Hispanic Heritage Month has felt a bit lackluster for me this year. As a mom, a lot of Hispanic Heritage Month is connected to my children, and what they are doing to learn about and honor Hispanic and Latinx heritage, and for the first time since my oldest started school, it hasn’t felt like much at all this year. You see, prior to the pandemic he attended a public elementary school in a very diverse suburb. About 40 percent of the students were Latinx, and his last two years there, his principal was Dominican. So the time between September 15 and October 15 was celebrated with intentionality, respect and joy.
Then, we homeschooled for a year, and I made sure we did something special every single week during Hispanic Heritage Month, to learn more about Latinx culture and the contributions of Latinx people in America. But, we moved last year and I’m noticing some striking differences.
My children are both enrolled in public elementary schools in our new town, which is actually still fairly diverse, though according to my research, only 16 to 17 percent of the students in each of their schools are Latinx, which is pretty close to the national population average. In my opinion, that’s significant enough that Hispanic Heritage Month should be something notable.
However, it has been a huge disappointment. My children—particularly my kindergartner—have done very little at school to honor Hispanic Heritage Month or Latinos in America. In fact, I explicitly asked my very brainy and mature five year old what she’s done at school for Hispanic Heritage Month and she said nothing, and then amended to say that they talked about Dia de los Muertos awhile back. Okay, so that’s a problem. And, get this: she actually has Spanish class at school once a week, and they have not discussed Hispanic Heritage Month at all in four weeks!
My fourth grader on the other hand, had two writing assignments related to Hispanic Heritage Month and one assignment for his Spanish class. That’s it. Neither of them had any special programs, projects, assemblies, guests or school-sponsored events to recognize Hispanic Heritage Month.
We live in New Jersey, which has the seventh highest population of Hispanic population of every state in the country, and Hispanic Heritage Month was largely ignored in my children’s school district. I’m not angry, but I’m sad and I’m disappointed.
I grew up below the poverty level in a town that at the time, was predominantly Black and Puerto Rican. I went to public school for about half of my life, and even back in the 1990s, those low-income schools were doing more to honor Latinos in America than my children’s schools are now. It was something that was planned for yearly, and something that all of the students looked forward to—just like all of the special Black history month activities and events we knew would come in February.
For me, it feels a bit like a double-edged sword. My husband and I have worked very hard since we were teenagers to rise above poverty and the circumstances that we were born into. We’ve worked even harder since we became parents, so that our children wouldn’t face all of the same struggles that we did. But now, we are faced with watching them miss out on some of the things that helped forge our own cultural identities when we were kids. When we were growing up in urban areas, the school administrators couldn’t help but see us and acknowledge us, because “we” was everybody.
Now, it feels like my children aren’t being seen and it’s frustrating. Being born and raised in New Jersey—and still living here now—I’m not used to feeling like this, but it’s given me a better idea of what it’s like for Latinx people living in other parts of the country. We moved to a more rural part of the state, and I know this is just a tiny taste of what Latinx people in, for example, the South or the Mid-West, might feel and experience on a daily basis, and it’s honestly an eye-opener.
If I thought we were going to be in this school district for long, I would certainly take the initiative to incite some changes, and encourage more intentional recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month. Honestly, I might anyway, because even though my kids won’t be here for too long, all of the other Latinx kids need to be advocated for as well. I’m incredibly thankful that I’ve already instilled a pride in our heritage in my children, and that I’ve been teaching them about Latinx culture and history for years.
We don’t have to rely on the school district for that, but there are so many other people from all ethnic backgrounds that need to hear our stories and learn about our experiences, and simply put, schools need to do better across the board.
Just imagine how things would be different for Latinx people in America if more people were being exposed to our culture and all of the incredible Latinx trailblazers throughout history from a young age, even if it was just for one month out of the year! By now, we all know how important representation and education are when it comes to accepting and embracing people who are different from us. It matters!
There’s just no excuse for making the people that are among the largest ethnic minority group in the country an afterthought. The resources are there, the interest is there, and there should be nothing stopping schools from highlighting Hispanic Heritage Month more prominently.
If you’re struggling with the same thing at your kids’ schools, don’t be afraid to reach out. Call the principal and make suggestions, email the teacher and ask what’s on the curriculum for Hispanic Heritage Month, volunteer to visit the school and talk to your child’s class about your culture or help organize an event for students and their families. I know in the future, I certainly will.