(part 1 of a 2 part series)
By: Belen de Leon, YWCA Columbus Program Coordinator
Marisa Garverick Herrera, YWCA Columbus Program Manager
Lalitha Pamidigantam, YWCA Columbus Policy Analyst
Hispanic Heritage Month, observed from September 15th through October 15th, carves out four weeks to honor the histories, cultures and contributions of Hispanic-Americans to the US. The event was introduced in 1968, on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement. In the first part of this two part series on Hispanic Heritage Month, we explore the identity of the Latinx community, their struggles, and their resistance as a community.
What’s With All The Terms?
Terminology around this community has evolved since 1968, namely because the Latinx community is not monolithic. In 1980, the term Hispanic came into official use, and was chosen because of its proximity to the Spanish word “hispano,” meaning people, countries and cultures relating to Spain. But over time, the term received censure for its emphasis on Spain, the devastating colonial power in Latin America. Latino(a) acts as an alternative, recognizing people with Latin American roots and cultures, including countries that don’t speak Spanish. Subsequently, Latinx emerged as a gender-inclusive term to identify those who fell outside of the gender binary. As with all efforts to label those of Latin-American descent, “Latinx” faces pushback, with some claiming it unnecessary and inconsistent, and others arguing that it’s a white-imposed word. It is worth noting that the word was created originally by English-speaking, queer Latinx people but is used more widely today. Furthermore the term Latine has developed as an alternative to “Latinx.”
All terms in use to identify a myriad of nationalities and cultures for this community are heavily contested. Today, 4% of Latinx people self-identify as Latinx, 15% use Latino(a), 23% prefer Hispanic, and 57% said it doesn’t matter. In this article, we will be using Latinx as a descriptor because we believe this term is most inclusive of all identities.
Changes in terminology reflect the community’s growing political awareness, and Latinx people still face oppression in this country. Additionally, the relevance and importance of the Latinx community in this country has not wavered.
For example, on a national scale, Latinx people continue to be faced with inequitable economic access and own just 74 cents for every dollar the median white household owns. For Latina women, the number plummets further; Latina women own only 54.4 cents to the dollar. In central Ohio the picture is even grimmer where local Latina women own just six cents for every dollar a white man owns.
Latinx people as a whole also comprise the highest uninsured rates of any racial or ethnic group, and feel both health and economic risks of the COVID-19 pandemic at higher rates. American structural racism and sexism reinforces these inequities in the Latinx community, and exponentially so for those who hold multiple marginalized identities.
Who Are Latinx People?
To fully address the injustices that Latinx communities experience, it is important to dismantle American mythologies of Latinx people who are often stereotyped as low-class, poor, brown, and uneducated. Despite statistical evidence refuting such claims, harmful racialized stereotypes are perpetuated by the media and political office holders, as evidenced by former President Trump’s racist assertion that immigrants from Mexico are “rapists, drug smugglers, and violent criminals,” who then capitalize on racism against Latinx communities.
In reality, the umbrella term of Latinx is underpinned with diversity. Today, Latinx-Americans comprise 18.5% of the overall population, and they descend from an often-disputed list of countries across North America, South America, Central America, and the Caribbean. These countries have richly diverse cultures, governments, languages, and geopolitical struggles.
Non-white Latinx people experience discrimination at higher rates, and police brutality and racial bias has a devastating toll on the Latinx community. One quarter of all U.S. Latinos self-identify as Afro-Latino, Afro-Caribbean, or of African descent, and many Latinx people are of mixed racial backgrounds who self-identify as a race that is not White or Black. Due to the complexities of the Latinx identity, police-involved killings of Latinx people are highly underreported, with many reports only accounting for the victim’s race within the Black and White racial binary or not noting the victim’s race or ethnicity at all.
Despite some common misconceptions, most Latinx people in America are U.S. born citizens. Still, immigration policy has an outsized effect on the lives of Latinx people living in America. The numbers of Latinx refugees and asylum seekers have been skyrocketing despite American pushback, as people continue to flee conflict in their home countries. Of the 11.4 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, Latinx people are disproportionately represented. Undocumented people live in the shadows, oppressed by a matrix of laws that strip them of access to healthcare, food assistance, housing, and employment options. Hyper-criminalization has also had an impact on U.S. born Latinx people who live with the constant fear of deportation raids.
Latinx people come from storied histories of perseverance and resistance that live on today. Despite the challenges and struggles many Latinx people can face, they make lasting advancements toward equity. Though deportation and police brutality continue to threaten Latinx communities, activists have increasingly come out in numbers to protest police killings of Black and Brown people at Black Lives Matter protests. Immigration justice advocates also continue to lobby the government in favor of immigration reform and are currently advocating for a citizenship for all bill. The Latinx presence in America is now stronger than ever. Although the people Hispanic Heritage Month celebrates have seen shifts over time, the reasons they should be recognized and honored has not.
In the second article of this series, we will take a closer look at the history of state sanctioned violence and discrimination targeting Latinx folks, while celebrating the communities’ ongoing legacies of resistance and activism.