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Why I Hate Hispanic Heritage Month

Instead of creating any real change, it's largely become an opportunity for advertisers to pander to Latinos in the United States.

Still from Coca Cola's 2015 advertisement, "Orgulloso De Ser," for Hispanic Heritage Month

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I'm Nicaraguan American, and I can't stand Hispanic Heritage Month. That might sound harsh, even dangerous, what with Donald Trump and his xenophobic vitriol racing toward the White House. But there's not much to gain from the month—especially since most people, particularly non-Latinos, don't have any idea what it is.

I first heard about Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs every year from September 15 to October 15, during my freshman year of college. My school's Latino student club hosted an event called Latin Explosion, featuring bachata and salsa dancing, a Latin music band, pastelitos, arroz, y habichuelas, and some speeches from the club leaders. It was a real display, but one of our biggest concerns was, "How do we get white people to attend?"


The goal wasn't sharing culture so much as making a spectacle of it. In retrospect, we had a mix-up of priorities where getting a big, diverse audience mattered more than actually opening a cross-cultural dialogue.

And yet, I notice professional marketing teams and organizations making the same mistake year after year, focusing on stereotypical visuals, tastes, smells, and traditions rather than an actual engagement. But instead of Latinos using shallow bait to lure white people, like we were, these tend to be white people trying to lure Latinos. And it usually backfires.

First, some history: President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill creating Hispanic Heritage Week back in 1968. It was timed to coincide with several Latin American countries' independence day celebrations (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua were all liberated on September 15) and was meant to honor the contributions of Latinos to American culture. In 1988, Ronald Reagan signed a bill expanding the week to a full month, mirroring other heritage events, like Black History Month.

And yet, in the decades that Hispanic Heritage Week has been around, there's not much to show for it. Instead, it's largely become an opportunity for advertisers to pander to Latinos in the United States.

Some of the ads feature well-known celebrities like Gloria Estefan, like McDonald's "Nuestras Leyendas" campaign; others emphasize family, like Coca-Cola's campaign featuring light-brown kids sharing a Coke with their light brown abuelitos. It's important to point out that it's almost always light-brown people featured in these ads, because Afro Latinos are virtually erased from the Hispanic narrative. Most are pretty half-ass, like Coffee-Mate marketing two "steamy, new Latin flavors" (Mexican chocolate and dulce de leche) of coffee creamer.


Some groups have put in even less effort, like the National Republican Party, which sent out a poorly translated Spanish-language press release in 2009, explaining Hispanic Heritage Month. As ThinkProgress noted, online translator BabelFish produced better results. That same lack of discernment was found in a 2012 email from the Environmental Protection Agency, kicking off Hispanic Heritage Month with the image of Che Guevara, without realizing how divisive a figure he is. Many Cuban Americans, among other Latino groups, were outraged.

Fortunately, there haven't been too many gaffes in 2016—though I did roll my eyes at a press release from Hillary Clinton, arguing that Hispanic Heritage Month is now "more important than ever." After all, Trump's vitriol was bolstered by long-standing ignorance and prejudices, and it's tough not to see this as more "Hispandering" from Clinton after her campaign published a listicle saying Clinton is like your abuela.

There are some nice moments during the month: In Los Angeles—which contains 9 percent of country's Latinos—there are events almost every day to celebrate our cultures and heritages, from art shows to films to political community discussions. And Latino college groups often do the month justice. This year, Boston College features staples like the annual art and dance shows, but is also bringing Cesar Chavez's granddaughter, Christine, to campus to discuss labor and community organizing.


But nothing too political ever happens. President Barack Obama still deported more than 2 million Latinos while in office. Comprehensive immigration reform is dead. Latinos still have a higher unemployment rate than non-Hispanic whites—5.6 to 4.2, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics—and in 2013, the Pew Research Center found that white households were ten times wealthier than Hispanic households. We represent 17 percent of the population, but just 1 percent of all elected officials on the federal, state, and local level; in Fortune 500 companies, just over 3 percent of all board seats belong to Hispanic people. Statistically, it's still pretty tough to be a Latino.

Maybe it's silly to get so worked up about Hispanic Heritage month. But I don't think being gung-ho would solve much either. It's not like Donald Trump will ever say, "This Chicano art exhibit really makes me reconsider my stance on the federal minimum wage," or "These salsa dancers opened my eyes to the value of bilingual education for child English language learners." And after all, we have the other 11 months of the year to deal with—11 months of deportations, low wages, education inequality, and racism.

We'd have to get radical and make some gringos uncomfortable to transition from spreading awareness to achieving change. What if, instead of a series of commercial marketing gaffes, Hispanic Heritage Month involved 30 days of student-immigrant sit-ins? What if DREAMERs and their allies organized a month's worth of actions? Or we could just take the whole month off from work—all Latinos, from landscapers to doctors—and see how things play out.

I'm proud of my own Nicaraguan heritage, and I love seeing other Latinos celebrate their unique cultures and traditions. But government recognition doesn't come in the form of one day on the calendar, or even 30 days. Pride, music, and celebration have a role in empowerment— but not when they're simplified for white audiences, not when they exist separately from politics, and not when they don't accomplish a damn thing in the other 11 other months of the year.

Follow Alejandro Ramirez on Twitter.