It’s the end of Hispanic Heritage Month celebration—except when it’s not. From Sept. 15 through today, Oct. 15, folks are reminded to honor the history, culture, and legacy of those whose ancestors came from Spain or Latin America. In the District, the celebration means honoring and “learning from our Hispanic brothers and sisters … the centrality of faith, family, respect, and dignity,” according to Mayor Muriel Bowser’s official statement to kick off Hispanic Heritage month

From horchata, tres leches, and Mexican hot chocolate ice cream flavors at Ice Cream Jubilee to artist showcases up and down D.C., the DMV showed it knows how to shout Latinx from the rooftops. NBC4 teamed up with Telemundo to honor the local Latinx community’s heritage. Thrillist gave us some tips on how to support Latinx-owned businesses in D.C. Vice President Kamala Harris ordered empanadas from a Latina-owned Cuban coffee shop at the Wharf earlier this month. City Paper contributor Michael Loria highlighted the contributions of Latinx workers to the local dining scene even as they continue to face disproportionately perilous work conditions, reduced work hours, and low compensation and benefits despite their perseverance throughout the pandemic.

What, if anything, are DMV folks with lived Hispanic or Latinx experience doing to celebrate? City Paper asked several D.C.-area Hispanic or Latinx artists featured in a Latin American arts and culture festival this summer how they were honoring the legacy three months later: 

World and folkloric fusion dancer Carolina Hernandez is hosting a virtual dance workshop in Prince George’s County tonight at 7 p.m. Rumba-flamenco-Latin pop group Trio Caliente is performing in a Hispanic Heritage month celebration at the Gaithersburg Town Hall Pavilion next Sunday, Oct. 24, 4 to 6 p.m. 

While bomba and plena group Kadencia Orchestra isn’t performing in the DMV anytime soon, one of its members expressed how the celebration goes beyond the designated month even as he appreciates the embrace of Latinx culture. For Maurice “Tito” Sanabria, back-up vocalist and requinto and buleador player for the group, celebrating the culture isn’t relegated to September and October. It’s a way of living. In Sanabria’s home, the celebration happens when family members cook their arroz con gandules, lechón, and other traditional Puerto Rican plates. It happens when folks listen to salsa, bomba and plena, and other Afro- and/or Indigenous-Latinx musical genres, he says. It happens through the languages they speak from the Americas and the traditions they continue to practice, both at home and as a band.

“The work that we do through Kadencia is done all year long,” he says. “We take advantage of every performance to educate audience members on Puerto Rico’s culture, traditions, and musical expressions.” 

But, like Loria, Sanabria points out that it’s just as necessary to focus on issues impacting a population that is often disproportionately vulnerable and underserved.  

“Hispanic Heritage Month is an opportunity for Latinos living in the United States to highlight our contributions to society,” Sanabria says via text. “It is also an opportunity to have a conversation about the issues that are important to and affect Latinos.”

So what are the roots of Hispanic Heritage month, and why do some Latinx residents feel ambivalence or cynicism toward the month-long celebration?

“Hispanic,” which some folks view as a 1970s Nixonism imposed on them and their families and has been criticized for its link to a colonial legacy, is a U.S. Census fixture that refers to people of Spanish or Latin American descent. “Latinx,” which technically excludes people of Spanish descent but includes Brazilians, isn’t a synonym for “Hispanic.” 

Coined by young advocates for gender equity, “Latinx” was initially embraced by many artists, LGBTQ groups, and academics, and accepted by a growing number of folks after the 2016 mass shooting at Pulse bar that disproportionately killed Latinx LGBTQ folks. These movements to better identify a diverse community of residents that can’t be neatly categorized are reflected in the renaming of the month-long celebration: The George Washington University called their university-wide recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month “Latino Heritage Celebration” when they established the initiative in 1996 and later subbed “Latino” with “Latinx.” The month of celebration wasn’t always a month: President Lyndon Johnson started it in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week. Twenty years later, President Ronald Reagan expanded it to 30 days. 

The start date of Hispanic Heritage Month isn’t random. It’s the independence anniversary of several Latin American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Mexico and Chile also celebrate their independence days shortly afterward, on Sept. 16 and 18, respectively.

But the celebration can’t end today when, for some, it hasn’t really started. For Fidel Martinez, author of the Los Angeles Times’ “The LatinX Files,” a newsletter focused entirely on the Latinx experience, this month-long observance “has been largely co-opted and stripped of much of its meaning by corporate America,” he writes. The bill of good intentions that established Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month at some point created an extended commercial holiday largely targeting the Latinx consumer, Martinez writes. 

“It’s toymaker Mattel announcing the Celia Cruz and Julia Alvarez Barbie dolls. It’s … a dancing taco with maracas to celebrate the nearly one-third of the county that’s Latinx. It’s NPR renaming its famed Tiny Desk Concert series as ‘El Tiny,’” he writes. “That this tokenization, regardless of intent, is still happening in 2021, when Latinx people account for nearly one in five Americans, is disheartening.”

But Martinez stops his cynicism short with a major asterisk: “That realization, the feeling of being cheated out of your own past … that’s where the value in Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month lies,” he writes. “Yes, it’s imperfect and has been made nearly intolerable by corporate America. But it’s also true that many of us don’t know the role we’ve played in shaping American history and society, myself included.” 

For Sanabria, who learned about his and other Latinx folks’ role in shaping culture and resistance in the District and Puerto Rico from playing music, sharing heritage with his family and other artists, and teaching Afro-Latinx history and traditions, this rings as true as Kadencia’s orchestra: “I celebrate my culture, identity, roots, and make contributions to my community every day,” Sanabria tells City Paper.  

Ambar Castillo (tips? acastillo@washingtoncitypaper.com)

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