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‘Nothing out of Reach’: SPLC celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month amid challenges for Latinx community

Since 1968, the histories, cultures and contributions of the Latinx community to the United States are celebrated during National Hispanic Heritage Month. For many people in the Latinx community, this month (Sept. 15 to Oct. 15) is about pride for who they are and honoring their roots.

For Maria del Rosario Palacios, who lives in Georgia but was born in Michoacán, Mexico, this month brings a time for reflection. Palacios’ parents were migrant farmworkers in the U.S. during the 1980s and 1990s, but her father wanted her to be born in Mexico, even though they had established a home in the U.S. by this time. Palacios, who is 32 and uses she and they pronouns, grew up in Georgia and is now employed in the nonprofit sector.

“I come from a very humble family background and have always loved and appreciated living in this country,” she told the Southern Poverty Law Center. “All that I have been capable of doing here has been made possible by my parents who have a third-grade education level, and who have worked in food manufacturing throughout their lives.”

But Palacios understands that while the contributions the Latinx community has made to the U.S. are invaluable, not all of them get noticed – a problem that has long plagued her and her peers. Recognizing Latinx people as individuals is a problem, she said.

“This month is great because there are national efforts to recognize Latinx contributions, but it’s often done in a way that is a bit tokenizing, to be honest,” she said. “One month is better than nothing, but our community helps significantly – and that often goes overlooked.

“I don’t think we’re fully recognized as people, so until we give people the true opportunity to have real representation – in our schools, our government – our needs aren’t being honored, and we aren’t being recognized.”

Palacios’ comments also come at a time when the Latinx community is facing intense demonization by elected officials and other public figures. The governors of two large states – Texas and Florida – have recently made headlines for transporting Latin American migrants to other states to protest immigration policy.

Their actions come after other elected officials have fearmongered during election years about protecting the country from Latin American “migrant caravans” arriving at the southern border. It also comes years after Donald Trump launched a successful presidential campaign by infamously declaring Mexico is sending criminals and rapists to the United States.

‘Myriad of individuals’

Despite the “othering” of the Latinx community for political gain, it’s a community tightly woven within the fabric of the United States. Currently, 60 million people in the U.S. identify as Hispanic or Latino, representing 18% of the population, and are therefore becoming the minority with the largest presence.

These figures have increased substantially over the years, with the influence of Latinx culture sliding into different aspects of American society at the end of the 1960s, when the Chicano Movement, otherwise known as El Movimiento, advocated for social and political equality through their shared culture.

Latinx people have contributed significantly to American history and culture. Journalist Jovita Idár spoke out against racism and in support of women’s and Mexican Americans’ rights. Astronaut Ellen Ochoa was the first Latinx woman in space. Sonia Sotomayor is the first Latinx Supreme Court justice. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is the first Latinx woman to serve in Congress.

The Latinx community has also contributed its cuisine and festivities to American culture. It has provided professional sports with incredible athletes. To boot, salsa and reggaeton music have now wiggled their way into the musical tastes of Americans from varied backgrounds. Meanwhile, artists like Diego Rivera and Joaquín Torres-Garcia changed the landscape of the art world.

And while these contributions are, in fact, major, so are others, Palacios said. Unfortunately, a painful reality exists for the community’s essential workers.

“Construction, hospitality, the food industry – these are all sectors where we’ve proven very valuable,” she said. “During the pandemic, no poultry workers had any days off. Our folks met death at disproportionate numbers, which wasn’t covered by the media for a long time. We have a huge, broken system, and these workers literally gave their lives during COVID, so I take enormous pride in our essential workers.”

The presence of the Latinx community has had major impacts to the U.S. economy. The Mexican community alone represents roughly $881 million of purchasing power. Over the past decade, Latinx startups have seen sustained growth.

Efrén Olivares, deputy legal director for the SPLC’s Immigrant Justice Project, said that from his perspective as a Mexican immigrant and dual citizen, he is proud of what the community contributes to all aspects of American society.

“As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, we keep in mind that the Latinx community has contributed to the political, professional and economic growth of the United States and have not always reaped those benefits,” Olivares said. “Our community members, in all our diversity, pride ourselves on what we do. We work in farms and in hospitality; we are lawyers, doctors, professors, writers, CEOs and elected officials, experts in our respective fields. We are parents, and we want our children to grow up knowing there is nothing out of reach.”

Understanding nuances

For Jerry Gonzalez, CEO of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO) and GALEO Impact Fund Inc.– an organization in Atlanta that promotes civic engagement and leadership for Georgia’s Latinx community – the issues facing the community have a wide scope.

Gonzalez said that Latinx youth, for example, worry about climate change and the future of the environment. For others, it’s access to the ballot box – or finding an avenue to ensure educational equity for their children.

GALEO is a grant recipient of the Vote Your Voice initiative, a partnership between the SPLC and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta to increase voter registration, participation and civic engagement among communities of color in the Deep South. GALEO will use its $75,000 Vote Your Voice grant this year to strengthen Latinx youth voter participation in the coming midterms and beyond.

“When you talk about this election cycle and the issues important to the Latinx community, the economy has been important to every election – this is something that’s been consistent for us,” Gonzalez, 51, said. “Abortion is another concern; Latinos, regardless of their faith, believe in access to abortion, and the community is also concerned over gun control.”

To provide for a better future for the Latinx community, Gonzalez said the first step is gaining a genuine understanding of the nuances within the community. To do so, Gonzalez said that when decisions are made in elective offices or schools, Latinx leadership is required, so the nuances can be better understood.

“There is a leadership gap to bring cultural nuance and cultural understanding to others about who we are,” Gonzalez said. “But this isn’t linear; rather, it’s what we must strive for. Unfortunately, the politics in Georgia are one of simplification. There is an anti-immigrant, white supremacy ideology still at play here.”

Anna Rodriguez, director of the Southern Methodist University Cox Latino Leadership Initiative, recently said the “changing face of America’s demographics drive that fear,” and that the country’s changing demographics are “skewing toward a kaleidoscope of identities more diverse than the European-centered tapestry of the past century.”

The SPLC’s Olivares added that the demonization of the Latinx community underscores the importance of education and outreach.

“This month is about understanding – or learning – that we’re an invaluable and beneficial part of the melting pot that is the United States,” he said. “But the Latinx community continues to face a barrage of racist threats, insults and scapegoating. That’s why it’s so important for people to truly see our community rather than accept harmful stereotypes as fact.”

Gonzalez – who is of Mexican, French Cajun and Indigenous descent – encourages people during this month to celebrate Latinx culture and appreciate how we all have more similarities than differences.

“I think it’s important that we, as a society, recognize this month and honor the contributions of Hispanic and Latinx Americans in this country,” he said. “Recognizing and taking the time to learn about the diversity within the Latino community helps us all to understand that we share a lot across cultures and nationalities.”

Making the nation better

Palacios said that celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month is important, and that she enjoys seeing friends and colleagues at festivals and other events this month.

“We’re still struggling, but I do like to go out and celebrate,” she said. “My husband is from El Salvador, so we celebrate together and attend festivals that mimic what we see in our home country. I enjoy that.”

While this is a time to revel, Palacios also said she believes that lawmakers should spend this time investing in more resources to address gaps in representation in education and the quality of living for the Latinx community.

“There are large health disparities in our community, so we need anything that would help address why we’re not validated,” Palacios said. “Service giving is one of the biggest ways to do that, not just by attending festivals and celebrating with us.”

While the Latinx community still confronts racism and lack of access to necessary resources, Olivares said that Latinx culture has not only become a part of the nation, but it has empowered the Latinx community to stand up to injustice.

“It’s imperative that people of all backgrounds understand how the U.S. came to be the success it is today, and that came, in part, with the contributions of immigrants and the Latinx community,” he said. “This month is about recognition of what we’ve accomplished – as well as what we’re up against.”

Palacios agrees and encourages people to understand who they are, and how they’ve played an integral role in developing American society.

“The Latinx community is in neighborhoods, churches, schools, the workplace, and we still have some areas where we could use support,” she said. “Our people love to help others; the way we give is unmatched. Any support people invest in the Latinx community is better – better for all of us – in the end.”

Photo at top: The Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO) has received a $75,000 grant from the Vote Your Voice initiative, a partnership between the SPLC and the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta to increase voter registration, participation and civic engagement. Pictured, GALEO CEO Jerry Gonzalez, seated third from left, with GALEO staffers. (Credit: GALEO)