We need to redefine what it actually means to be Latinx in the United States

 

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There is no shortage of issues affecting the Latinx community in 2020. Amidst a global pandemic and a real-time climate crisis that is disproportionately affecting communities of color, there needs to be a shift in intent around how we celebrate Latinx Heritage Month. While it is incredibly important to celebrate the indispensable contributions that Latinx people have made to advance our communities, tenemos que empezar a pensar más allá de la cultura que tenemos en común, más allá de nuestro lenguaje.

We need to redefine what it actually means to be Latinx in the United States, a term that describes a broad identity that has a complex history with many different racial and ethnic groups. There is not one monolithic group of “Hispanics” that are all the same. Words matter. What we use to describe ourselves ultimately shapes how we view ourselves. It also shapes how others view us and ultimately impacts our ability to wield the incredible power we have to make better lives for our families.

Collective action is imperative, yet we must see ourselves in each other first.

 

A single term is not enough

If the word Hispanic or Latino feels like a Tupperware lid that just doesn’t quite fit its container, that’s because it is. It’s also the first barrier to real solidarity. The 1970 Census was the first to collect data using the “Hispanic” category and it captured a better understanding of how many Latinos were actually in the US.

The label was useful for activists in the 70s. They were able to use that census data to lobby the federal government to advocate for important policies that would benefit Spanish-speaking citizens, such as job training programs and bilingual education. The last 20 years have seen waves of immigration from Central and South America, and the label “Hispanic” is stretching too far for it to be meaningful.

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The label erases important differences in race, culture, language, and class. It also excludes countries like Haiti, Brazil, and Belize that were not colonized by the Spanish.

“Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans, Chicanos, Cubans and Central Americans have very specific histories,” says Julianna Martinez, author and assistant professor at American University, in conversation with the Human Rights Campaign.

“There is a lot of doubt that one single term can define and group all these populations together, but at the same time the use of one term does have the potential to help consolidate these communities and create a broader political group to defend their rights and defend collective action.”

The Latinx community has come a long way in fighting for visibility as a community of immigrants. The conversation is advancing from the outward struggle of inclusion to an inward look into the cleavages that keep us from being an actual community with political power, thanks to a new generation of Latinx organizers that are demanding that the wider community starts addressing deep-rooted issues like colorism and anti-blackness.

This new generation of activists is redefining what it means to be Latinx: a community that refuses to be silent in the presence of injustice, one that uses its citizenship to advocate for the most vulnerable.

We have the numbers to make meaningful change

Vote Voters Suppression Election Ballot

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“If we dangerously slip into just a narrative about culture, we forget that there is, within the population, a considerable number of people who still face poverty and a lack of education that the larger community can mobilize help for. There are still really important issues like immigration reform that this community can mobilize its strength toward, but it can only be done with an eye toward respecting diversity. ” - UC Berkley sociologist Cristina Mora

Media outlets often unfairly describe our community as a sleeping giant, whom many outside of the community have failed to mobilize. This year, Latinos are projected to be the largest voting bloc after white people.

32 million Latinos will be eligible to vote on November 3rd — 13.3% of the total voting population.

We have to go from ellos to nosotros.

It’s up to us to solidify our ties to each other and realize the enormous potential our voice can have on the outcome of the upcoming election. The Latinx community, particularly non-Indigenous and non-Black Latinx, must pursue collective action to protect the most vulnerable of our community.

This means loudly advocating for improving the working conditions for the migrant farmworkers who are the backbone of the American agricultural system.  This means advocating for those who have been illegally detained at the border and refusing to accept children in cages. This means pursuing environmental justice for those in states like California, Florida, and Arizona, who are most affected by the climate crisis.

It’s about looking at these issues as our issues, and not just issues that affect Mexicans, Cubans, or Puerto Ricans. It is about realizing that collective action is possible — especially when we all vote.

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