Every year, from September 15 to October 15, the United States celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month to honor the stories, traditions, and contributions of Latinos to this country. With this year’s activities in full swing, I couldn’t help but notice a connection between my religious studies and this cultural celebration.
As a student of religion, I often examine sacred myths to find value in the stories that are told. I have learned that religious myths are more than simply tales of human beings and their interactions with the supernatural; myths are acted out and given meaning by religious participants. For example, in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Exodus story is not solely about Moses and the escape from Egypt, it also explains why Jews around the world celebrate the Passover. Thus, myth and ritual are connected as “the thing said” and “the thing done.” One cannot be understood without the other. Gary E. Kessler claims that they go together like the script of a play (myth) and the play performed (ritual action).
In regards to Hispanic Heriage Month, there exists a myth of racial and ethnic equality in America and there are certain rituals in place that seek to solidify that myth, such as Hispanic Heritage Month. During this festive month, Americans celebrate the cultural contributions Latinos have made to America, but avoid discussing the economic, educational, and legal barriers that prevent Latinos from contributing in a larger way. Rituals include a slew of events such as street fairs, concerts, artistic and cultural exhibits, a White House celebration featuring Ricky Martin, Gloria Estefan, and other Latino artists, and even a Miss Gay Hispanidad pageant in Dallas. These rituals seek to prove that Latino culture is valued, respected, and even honored in American society. I refuse to accept that myth.
In actuality, these rituals promote a partial view of American society, where immigrants are only allowed to add color and spice but not everything nice. Thus, analogies of a “salad bowl” depict minorities as condiments or additives to the basic ingredient of lettuce, but fail to envision a different salad where minorities are the main item.
Latinos and other ethnic minorities are encouraged to share their cultural traditions, as long it occurs in publicly sanctioned settings of special holidays, parades, and social events (such as those promoted by Hispanic Heritage Month). Apart from these formal displays of ethnicity, we must hide the heritage, block out the homeland, eliminate the accent, put aside the “other” identities, and interact in a culturally neutral space as “Americans.” This myth ignores the reality that this country is divided along lines of race, ethnicity, class, gender, religion, and sexual preference and promotes the homogenization of all sorts of cultural differences.
The flawed idea of equality is further supported through the “hero myth,” where a select few Latinos are able to overcome societal barriers and reach the American dream. Similar to the Moses story where the hero undergoes obstacles but ultimately reaches a final victory, tales of successful Latinos such as Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who became the first Latina woman in Congress or Ellen Ochoa, the first Hispanic female astronaut, are told to rally Latinos around a collective American identity and discourage us from challenging the inequalities in the existing economic and political system. Their stories demonstrate that it is possible to attain success, but in reality, these heroes are the exception.
The truth is that Latinas make only 55 cents for every dollar made by a white, non-Hispanic man. The War on Drugs imprisons thousands of brown bodies every year and contributes to the destruction of Latino communities across the country. Barriers to higher education for undocumented students prevent them from reaching their maximum potential. Unjust immigration laws limit access to adequate healthcare, job opportunities, and basic guarantees of due process and fairness.
Hispanic Heritage Month operates as a national myth accompanied by rituals that seek to conceal the harsh realities facing the Latino community. The truth is that this country is strengthened, not weakened, by the vibrancy brought to it by immigrant and non-white communities. Rather than disuniting America or destroying national values, differences create new cultural forms that help define America. Instead of simply hosting events during a 30-day time span to celebrate Latino contributions to America, it is imperative to address the inequalities that exist and fight to eliminate them so that we can truly have equality for all.