spanish speakers as it’s more easily pronounced than Latinx and can be used in plural forms.

Accompanying Art Reflection:

Artist: Maria Fernanda Farias Briseño
Date: November 2023
Medium: Woodcut
Dimensions: 9 x 5 inches 

What do you think is the impact of a celebratory month? My art is in constant communication with the writing I produce, they influence each other, and this print is no exception. What kind of conversations do we need to have in order to break the twelve chain segments that have been isolated from each other? What will happen when the chain breaks? What type of redress is needed? Keep looking at the umbrella that collects all these questions, can you see the leaks? 


Hispanic Heritage Month. Smithsonian: National Museum of the American Latino. https://latino.si.edu/hispanic-heritage-month#:~:text=The%20month%2Dlong%20celebration%20provides,in%20the%20middle%20of%20October

Isabelia Herrera. Does Hispanic Heritage Month Need a Rebrand? For starters, why is “Hispanic” still part of the name?. The New York Times. June 17, 2021 https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/14/style/does-hispanic-heritage-month-need-a-rebrand.html#:~:text=But%20fast%20forward%20to%202019,and%20celebrations%20under%20that%20label

Vanessa Romo. Yes, We’re Calling It Hispanic Heritage Month And We Know It Makes Some Of You Cringe. NPR. September 17, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2021/09/17/1037741009/yes-were-calling-it-hispanic-heritage-month-and-we-know-it-makes-some-of-you-cri 

Gabriela Miranda. Hispanic Heritage Month highlights culture, accomplishments of community. But is it inclusive enough?. USA TODAY. September 15, 2021. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2021/09/15/origin-importance-and-criticism-hispanic-heritage-month/8346046002/