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Cultural Connection: Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month with Carolyn Vasquez

October 1, 2021

Inclusivity is one of our values at Ascend Learning; we are eager to include all people and diverse perspectives. To learn more about what it means to live our values both in and outside the workplace, we sat down [virtually] with Carolyn Vasquez, Ascend Learning director of talent development and inclusion, to discuss National Hispanic Heritage Month — which is observed Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 in the U.S. — to explore the uniqueness and complexity of identity among Hispanic, Latino/a and Latinx communities, and gain insights on how to celebrate this month in your own community.

Can you provide some background about National Hispanic Heritage Month — whom is being celebrated and how did it start?

Carolyn Vasquez (CV): In 1968, [then U.S. President] Lyndon Johnson instituted a national weeklong celebration of Hispanic Heritage Week to acknowledge the contributions of people of Hispanic descent in the fields of art, business, science and those who bravely fought as soldiers during American wars and conflicts. He famously proclaimed “this is our heritage” in that speech, which was an important moment in our history where Hispanic and Latin Americans were publicly recognized as being in fact American.

The Sept. 15 date was selected to recognize five Latin American countries who gained their independence from Spain 200 years ago on that date. There are three others that gained independence in the days after September 15. Fast-forward to 1988 — [former U.S. President] Ronald Reagan extended it to 31 days, and in 1989, it was first proclaimed by [former U.S.] President George H.W. Bush.

This period is referred to as Hispanic Heritage Month, and you’ve also used the term “Latin American.” Can you elaborate on the difference between these terms?

CV: “Latin American” is generally understood to include people from Central and South American countries as well as Mexico. Although “Hispanic” originally referred to somebody who originates from Spain, it was adopted in the 1970s as a term that now usually refers to people whose origins are from Spanish-speaking countries; in other words, Hispanic is a language-based term that does not include Brazilians or Haitians. 

Over the decades, the terms Latin, Latino and Latina — and now, the contemporary term Latinx — came into the fold as terms for anyone whose families’ lineage could be traced to Central and South American countries [and not Spain]. Like many other cultures and countries, many in our community do not identify with the words chosen to historically categorize them [but] instead self-identify in a term for their country of origin because each country has such diversity in terms of their traditions, culture, and even variations in language.

For those unfamiliar with the term, what does Latinx mean?

CV: Latinx is a non-binary expression of Latino or Latina. It is a source of heavy debate in the Hispanic and Latino/a communities, because it is a gender-neutral term intended to categorize a particular group of people whose heritage is rooted in the Spanish language, which grammatically uses genders.

Which brings us back to the challenge that there isn’t one term that encompasses and feels right for everyone in the Hispanic, Latino/a or Latinx communities. To say “I’m Latinx” versus “I’m Hispanic” is a deeply individual choice that references the different intersectionalities of ourselves.

What about individuals who were born outside the U.S. in a Latin American country, but were raised here — or U.S.-born individuals whose family members immigrated from a Latin American country? How do those circumstances influence their identities?

This is a very personal question to me because I come from a multiracial family that is made up of Hispanics, Latinos and Latinas all from different countries of origin. My husband, who is an incredibly proud Guatemalan man, was born and raised in Boston [and from birth was a U.S. citizen], but if you were to ask him about his background or ethnicity, he will say he’s Guatemalan because it’s where his mother and biological father are from.

I was raised in a multiracial family where each of my immediate family members was born in a different place. I was born in Colombia, was adopted as an infant and was raised by two Caucasian parents in a predominately white suburb of Boston. If people ask me about my background, I will often say I was born in Colombia, but in some ways, I identify more as an American or Latinx — or more simply, a human ‘mix’ — than as a non-Spanish-speaking Latina. I am somewhere on the sliding scale in between where any terminology really fits me. I think my personal identity is still being formed.

My [non-biological] brother also was adopted from Colombia. As a Black Latino man raised in America, his identity has been more distinctly carved from his race rather than what language he speaks. He would identify as Afro-Latino, but it doesn’t quite encompass who he is either.

Some categorizations don’t necessarily translate to self-identity in an easy way — they don’t always match up. Ultimately, folks will use the term that’s right for them, depending on their lived experiences.

In what ways can people celebrate during and after Hispanic Heritage Month?

CV: There are so many wonderful ways to acknowledge the month, and it’s based in awareness and education. I always believe the best way to celebrate different cultures is to follow the thread that interests you most — food, fashion, film, music, dance and others — then pull on it and see what you uncover. We have very complex histories — while we are celebrating many different countries and their many contributions to the world, it is important to also acknowledge and understand some of the hardships that folks have had to face in this country.

Another way to engage is through conversation. If you have friends, colleagues or neighbors who are part of these communities, ask them about their personal narratives, their culture or their familial culture.

The list of ways to engage or celebrate is endless — but the best way to embrace the culture is to follow what interests you.