My relationship with Latinx Heritage Month is a complicated one. For most of my life, I never even knew it existed, and by the time I was old enough to learn, I had to ask who this month is really for and why we honor it. From September 15 to October 15, we’re supposed to come together as a community and celebrate all the different heritages and traditions that make up Latin America, from Mexico down to the tip of Argentina and the Caribbean. Ultimately, though, we’re turned into a commodity for corporations to capitalize on in the name of diversity and inclusion.
For a brief moment, our small businesses are highlighted as the best places to shop, Latinx creators and models are put front and center on the home page of news sites, and in every major retailer you walk into, from CVS to the 99 Cents Store, you’re guaranteed to find some Día de los Muertos merch alongside a spotlight of Latinx-owned brands. I both love and question this time of year because while it’s nice to be given a dedicated spotlight for a month and for us to benefit from that attention, shouldn’t the Latinx community be celebrated all year round and not just by our own community? And when our children are locked up in cages at the border and undocumented folks fear deportation every day, is Latinx Heritage Month a mere band-aid to a much larger wound? And given the history of racism and colorism in our community, is everyone as welcome and included as they could be?
Latinx Heritage Month deserves much more nuance and attention than it’s receiving now. But for me, the most powerful moments of validation and celebration of my Mexican heritage come not from this month but from the little actions I take in my day-to-day life. From wearing a certain piece of jewelry to cooking a dish I learned from my parents for my next meal; It might not be as sexy or glamorous but at least it’s mine. Especially when many white, non-Latinx creators on social media have made it their duty to take over and distort many aspects of Latinx culture on the platform, from aguas frescas (rebranded as “spa water”) to Black and Latinx style (revamped as the “clean girl” aesthetic).
Partly in resistance to this modern gentrification of my culture, and partly in celebration of it, I can’t go about my day without first putting on my gold nameplate necklace and matching gold hoops. For decades, our gold and silver jewelry was (and to an extent, still is) considered unprofessional in workplace settings, our heritage made to seem like a poor and unrefined counter to white women’s pearls and diamonds. But in my family and many others, getting our ears pierced as babies and donned with tiny gold studs is a rite of passage, the small bracelet engraved with our name is a symbol of our parents’ love. From then on, I grew up watching the women in my family, from my tías to my abuelas, wearing these long, elaborate earrings, both metal and beaded, that looked nothing like what white women wore on TV. Even my cousins wore hoops as big as their hands, an open resistance to the Anglo-American idea of what beautiful jewelry was supposed to look like. While I don’t wear my baby jewelry anymore for obvious reasons, wearing my name around my neck and gold hoops in my ears is a reminder of the long line of strong women that I come from and how we have made accessories our own form of weaponry.
The celebration of my heritage also comes from the food I eat. I’m not one of those people who eat Latinx food and nothing else; on the contrary, I enjoy a good evening out at a sushi restaurant, a movie night with the greasiest pizza I can find, a day in with Chinese take-out. Still, there’s nothing quite like drowning my eggs in my Tía’s homemade salsa, so spicy it makes my tongue numb, to make me feel like a Mexican. And while I love elaborate meals like mole with chicken, burritos, pozole, or tamales, it’s the small, simple dishes that feed me the most joy: a cup of café de olla or Mexican hot chocolate, a bolillo dipped in beans, a tortilla rolled with a hint of lime juice and salt, a slice of queso fresco for no reason, a piece of pan dulce while playing a quiet game of lotería with a loved one. Even making a quesadilla as a snack at midnight can help me feel that much closer to my roots. Especially if you’re not as familiar with your heritage as you’d like to be, food can be an incredible bridge to create community and lessen the distance between what you do and don’t know.
We also know how important seeing ourselves in media, whether the small or silver screen or the pages of a book, can be to our emotional well-being, life goals, and mental health, too. Research and studies have literally documented the positive effects of diversity and inclusion in entertainment on people from marginalized groups. I can tell you that on a one-person scale, it’s the same thing. Hearing our music, watching movies and reading books where we are the leads and the makers of our own destiny, and seeing Spanish spoken with special love and care, has always been an incredibly validating experience for me.
Of course, I have my guilty pleasure films and TV shows where literally every character is white and if BIPOC are included, they’re nameless or inconsequential supporting characters. Because of this historic erasure, I consider it a cleansing or healing process to watch Latinx-led movies and TV shows, especially the classics. I fully believe I wouldn’t be the person I am today without Selena, Fools Rush In, or Real Women Have Curves. As limited as the representation from these pieces of media might be now, it’s always worthwhile to return to them every now and then to remind me of the importance of telling stories with Latinx people at their center.
Overall, the most important thing I’ve learned from living as a Latinx person in the world for twenty-three years is that there is no one way to be Latinx. We all have a story or a moment when we felt like imposters in our skin, like identifying with the word “Latinx” was an effort in itself. Many of us grew up not speaking Spanish or even trying the food. Some have no ties to the culture or community or their family’s home country and so Latinx Heritage Month is just another time of year. But even if you fully identify as Latinx, even if you speak Spanish fluently, the celebration of where we come from can be as big or small as you want it to be, whether in everyday moments or a loving, public declaration.
For me, it’s the smallest reminders of Mexico that make me feel most powerful, that protect me when I enter white spaces, that ground me when I convince myself I have nothing important or worthy to say. Because while Latinx Heritage Month is only once a year, I am always Latina, Chicana, Mexicana, and me.