National Hispanic Heritage Month, Identity, and Culture
When teaching, students constantly ask, "Why do we need to know this?" This is usually followed by, "I'm not Puerto Rican," or, "I'm not Mexican." Many students do not find Spanish language and Hispanic culture to be relevant to their own lives. I enjoy answering the question, and creating a dialogue within the class. It is, however, sometimes difficult to relate the subject matter to each individual student because of preconceived notions. This unit will give me a chance to deeply explore what is really meant by such comments.
It is important to address these issues of heritage in a way that doesn't condemn anyone, but simply educates. European American History is a standard part of any U.S. school system's curriculum, and Black History Month is widely celebrated during the month of February. Hispanic Heritage Month, however, is not as well publicized, although Spanish culture and history are important parts of what America is.
Many of my Hispanic students face difficulties at school because of stereotypes and expectations. Some children will laugh at a Hispanic student who doesn't speak Spanish; not comprehending that language is a learned ability. Other students may resent Spanish-speaking Hispanic students because of their language abilities. Additionally, English Language Learners (ELL) often face challenges because of their limited English or accent. Hispanic students need to feel that their culture and history is valid, whether they speak English, Spanish, or both. The languages and cultures of all students should be acknowledged and embraced.
I want my students to understand that 'Hispanic' is not a race. They need to know that being White, being Black, and being Hispanic are not mutually exclusive identities. I want my students to have a sense of who they are, and to be familiar with all of the cultures and ethnicities that make up 'Latinidad' (Hispanic-ness). We will talk about African roots, Indigenous peoples, Spanish heritage, and how these have combined to create the vast population we identify as "Hispanic."
Although we will study the history of the Spanish Conquest thoroughly, we will only specifically study the peoples and cultures of Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Bolivia. I have carefully chosen these three regions for a few different reasons, including the degree of difference in their geographical locations, as well as their histories, and cultures.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau's official website, the largest numbers of Hispanics in the U.S. today have Mexican backgrounds. More than half of Hispanic Americans claim Mexican heritage (U.S. Census), which makes sense since almost half of the contiguous United States was once part of Mexico (previously called 'New Spain'). Many aspects of Mexican heritage have become ingrained in popular U.S. culture, and American political issues often deal with our "neighbors to the South."
Puerto Rico, by contrast, is a small island in the Caribbean that is actually a U.S. territory. Puerto Rico's territorial status is often the subject of political discussions in the U.S. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and those living inside the United States account for more than twelve percent of Hispanic Americans (U.S. Census), the second largest group after Mexicans. In Connecticut, Puerto Ricans are the largest Hispanic ethnic group (U.S. Census), and Puerto Rican culture is (at least in some small way) familiar to every one of my students.
Bolivia is a fairly obscure nation to most Americans. Many (educated) people that I talk to aren't even sure where Bolivia is located. Bolivia is my third choice for study and exploration because it is the place of my Hispanic heritage. My father and his family are from Bolivia, and I have actually experienced the land and its culture firsthand. I find that incorporating personal experiences into lessons helps catch student interest. My students love to discover that I am, in fact, human, and have an identity, family, and heritage of my own.
I think that by using these three diverse, distinct, and relevant regions as a vehicle for culture exploration, my students will really get excited about learning. This excitement will translate into successful Spanish communication, and hopefully extend into other content areas. In different circumstances, however, it may be more beneficial to substitute any of the focus regions for another that is more relevant to the students.
What do we Mean by 'Identity?'
The Compact Oxford English Dictionary (online edition) defines 'identity' as: "1. the fact of being who or what a person or thing is. 2. the characteristics determining this. 3. a close similarity or affinity" (OED). In my own words, I would define 'identity' simply as "who and what you are." This idea of "who and what you are" is based on external as well as internal factors, especially the notion of "otherness." People identify themselves and are identified by others according to what traits either set them apart ("otherness"), or link them to others.
"Otherness" in the United States is marked by a combination of no less than seven distinct categories (Tatum 22). These include race and ethnicity, gender, religion, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, age, and mental/physical disability. These seven categories are commonly used to distinguish similarities and differences between people. One's identity is a combination of each of these seven, though different people have varying degrees to which they acknowledge certain aspects of "otherness."
Culture is one of the greatest contributors to identity formation. 'Culture,' as I am using it, refers to the "customs, institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or group" (OED). Aspects of culture may include (but are not limited to) language, cuisine, ethnic makeup, family structures, traditions, education, dress, celebration, arts, crafts, music, and literature. It is important to understand that culture, like language, is learned and can change over time and with circumstance. Many of the things that make up a person's identity also make up a person's culture.
Again, it is difficult to talk about identity or culture without addressing what it means to belong to a said "nation, people, or group." In the U.S. the most common terms used to describe these categories are 'race' and 'ethnicity.' Sociologist Tracy Ore uses 'race' to refer to "a group of people who perceive themselves and are perceived by others as possessing distinctive hereditary traits" (9). Ethnicity, on the other hand, refers to "a group of people who perceive themselves and are perceived by others as sharing cultural traits such as language, religion, family customs, and food preferences" (Ore 9).
The identity that is assigned to a person may not be the same identity that a person would choose for him/herself. "Externally created labels for these categories" are not necessarily used or accepted by the people that belong to them. In most cases, all members of a given group do not agree on one sole identifying term (Ore xiv). This will become an important factor when we discuss what it means to be 'Hispanic.'
My students often identify themselves based on where they are from, what their race and ethnicity is, who they live with, what type of music they listen to, and what clothes they wear. For some of my students, religion is an important part of who they are, while others define themselves in terms of academic or extracurricular achievements.
The concept of identity is difficult to grasp because it not only addresses the notion of who you are, but also hints at several questions, such as: Who creates your identity? Who decides your race? Who determines your religion? Who's to say whether you are disabled, handicapped, or just differently-abled? Why does it matter?
What's Identity got to do with Learning Spanish?
I have found that the majority of students that do poorly in Spanish are unsuccessful because they lack confidence in themselves and in their own abilities. Many others are resistant to language learning because they do not see its relevance to their lives. Developing students' self-awareness, pride, and open-mindedness will increase their likelihood of succeeding in Spanish and in life.
In order to understand the cultures of other peoples, my students will need to understand the different components of identity and culture. They can then apply this to themselves, and then to the different Hispanics we will study. This concept of identity will also help my students relate to the cultures and language of these Spanish-speakers.
The excitement and challenge of relating my subject to each and every student is compounded by their limited knowledge of other cultures, in addition to their own personal search for identity. Students will also see how history and geography have helped shape the identities and cultures of people, generally. Having a sense of who they are will help my students better relate to one another and to other peoples. This, in turn, will help me better relate the Spanish language and Hispanic culture to my students.
What is National Hispanic Heritage Month?
Hispanic Heritage Month grew out of Hispanic Heritage Week, which was established by Lyndon Johnson in 1968 as a way to honor Hispanic heritage. Hispanic Heritage Month has been (slowly) gaining recognition since its first observance in 1988, when Ronald Reagan extended this week to a month. Today, almost thirty years later, Hispanic Heritage Month is becoming more widely acknowledged and celebrated across the country.
Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated from September 15 through October 15 each year in the United States. Theses dates were chosen because several important events in Spanish-American history are celebrated during this 30-day period. September 15 is the shared Independence Day of five Hispanic countries. Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua all declared independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. Mexico's Independence Day is celebrated on September 16 (the war for independence began on this day in 1810), while Chile celebrates its independence on September 18 (Chile declared independence in 1810). October 12 is "El Día de la Raza" (The Day of the [Hispanic] Race), which is celebrated in the United States as "Columbus Day." Throughout Spain and Latin America, "El Día de la Raza" celebrates the culture, heritage, and history of people of Spanish origin.1
In spite of the fact that Hispanics/Latinos comprise such a large portion of the United States' population, their history goes largely unnoticed. These people have traditionally been grossly underrepresented in the media. For example, even though an estimated 16% of children in the United States are Hispanic, only about 2% of children's books published in the U.S. each year are written by or about Hispanics, according to Hispanic author Pat Mora (Mora website).
This "month" celebrates the contributions Hispanics have made to our country in much the same way that Black History Month and Women's History Month recognize historically significant African-Americans, and women, respectively. Unlike these other celebrated groups, however, the parameters of "Hispanic" membership are less clearly defined.
Who are these 'Hispanics?'
There seems to be much confusion as to what makes a person "Hispanic", "Latino/a," or "Spanish-American." Varying definitions of "Hispanic" and "Latino" abound, and many people have differing opinions about each, complicating identification and classification of ethnicity.
The Compact Oxford English Dictionary defines 'Hispanic' as "relating to Spain or the Spanish-speaking countries of Central and South America," or, "a Spanish-speaking person, especially one of Latin American descent, living in the U.S." 'Latino' refers to "a Latin American inhabitant of the United States," according to the OED online. Merriam-Webster OnLine defines 'Hispanic' in the following manner: "of, relating to, or being a person of Latin American descent living in the U.S." 'Latino' is defined as "a native or inhabitant of Latin America," or, "a person of Latin-American origin living in the U.S."
The U.S. Census Bureau, on the other hand, determines that Hispanics are people who originate from Spanish-speaking countries or regions, and that Hispanics may be of any race. The Bureau also uses the terms 'Hispanic' and 'Latino' interchangeably. In order to keep consistency with the context of my unit, I have chosen to use the term 'Hispanic' to describe the people who populate Spanish-speaking regions, as well as those who are ethnically of Spanish-speaking origins or descent.
According to a survey conducted in 1995 by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 58% of Hispanics preferred to use the term "Hispanic" to describe themselves. "Of Spanish origin" was preferred by about 12.3% of those surveyed. "Latino" was the preferred term for approximately 11.7%. A little more than 10% of those interviewed had no preference at all, while almost 8% reported preferring "some other term" (Tucker et al. 17). This indicates that there is no consensus on the issue, and suggests that there is not necessarily one cohesive group identity amongst Americans of Hispanic/Latino/Spanish descent.
Generally the question of what a person of Spanish-speaking origin prefers to be called is simply a matter of personal preference. Ilan Stavans states that "the term Hispanic is used outside the United States to describe the cultures that developed as a result of Spanish exploration," in his cartoon history (5). "Latino is the term in vogue to describe Spanish-speaking people living in the United States…In the past other terms were also used including Hispanics and the Spanish people" (Stavans 7). Stavans jokes that "cultural fashions come and go so fast" (7), alluding to the way that time, location, and circumstance dictate what is socially acceptable at any given moment.2
Who are these Hispanics, Latinos, or, people of Spanish origin? Well, they are not only the celebrities (Jennifer Lopez, Antonio Banderas, and Salma Hayek, just to name a few) that we recognize from the pop-culture media. Over 35 million people identified themselves as Hispanic or Latino on the 2000 U.S. Census. Hispanics have recently replaced Blacks/African-Americans as the largest ethnic minority group in the U.S., comprising an estimated 13.7% of the population (excluding the 3.9 million residents of Puerto Rico) (U.S. Census).
It is difficult to talk about Hispanics without inadvertently lumping them all into one category. I am going to narrow my focus to the Puerto Rican, Mexican, and Bolivian cultures. In this way students will be able to identify similarities and differences between national identities, as well as within each nation. This will help them recognize that "Spanish" or Puerto Rican" labels are not 'one-size-fits-all' for Hispanics.
Why so Many Spanish-speaking People?
In 1492, several regions of the Iberian Peninsula (known as "Hispania" under the Roman Empire) were united under King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to create the nation of Spain (Espa–a). In this same year, the king and queen of Spain sponsored Christopher Columbus's famous voyage, beginning a long series of explorations and land acquisitions in the New World.
While it is true that "in fourteen-hundred-ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue," it is untrue that Columbus discovered the New World. The lands that Columbus "discovered" were populated with indigenous peoples with distinct and well-developed languages and cultures. For example, Columbus found the Taíno (Arawak) people already established on the island of Boriken (later named Puerto Rico by the Spanish) on some of his first journeys.
As the Spanish expanded their explorations of the New World, conquistadores (conquerors) claimed more and more land for Spain. During the 1500s, it was said that the sun never set on the Spanish Empire. This empire included not only Spain, but most of Central and South America, as well as parts of Africa and the Philippines. Spanish control extended in the Americas up into the modern-day United States, and in Europe included occupations in Austria, Italy, and the Netherlands.
While the Taínos populated many of the Caribbean islands, the Spanish encountered several other indigenous groups throughout the Americas. In Mexico and the Yucatan Peninsula, for example, the Aztecs and Mayan descendents created elaborate civilizations. By the time the Spanish reached the Andes Mountains of South America, the Incan Empire had already been thriving there for about 300 years, and spread out over two thousand miles. Just as they had done in the Caribbean, the Spanish invaders killed and enslaved the natives in these regions, destroying much of their cultures.
During the Spanish reign, many Spaniards took indigenous wives to bear their children, creating Mestizos (people of mixed European and Native American descent). Later, in certain parts of the Caribbean, Central America, and South America, African slaves were also mixed into the Spanish and Mestizo blood. Hispanics, or Latinos, can be of Spanish, Indigenous, or African descent, or any combination thereof, and often display cultural and language aspects from each.
Spain held control of its vast empire for about 400 years, colonizing most of the Americas, and mixing with the natives. Independence movements swept Spanish America in the beginning of the nineteenth century, starting with Ecuador, in August of 1809. By 1825, all but five Spanish territories had ceded from Spain. The empire eventually collapsed in 1898, with the loss of the Cuba and Puerto Rico in the Spanish-American War.