President Ronald Reagan established the national observance of Hispanic Heritage Month in 1988, marking September 15 to October 15 each year for celebration of our rich cultures. If not for the pandemic, this year’s events in the Pocono Mountains would have mirrored previous fiestas of food, singing and dancing. To offset crowd restrictions during the 2020 pandemic, FLECHA and the Pocono Mountains Visitors’ Bureau have produced media moments that capture Latino vitality. Hopefully, these will honor the month.
I’ll admit that Hispanic heritage is not that different from other nationalities in the United States. The Irish, Italians and Poles, for instance, also celebrate with traditional, typical dances and costumes from the "old country." Wrapped in romantic nostalgia for its proponents, such festivals invite others to temporarily become honorary ethnics and share in the good tastes of diversity. This is a historic pattern wherein disparate nationalities, races and religions have contributed to a national treasury of diversity. Circumstances in 2020, however, invite us to go beyond the ephemeral displays of folklore and reflect on a unique Latino gift to America: Multi-racial identity.
"One drop of black blood makes you black," was a legal formula shaping attitudes in the USA. That is not the Latino norm. We generally identify the color of each individual rather than pre-determine race on the basis of parentage.
Thus, for instance, movie star Halle Berry and basketball player Stephen Curry are "black" in the North American culture, despite visual evidence that they have mixed-race parents. Latino cultures fashion more descriptive labels for such wonderful phenotypical differences, but there is no easy translation into English of names like "grifo" and "parda." Similarly, in the days of the Wild West, a child of Native and White American parents was called a "half-breed," as if one race did not count! In Latin America, the same child was called "mestizo" and "ladino" and endowed with doubly rich racial and cultural identities.
Genetics explains the historical roots of our tolerance for interracial identity. Simply put, millions of Native Americans died from contact with European diseases like smallpox and measles. Likewise, hundreds of thousands of European immigrants to Latin America got sick from microbes in the water and bugs in the air.
Each race lacked "herd immunity" to diseases less lethal to the other. Children with mixed European, African and Native American genes, however, acquired immunities from all sides and were generally healthier than their parents. They became the majority population in many Spanish American colonies until the 18th century. Their social achievements made it impossible to allege that racial origin determined one’s talent or intelligence. Thus, racial mixture went unquestioned as a Latin American identity even for later compatriots who were born from only one race. Ours are cultures of tolerance.
I am not claiming there is no racial discrimination among Latinos: only that we resist the absolute divisionism in the United States. History forced us into softer and more nuanced racial boundaries, and – I would say – we are the better for it. Having persons of different races in the family undercuts hostile stereotypes. Such is the Hispanic gift to America.
Today, mixed racial identity is becoming more frequent in the United States. Commercial advertisers increasingly chose racially ambiguous salespersons, who are more Latino-looking. These corporations are not forced by government to embrace multi-racial spokespersons. They do so to help their bottom-line.
The 2020 Census will confirm that here in the Pocono Mountains, school children under the age of 18 are about evenly divided between White and the non-White, consisting of Latinos and African Americans. This pool of eligible marriage partners through the next decade are likely to produce more interracial families here. A clear-eyed view of Hispanic Heritage Month 2020 suggests racial blending will lessen old prejudices and brighten our Poconovian future. ¡Que viva la nueva raza!
Anthony M. Stevens-Arroyo is Professor Emeritus of Puerto Rican and Latino Studies, Brooklyn College and Distinguished Scholar of the City University of New York. He serves on several community boards including FLECHA, the Federation of Latinos/as for Education about the Cultures of Hispanic America.