Twitter launched the #WhatLatinoMeansToMe campaign to kickoff Hispanic Heritage Month (which officially started on September 15, in case you were wondering). And Buzzfeed recently published a sample of these Tweets—ranging from “My culture is not a ‘flavor of the week’” to Rosario Dawson’s “We are Earthlings.”
The #WhatLatinoMeansToMe campaign showcases the [overlooked] diversity among Latino/a-Americans. This campaign ties into the broader tradition of Hispanic Heritage Month, which—like any other Heritage/History Month, really—reminds us that not every mover and shaker in America is a Mayflower-descendant (or cut from a similar cloth). And no, we are told, we are not a “melting pot,” but a “cultural mosaic.”
To be honest, Hispanic Heritage Month has always slipped from my mind. Even when my high school lobby—festooned with the profiles of Roberto Clemente, Celia Cruz, Cesar Chavez, plus other high-profile Latinos/as—served as a reminder, I never felt compelled to “observe” it or become a living Ethnic Studies and Multiculturalism lesson for everyone.
The truth is that I derive no personal affirmation from Hispanic Heritage Month. A recitation of Hispanic “firsts” (i.e. first Hispanic SCOTUS judge, etc.) doesn’t do it for me either; a person’s ideas and accomplishments matter more than whether or not they are of my “tribe.”
It is fine feel somewhat indebted to trailblazers—such as Latinos and Latinas who defied institutional and de facto discrimination to become astronauts, SCOTUS justices, and showbiz icons, among other “firsts.” But it is another thing to wax prideful for your ethnic heritage as if the accomplishments of an individual—like Justice Sotomayor, for example—are the accomplishments of all Puerto Ricans and Latinos.
The increasing visibility of Latinos and Latinas in all spheres of American life has had no effect on my own self-perception. And I do not feel entitled to “appropriate” their accomplishments any more than I feel obligated to explain or feel ashamed of the “bad things” that other Hispanic individuals have done or do. Accolades are something that individuals earn. An ethnic heritage is an individual’s accident of birth and should not have anything to do with aptitude, capacity, or ineptitude.
Second—and on a related and more important note—highlighting someone’s accomplishments by virtue of their ethnicity (or religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc.) diverts our attention from the effectiveness and impact of their accomplishments and contributions.
Example: David Botstein, Eric Lander, and Francis S. Collins are scientists who played a key role in the Human Genome Project—and they happen to be white men. Among the touted benefits of mapping, sequencing, and understanding human genes—the goals of the Human Genome Project—is the development of more effective treatments for diseases and other physical conditions; a better understanding of the human, genetic make-up can help us better understand the causes of certain diseases and ailments.
The significance of the Human Genome Project has everything to do with the advancement of scientific knowledge, medicine, and technology. It has very little or nothing to do with the ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation of the scientists who collaborated on coding the human genome. Hispanic-Americans can count three Nobel Prize-winning scientists among our ranks. But Mario Molina earns a spotlight because his research has contributed to our understanding of ozone layer depletion—not because he is a Latino.
I get that it does matter for some people to see “their own kind” in the spotlight. I don’t think anyone is disputing the fact that individuals have been barred from fully participating in American life due to racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination. But I do not think those same factors should be the basis of celebrating someone’s contributions and accomplishments.