Anything but Mexican—still!
It’s October, and we again find ourselves in the midst of “Hispanic Heritage Month.” I find the foundation of “Hispanic Heritage Month” objectionable on many levels, especially the artificial, manufactured construct of “Hispanic.”
Hispanics: invented by Richard Nixon, promoted by Coors beer…
“Hispanics” don’t exist in the real world. They were invented in the 1970s by the Richard Nixon administration to, I believe, try to stop the momentum of the Chicano Movement and minimize the political influence of the Chicano-Mexican American community and to maximize the visibility and influence of the Cuban-American community in Florida.
When our movement first emerged, in the late 1960s, the white political establishment, as well as the Mexican American professional/middle class, dismissed us as a ragtag bunch of malcontents. But our critics soon realized that we enjoyed broad support in our barrios and among the working-class and that we were doers.
Indeed, we were fundamentally changing the educational, political, cultural and social landscape of our communities. Some of us quit college to become full-time organizers. We marched. We picketed. We rallied. We confronted politicians and bureaucrats. We stood up for workers and organized unions. Many of us were arrested doing these things. We were some folks’ worst nightmare: assertive Mexicans not only refusing to believe they were inferior but openly expressing pride in their heritage and being pushy about their rights.
By the mid-1970s many members of the Mexican American professional/middle class openly supported our movement. That we were being successful and were expanding our support base scared the political establishment of both parties, including then-President Richard M. Nixon.
Nixon had generated some goodwill among Mexican Americans by appointing Mexican Americans to Cabinet and other positions. But this dissipated when he attempted to break the 1969 grape boycott led by Mexican American/Chicano icon César Chávez by ordering the Defense Department to increase six-fold the purchase of table grapes for the military.
Nixon was popular among the conservative and Republican Cuban Americans. But compared to Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans are a tiny and localized constituency. Mexican Americans (64% of the U.S. Latino population) outnumber Cuban Americans (3.7% of the U.S. Latino population) by a ratio of 17 to 1, and Mexican Americans have settled in the Midwest and other localities beyond the southwestern U.S., whereas the overwhelming majority (65-70%) of Cuban Americans are in Dade County/Miami, Florida.
So, Nixon created the “Hispanic” census category, which lumped together Cuban Americans and other groups (Salvadorans, etc.) with Mexican Americans. This allowed Nixon to be able to say that he supported “Hispanics” even as he favored Cuban Americans and disdained and worked against Mexican Americans.
My recollection is that the term “Hispanic” began to be bandied about publicly in the early 1980s, as part of a Coors Brewing Co. advertising campaign. In huge billboards in Chicano communities, Coors declared the 1980s “the Decade of the Hispanic.” The Coors campaign was frankly a cynical attempt to neutralize the impact of the boycott of Coors beer called by the Chicano Movement due to the company’s racist hiring practices and its anti-union policies.
Call me old-school, call me stubborn, or whatever, but I refuse to be defined by Richard Nixon or Coors beer.
Chicana/o: a matter of self-determination…
A major thrust of the Chicano Movement was self-determination, starting with how we defined ourselves. Up through the 1960s, educators, politicos, scholars, etc. were hell-bent on telling us what we should call ourselves: “Spanish-speaking,” “Latin-Americans,” “Spanish-Americans.” Anything but Mexican.
“Chicano/a” reflects our history. For, the term Chicano has been used by the Mexican people in the U.S., particularly the working class, since the early 1900s. Because we were sons and daughters of miners, laborers, truck drivers, assembly-line workers, and the like, we identified with the working-class. It was natural, then, for us to use a term to refer to ourselves that was used within the milieu in which we grew up.
Moreover, we grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s, when there was a concerted societal campaign to “de-Mexicanize” us, to make us feel ashamed of our heritage. Chicano connoted pride in being of Mexican heritage and counteracted that campaign. By calling ourselves Chicanos/Chicanas we were asserting the power of our humanity, a power that up to this point had been crippled by a racist society.
An oft-quoted passage by Chicano activist Bob Morales summarizes the Chicano Movement stance:
“In brief, contrary to what others say we are, we decide what we are and what we are becoming, because our self‑designation is both a statement of current reality and an implication that we are in a progressive transition, striving to better our social, political and economic situation.
“We first plant the flag of self‑description and allow it to fly defiantly in the winds of opposition. Symbolically we are saying, no more will others through governmental decree or anthropological arrogance arbitrarily label us …
“Fortunately many of us, and in growing numbers, are satisfied that truth is in the living of it, and we feel that to call ourselves what we feel we are is to let others know that no longer will we passively permit others to describe us, define us and to assign imagined traits of character to us; furthermore in referring to ourselves as Chicanos we are expressing a commitment to a cause, and that the cause merits support.” [Morales, Bob, “Chicano: Word Symbol of Confusion or Cohesion?,” Coraje (Chicano Press Association), Tucson, Arizona, Vol. 1, # 2, April 1969, p. 8.]
It bears noting that the term “Mexican American” is also a product of self-determination. Ethnographer Américo Paredes and others of the Mexican American Generation (which preceded the Chicano Generation) maintain their generation coined the term “Mexican American” to denote their Mexican heritage. MAG member Raúl Morin explains that,
“… our people … cannot be called Spanish, Mexican, or Latin American … because we are not from those places, and we are different (culturally, etc.) from the Anglo, so we cannot simply be called ‘Americans.’ Therefore,
“For this reason we have made the term ‘Mexican-American’ our choice. We then imply that we are proud to be Americans, and at the same time are not trying to deny our Mexican ancestry.” (Morín, Raúl, “Among the Valiant: Mexican Americans in WWII and Korea,” Borden Publishing Co., Alhambra, California, 1963, p. 33).
Be proud … of being generic?
Ethnic pride, a powerful driver of political action, was central to the Chicano Generation’s insisting on the self-descriptor Chicano (and the MAG’s use of Mexican American). But Hispanics can’t be driven by ethnic pride, for “Hispanic” is a generic term, purposely bereft of any ethnic identity. The notion of being proud of being generic is oxymoronic nonsense. “Hispanic Heritage Month” is a throwback to the “Anything but Mexican” days. Ultimately, “Hispanic” comes down to never having to say you’re Mexican.
“Hispanic Heritage Month” is so far removed from our community that even President Trump, who launched his political career by characterizing Mexicans as murderers and rapists, sponsored a “Hispanic Heritage” event at the White House recently. Trump used the occasion to mock hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans. And to make sure everyone, including the media, got the anti-Mexican mood of the event, one of the attendees wore a “Build the Wall” hat.
Honor our history by continuing to make it…
Most certainly we should celebrate our traditions, literature, art, music, and other aspects of our culture. But we don’t need to be granted permission to do that or be “allowed” a period of time in which to do it. Celebrating who we are is something we should do every day. And it should be done independently of people who have a commercial or political interest in our community.
The best way to honor our history is to continue making it by beating back the reactionary forces that have coalesced to act against our interests. Ours is not a history of victimization. Our history is a history of achievement, a history that can and does inspire, a history whose foundation is self-determination.
Our history spans centuries, and it is complex and nuanced. A month-long symbolic event does not even begin to serve as preface to our story. c/s
Copyright 2017 by Salomón Baldenegro. To contact Sal write: firstname.lastname@example.org