Juan Cortés on National Hispanic Heritage Month

It’s National Hispanic Heritage Month

Juan Cortés

Oct 4, 2022

Being Hispanic and living in the United States means your roots burrow deep, tunnel across borders, and project through the ocean. It means your parents, or your grandparents, or their grandparents, braved a chasm and leaped from their ancestral cliff, reaching for the ledge of hope they believed they would find in the magic of a new land. And what’s more—if you’re still here—it means they found it. And that means you never stroll casually past your mirror, because being Hispanic means your mirror stares back. The tribulations of those who came before you resonate beneath your darkened brow; their determination pumps through your lungs, crawls through your veins, and settles like a brand on your coffee-colored skin (your measure con leche will vary).

If you’re not Hispanic, it’s likely those opening words apply to you more than you might consider when you look in your mirror day-to-day. Maybe it was many more generations ago, or maybe you are first generation. But if you live in the United States and your ancestors weren’t gathered up or told to walk, you come from an immigrant. And if that’s the case, my story isn’t so different from your story. At least, not in the “Once upon a time…” beginning.

Being Hispanic is an invention of the U.S. government in the 70’s, a way to label the imports and group us all together. After all, people from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and other Latin American countries don’t call themselves Hispanic or even Latinos, Latinas, or Latinx. They call themselves Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and so forth. Hispanic is a way to define us by the language we speak rather than the land our people are from. And while that is reductive, its effect is catalyzing. Because being Hispanic means you are part of a group. A collection of lands that were once deeply indigenous. But, with their “discovery” and a proclamation that those people were savages, their land was conquered and worked by slaves under the pretense of God’s will. It’s a story not that different from America but, in America, we still qualify as “other.” We have our own checkbox on the form. And while I take pride in checking that box, doing so also puts me in a group that comes with subtext, off-white connotations, and unshakable undertones. Being Hispanic means your name is Jose or Maria before anyone actually meets you and asks. It means you might be dangerous, poor, a punk, or a parent too early. It means you’re a presumed gardener or maid before a lawyer or cop, and fluent in another language whether you actually are or not. And for those reasons and more, being Hispanic means fighting oppression of any group that is being forced behind a wall because, whether your grandparents were from that land or not, you know that the notion that they are all bad includes you, too.

Being Hispanic is the rich smell of a kitchen in preparation. A dash of adobo. A spatter of oil. A whiff of a ripe chipotle stewing in a crock pot for a feast you have to wait four hours to enjoy. It’s grabbing the tortilla off the open flame on the stove. It’s passing the sombrero-shaped tortilla holder not because that funny looking thing is the stereotype that best represents you, but because that holder was your grandmother’s and perhaps her grandmother’s, too. Being Hispanic is rice and beans, and frituras stuffed with ground beef. It’s the all-hands-on-deck assembly lines that make the tamales, croquetas, alcapurrias, malanga, empanadas, and pastelillos. It’s the smell of a pig roast swirling around a game of dominoes, and it’s ducking your mother’s chancleta if you’re late to the party. Being Hispanic is the feeling that all is right in your kitchen, even when it isn’t, because your family is around you, even when they’re not. It’s the feeling that no matter how right your kitchen is, there’s always time or circumstance to make it better because your kitchen is always in preparation, even when you’ve just eaten, even when there’s no room for another bite. Your kitchen is in preparation because your work is never done. Your work is never done because there’s always another mirrored-doubt to feed. And you’ll feed that doubt with a “welcome” and a “buen provecho” because there’s always room for one more at your table.

Being Hispanic is the flag of another land we wear on our heads, or stitch to our shirts, or hang from our rearview, or sew on a purse. Not to disparage the magical land of hope we still see through our ancestor’s eyes, it’s to honor the cliffs from which they leaped. Our heroes swell our chests. From Clemente to Kahlo. From Borges to Cuarón. From Chavez to Sotomayor. Being Hispanic is the thump-thump of the bongos and the clack-clack of the claves. It’s the festive blare of the trumpet and the shoulder shake of maracas. It’s Héctor and Willie, Santana, Celia, Rubén, Tito, Pedro, Vicente, and Gloria. It’s a flash of pride when Javy Baez drops that tag, or Canelo swings that hook, or García Márquez strings those words together that make a perfect book.

And, yes, being Hispanic means we can acknowledge our indigenous heritage and our brujería tics while wearing a cross, because our grandparents passed us that too; and questioning our ancestors is not our way. But it’s also not history alone that defines us—one-third conqueror, one-third native, one-third slave—the richness of our people propels us forward as one. Be they fair-skinned or dark, straight blonde haired or kinky black, we got cousins that fit every depiction, and uncles that fit a description. It’s not always a “happily ever after” ending, but win or lose it’s inscribed on our souls. Hispanic? Sure. Latinos, Latinas, Latinx? You bet.

And we couldn’t be prouder.