Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Hispanic Heritage Month: A time to be marketed to, or something more?

A Hispanic Heritage Month poster outside a public library, September 2009
A Hispanic Heritage Month poster outside a public library, September 2009
Photo by Danbury Public Library/Flickr (Creative Commons)

Now that it's officially Hispanic Heritage Month as of yesterday, it's time to explain just what HHM is and where it comes from, along with all the very mixed feelings that come with it.

It started in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week, a product of the Lyndon B. Johnson administration, and was later expanded in 1988 under the Reagan administration to a 30-day period starting Sept. 15 and Oct. 15. The starting date was chosen to correspond with the Sept. 15 date on which several Latin American countries celebrate their independence from Spanish colonization: El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica. Other countries also celebrate their independence in September, including Mexico (Sept. 16) and Chile (Sept. 18).

The intention isn't a bad one: As the official government website puts it, "Each year, Americans observe National Hispanic Heritage celebrating the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America."

There is a nice educational component, which is good, and a party/celebration component, also good. We like parties. But sadly, my most acute awareness of Hispanic Heritage Month throughout my life in the United States has been one of corporate "salutes," as in "Coors Brewing Company Salutes Hispanic Heritage Month." This rings true for many of us raised here since its inception.

In a post last week on the San Antonio Express-News' SACultura website, Victor Landa wrote:

For one month, all Hispanics, regardless of their nuanced differences, become a homogenized mass of beer drinking, car buying consumers. Sure, there are all manner of cultural events and civic recognitions that are part and parcel of the event, but who are those events really for?

Just a quick search shows Hispanic Heritage Month marketing campaigns this year coming from companies that range from Macy's to Pepe's El Original chicharrones. A news release on Business Wire spelled it out for marketers:
With Hispanic Heritage Month beginning yesterday, keep in mind that the Hispanic consumer base in the U.S. is so big (50 million people) that all marketers, not just Hispanic brands, need to be targeting this group. Also, Latinos are now the nation’s second-largest consumer market after white non-Hispanics.

Some companies market their products during this month as part of a social welfare or education campaign for Latinos, as in this scholarship campaign from MillerCoors beer. Kids will benefit, yes, but there's something about the combination of money, beer, Latinos and education that prompts a sense of discomfort.

The crass marketing, the political pandering, the terminology itself, the lumping together of vastly different cultures, even the inclusion of Columbus Day/Día de la Raza Oct. 12 are understandable thorns in the side for many. However, these "30 days or so of corporate cafeterias serving tacos," as blogger Maegan Ortiz of VivirLatino put it in a post today, are also a good opportunity for reflection. From the post:

With all of these celebrations it is important to remember that freedom from one colonial power did not free everyone. So many indigenous peoples and their communities, our communities continue to suffer in “freedom."

Ortiz continues:
This Latino Heritage month, don’t forget who your friends are and more importantly don’t forget who your familia is, your communities, your vecinos, your herman@s, those who fight beside you and hold you up and not just because there is an election. Don’t forget that freedom for our ancestral and actual homelands didn’t come via a ballot. Libertad comes from struggle and solidarity.

Viva nosotros!

Sí. Viva nosotros.

And I'll celebrate tonight with beer and chicharrones, because as corporate America knows, we dig that stuff.