What Alice Walker Can Teach Us about Hispanic Heritage Month
In the last couple of years, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to connect with one’s roots and heritage as a means of resistance. I reflect on Alice Walker’s famous quote that “resistance is the secret of joy,” and in the context of heritage and culture the meaning of her words is clearer to me. To be more fully who I am and to be less of what society expects me to be is joyful. To go deeper into the music, dance, and expression of my identity as a Latinx woman is a form of resisting dominant social norms.
As I deepen into this lesson, Hispanic Heritage month has also been more joyful. As an activist, in the past, I often wondered if it was as a waste of time. I equated it with some of the policy work I did where my colleagues and I would use the month to try to educate others about Latinx people and culture. We’d often start the education process with clarifying that the dedicated month starts on September 15th because this is when many Latin American countries, including Mexico, gained independence. We’d try to dispel false beliefs that Cinco de Mayo is Mexican Independence Day.
I’d also create newsletters and write articles explaining that many of us prefer the term ‘Latinx’ to ‘Hispanic’ because ‘Hispanic’ was a term given to us because of the census; whereas ‘Latinx’ is a chosen term. More recently I find myself also describing the gender dynamics of the language and why we are substituting ‘x’ to make ‘Latino’ or ‘Latina’ gender neutral. During the month, I’d also focus on reminding people that Puerto Ricans are U.S. Citizens, which is a surprisingly little known fact that seems all the more important due to what happened in the midst of last year’s celebration, when Hurricane Maria pummeled the island. Basically, for a long time I thought Hispanic Heritage month was a time to try even harder to increase awareness, which often only increased my frustration and burnout and left little joy for me to celebrate.
But a couple of years ago, the need for self-care became more apparent as the external stressors for social justice and education workers grew exponentially with the change of government administration. I knew I had to find something to keep me sane as I listened to the threatening rhetoric about building a border wall. With some of my loved ones who are undocumented in danger, I knew that I would need to find the strength for activism somewhere other than in my anger. I saw that the anger would destroy my joy, so I sought out joy more than ever before. And one of the places I found it had been there all along, in the richness of my own culture. Since then, I’ve been better at releasing the sense of responsibility to educate others and focusing on my own joy and healing.
Recently, I went home to visit my mother. She was excited because she had just discovered a new recipe for corn tamales that she’d tried. My sister had made them with her, and when I arrived, I felt the love they had put into each tamale as I unwrapped the cornhusks and ate them. We also watched the Disney movie “Coco” together and delighted in how the creators had so perfectly captured some of the aspects of Latinx culture, like when Miguel’s grandmother subtly coerces him into accepting more food on his plate. A couple of days later, I helped my niece with her Spanish and we listened to some of the latest Latin hits on a car ride.
During this Hispanic Heritage month, I will still probably post a few articles on my Facebook page about Latinx culture. I can’t help it. The inclination to want to be seen for who I am—who we are as Latinxs—seems pretty natural to me. Living in New Orleans, I feel the social justice narratives, in particular in education, sometimes overlooks the shades of Brown in between the White and Black. This month is a good opportunity to gently highlight some of the challenges and joys unique to Latinx people and students while also grounding our work in our common struggles and anti-Blackness. One way to do this is to try to foster Black-Brown relations among young people by discussing those common struggles as well as unique challenges. Another way is to recognize how anti-Blackness shows up in our Latinx culture. But for me, Alice Walker’s quote also serves as a reminder that it’s not always my job to teach everyone. It’s my job to be the best expression that I can be of the joys and culture of my ancestors. This is resistance and this is joy. With this in mind, Hispanic Heritage month can be a time where I can be an activist simply by being me.