By Elmer Dixon and Deanna Shoss
For Mercedes Martin, cultural identity is complex. And relative. She was born in Cuba and came to the US as a refugee when she was eight years old, arriving in the US in the middle of the 1960’s Civil Rights movement. She self-identifies as Afro-Cuban American.
How do others see her? Growing up in Miami she was seen as culturally Cuban. However, she was once denied a visa to visit Cuba because they thought she was too American. On first glance, most assume she is African American and are surprised that she’s a native Spanish speaker. After living in California for years and then moving back to Florida, people’s first reaction was that she was Californian through and through.
For someone of mixed ethnic, racial and cultural identity, just being can be exhausting. Mercedes, however, sees it as an educational opportunity. “That’s why I use Afro-Cuban. We all want the uniqueness of our identity and at the same time we want to feel like we are part of a broader humanity. That’s the paradox of diversity.”
Mercedes also sees embracing her intersectional identity as a launching pad for conversation. During Hispanic Heritage Month she organized a series of “Sobre Mesas” (around the dinner table) conversations, entitled Black Like Me: The “Patria y Vida” Movement thru an Afro-Cuban Lens. The program was part of the Awkward Dinners presented by South Florida People of Color, intended to gather small groups of diners in public or private spaces for facilitated discussions on race.
This conversation layered yet another facet of identity to the mix: political ideology. For instance, Mercedes supports Black Lives Matter but doesn’t agree with their stand on Cuba, “when the majority of Black Cubans — our families — are terrorized, sick and hungry while they protest for “Libertad” – Freedom,” she says. “To me, regardless of where I come from, or who I vote for, I see a movement emphasizing politics over compassion for human beings. This serves as an example of political ideology over Blackness.” For Mercedes and many others, these polarizing, complicated and complex intersections drive an internal struggle. Adopting and sharing one’s different hyphens can be an external reflection of that.
Hispanic vs. Latino(a) vs. Latinx
While presented as a celebration of culture, Hispanic Heritage Month also prompts exploration of historical struggle and identity, starting with the implications of the name alone. Since 1988 Americans have observed National Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15, by celebrating the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. (hispanicheritagemonth.gov).
From a political and historical perspective, the term Hispanic was added to the census in 1980. Prior to that, Latin-Americans were categorized as White on the census. Mexican American and other Hispanic organizations lobbied the federal government to collect the data to show that they were under-resourced. Two-generations later the term Hispanic has been rejected by many people labeled with it due to its ties with Spain, which colonized much of Latin America. Thus, the term Latino evolved as an alternative to Hispanic. Latino refers to people of Latin American descent living in the United States. It includes Brazilians, who speak Portuguese, and excludes people from Spain.
The terms Hispanic and Latino are now used interchangeably, at least on the census form, where both are listed. However, there’s an important distinction to make between these two words. Hispanic refers to someone of Spanish-speaking descent while Latino is more inclusive of all Latin cultures. Given the gendering of the Spanish language, however, Latin“o” technically only refers to those who identify as male. LatinX has emerged as the gender neutral, culturally, ethnically and LGBTQ+ inclusive term in the media. Yet according to Pew Research, only 20% of adults who identify as Latino had heard of the term, and only 3% actually use it, mostly young women or (per USA Today) those of Latin American descent who don’t want to be identified by gender or who don’t identify as being male or female.
Dialogue as Healing
Mercedes encourages people to explore identity and engage in conversations that highlight the richness of our intersectionality. Even in navigating difference, this deep sharing of the context and implications of language drives new perspectives and understanding. “When the hyphen is not only a bridge but a resting point to examine the wounds that divide us, it creates spaces to share untold narratives that offer the best medicine,” says Mercedes. From culture to race to geography to politics, as we embrace all that makes us unique it also builds inroads to the common community that brings us together.
Reprinted with permission from the Executive Diversity blog. See the original post here: https://www.executivediversity.com/2021/10/13/hispanic-latino-latinx-heritage-month