Hispanic Heritage Month


I remember sitting in Kindergarten and being escorted into a separate room for private reading lessons because my reading level was below average. This was probably because my father spoke a lot of Spanish to me at home and my mother spoke only English, which left me linguistically confused. Later in life, I’d learn how beneficial it is for children to hear two languages at home even though it can be slow going at first. The Language Arts quickly became my strong suit as I got older. Eventually, I majored in English for my undergrad. However, when I was little, I was behind. At the time, I felt embarrassed. Being separated from everyone else made me feel like I was different in a bad way and I couldn’t understand why. Not until later in the school year when it was time for the Iowa Test of Basic Skills did I begin to understand why I felt this way. Before the test, each student was required to fill out an identity questionnaire. Filling in the little bubbles with my yellow #2 pencil, I can still remember my teacher watching over my shoulder as she said, “No, Isabela, you have to fill in the ‘Hispanic’ bubble”. My kindergarten teacher was really nice. She didn’t raise her voice. She had soft skin and wore bright red lipstick. Her dark hair framed her face nicely and her glasses made her look like a comforting cartoon character. I really liked her. But in that moment, my cheeks flushed and I wanted to run away from her. It felt like I had peed my pants in class and had been scolded for it. I turned to look at my neighbor’s sheets. Their graphite circles were all lined up the same - right next to “White/Caucasion”. “Is that it?!” I thought, “Is this what makes me different?!” It is difficult to explain now, but I remember feeling even more embarrassed in that moment than when I was escorted to the private reading lesson room.

These days, I celebrate who I am. I celebrate my identity and am happy that Hispanic Heritage Month begins on the eve of Mexico’s Independence day. My only lament is that I, and many others, get only one month to be proud of our heritage. Furthermore, my frustration with Hispanic Heritage Month lies in the name. “Hispanic” is such a complicated umbrella term. Through the years, I’ve been called Hispanic, Latin, Latina, Spanish, Mexican, Mexican-American, and Chicana at different times and in different contexts. So what the heck am I?! And if I can bear so many different identities, what about a person from Puerto Rico? El Salvador? Brasil? What does their basket of identities look like? And is one month enough to time to unpack all of our identities? The short answer is no. But what do we do instead? If we’re going to honor everybody, we would probably have to break it down into minutes not months. I don’t have answers or solutions, but I can offer insight based off of my own experiences being labeled as a white-passing Latina, Hispanic, Mexican-American, Chicana, etc. 

Understanding what a Hispanic identity means has taken me my whole life. It was not until my first year of graduate school that I understood what Hispanic really means. In short, Hispanic is derived from ancient Hispania, which is Spain. Because of this, calling someone from a Latin-American country ‘Hispanic’ could be harmful. For example, this label fails to acknowledge the exploitative history and abusive relationship between Spanish European settlers and the Native/Indigenous peoples of North and South America. In my case, I know my ancestors come from both La Borballa in Spain and the native lands of Mexico. Notice, however, that I was able to pinpoint the exact town my European family hailed from, but I cannot tell you nor can any living family member of mine share our native history. This information was not considered valuable, thus was not recorded. Indigenous Latin American history is not a happy story. It is a long tale of exploitation, rape, colonization, and murder executed by the hands of Spanish conquistadors. While this is the reality, an Indigenous Latin American history is also a beautifully resilient story of survival, which is worth celebrating. 

When I celebrate my Hispanic heritage, it is always with a heavy heart as I honor both sides of my family history. My great, great, great grand-father who sailed from La Borbolla was blonde with blue eyes, yet my father’s family is now black of hair with brown eyes. My father used to tell me that my great, great, great grand-father fell in love with a Native American woman, thus creating our bi-racial family. Upon hearing this, I envisioned a fantasy love story to the soundtrack of the Last of the Mohicans. Now, I realize this is a romanticized fantasy version of the past. There is no evidence of this woman. We do not even know her name. Her-story was erased while his-tory was glorified. 

What exactly am I celebrating this month? While I can confidently identify as Hispanic, Latinx, and Mexican, I do not feel confident identifying myself as a native to Mexico’s lands. Simply because that story was not recorded, glorified, or even given one month out of the entire year to honor, celebrate, mourn, and, ultimately, heal from. In writing this, my hope is that I can illuminate how it is impossible to umbrella countless communities of Spanish speaking people under one label - especially one that erases the dynamic between European settlers and Indigenous communities. While I have the privilege to openly celebrate who I am, I do so knowing that our history is a complicated one, amigos. A joyous one. A painful one. A hidden one. But one that deserves celebrating nonetheless. 

Samantha Joo