Each year, the U.S. observes and celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15 in honor of the histories, cultures and contributions of Latino/a/x Americans. Additionally, September 15 holds historical significance as it marks the independence days of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Mexico and Chile also observe their independence days on neighboring dates – September 16 and September 18. As we commemorate this month with joy-filled festivities, we remind our community to center the experiences and challenges that Hispanic (Spanish-speaking) and Latino/a/x folx continue to face while maintaining hope that we can create a world where these communities are free from violence and injustice.
In the U.S., Hispanic and Latino/a/@/x folx are often thought of and categorized as a single group, further perpetuating erasure of such diverse peoples, cultures, traditions and experiences. At Oregon Food Bank, we recognize that, if anything, the commonality that these communities share is U.S. and Western occupation over their lands and people, causing long-lasting effects from disproportionate rates of hunger, poverty and forced migration.
A survey conducted by Pew Research earlier this year found that 58% of undocumented Latinxs say they or someone in their household has experienced unemployment or wage loss since February 2020 compared to 45% of naturalized U.S. citizen immigrants. Facing compounding adversities, Latinxs in the U.S. also face inordinate exposure to and illness from the coronavirus. Often working in essential, front-line positions, research shows that a majority (71%) cannot work from home. Immigrants and people of color – Latinxs in particular – have borne the brunt of this health crisis, facing disproportionate health and economic impacts as a result.
As individuals who have been indoctrinated into a White Supremacist society, our mission of uprooting hunger and its root causes cannot move forward without acknowledging how we internalize and act upon colonial teachings and practices. In the midst of our (un)learning, we must be open to a new story that decenters Whiteness and uplifts the narratives of those most impacted.
To kick off Latinx Heritage Month, we are honored to share our beloved community member, Melissa Gardea (she/her), and her story about the experiences she had growing up with the pressures of assimilation and a desire to stay rooted in her culture.
As we tiptoe into autumn, we’re now in the midst of Latinx Heritage Month, which begins on September 15th each year as a nod to the independence days of several Latin American countries—Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. This year, in an era of social and racial reckoning when we are finally beginning to hold a closer lens to our society and ourselves, I’ve been reflecting on my own experience—how it has shaped the person I am, the work that I do, and the injustices I continue to fight against.
Since childhood, I have always been keenly aware of my “otherness” in a society that values its white, dominant culture. Growing up in a Mexican and multiracial family—one that yearned to be accepted in our mainly white community—I struggled immensely to find my place. As a little girl, I watched princesses and heroines on TV with their golden hair and twinkling blue eyes, while my grandfather told stories of his impoverished childhood in Durango, Mexico—a conjuring of dusty memories which includes his family boiling scavenged orange peels for juice.
As an awkward pre-teen, I endured sneers and slurs from white classmates who would often jokingly refer to me simply as “the Mexican.” I laughed and played along, while privately it seared into my psyche. And as I grew older I became more and more aware of the racist societal ideals that were shaping my thoughts about myself and my cultures. Shame, confusion, and resentment were cyclically felt in my adolescent cauldron of emotions.
And yet, I was not firmly rooted in my “otherness” either. My Spanish is (still) shaky, and my cheeks would burn when someone, after learning of my Mexican background, asked if I spoke it. Checking the race/ethnicity boxes always gave me pause, like deep down I had a hunch I was answering a test question wrong. And having been part of an “Americanized” household I felt a deep disappointment in not growing up with the cultural traditions—the Quinceañeras and Dia de Los Muertos celebrations had eluded me. For so long, I straddled between worlds, my nose pressed against the glass of my different identities, none of which I felt I fully belonged to.
It’s been a long journey in realizing that I’m the only one who else gets to decide who I am. The beauty of Latinx heritage is its unwillingness to be so easily defined. We are a blend of Indigenous, European, African, and Asian people, languages, and traditions. Latin America extends over 26 countries, two continents, and speaks a total of 560 languages. Today, I’ve settled into the realization that I can have all my identities. I can live in them all, including my Latina one, and I can do so authentically. This is in large part thanks to the creators, the friends and the communities I’ve been a part of that have encouraged me to explore what my Latinx heritage means to me. I’m glad to have finally arrived here.
I feel immense pride in the incredible feats of Latinx folx throughout history. Not only just the oft celebrated ones like Frida Kahlo and Selena Quintanilla (although my love for them both is exuberant), but prolific writers like Julia Alvarez and Isabel Allende, tireless activists like Berta Cáceres and Sylvia Rivera, trailblazers like Ellen Ochoa. There is Raffi Freedman-Gurspan and Joan Baez, Jane Delgado, and Sonia Sotomayor. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Rodolfo Gonzalez. They remind us that those who are brave enough to break molds are also breaking chains. Latinx folx don’t just make history, we change it.
In 2021, many people now understand that American history has been whitewashed. But still, we are mostly stagnant in our attempts to remedy it. In a recent New Yorker article, U.S. Representative Joaquin Castro said “I’m convinced that Americans don’t know who Latinos are. They don’t associate us with any particular time period in American history. They don’t know who among us has contributed to the nation’s prosperity or success. And they have no sense of where to place us in American society.” Despite the fact that those hailing from Latin America were early participants in the settling of this country, and though it hurts in more ways than one, I tend to agree. The volume on our stories, our voices, our plights, and our contributions, continues to play on mute, and the room is empty. It's a stark reminder that in spite of extraordinary contributions and achievements in this U.S., Latinx communities are still disproportionately impacted by poverty and hunger, face more barriers to education and healthcare, and are vastly underrepresented in the media and in legislative bodies.
Part of Latinx Heritage Month also happens to align with September’s Hunger Action Month, a chance to raise awareness of hunger and food insecurity in our country. This may be an important time to note then, that migrant farmworkers—the backbone of the agriculture industry and a driving force in the U.S. food system—are struggling to put food on the tables themselves. They are some of the most oppressed workers in the United States—subject to extreme weather conditions, lack of labor rights, risk of human trafficking, and little or no access to support services. Their invisibility, and the invisibility of all Latinx communities in the United States is a result of racism, systemic oppression, and a cruel unwillingness on the part of mainstream society to look our way, and to listen. It’s time to turn the volume way, way up.
My journey in understanding my Latinx heritage is ongoing. I’m still learning and growing, and I hope to be doing so, always. And I’m thrilled to be able to celebrate Latinx History Month alongside my colleagues; to listen to my peers, and to share what I know myself. Latinx History Month is a time to remind us of the value and beauty of individuality, of differences in thought and expression, and honoring the countless ways in which Latinx communities have shaped our country. This is a time for us to reflect on the people and cultures who have struggled and survived, who advocate and create, and who brighten the proverbial quilt of American society.
While I believe that having a respective “month” to recognize and appreciate an oppressed community is not even close to being enough to destroy our long-held systems of inequity—it is a small step. It’s an opportunity to educate and inform, an ember to spark individuals and communities to take action so that these collective voices may finally be heard, loud and clear.
We are so grateful to Melissa for sharing her story with us, and we hope you feel moved to get involved in our fight for food and social justice.
We know we cannot end hunger without addressing its root causes, like poverty. Fueled by systemic racism, there is much to be done to ensure all Americans have access to the same “American Dream.” And we have an enormous opportunity to do some of that work through the Build Back Better Act, now making its way through Congress.
The Build Better Act is poised to have many beneficial impacts, including pathways to citizenship for many immigrant Americans. This would strengthen the foundation of our communities and allow people the ability to pursue their dreams. But Congress must act now so that all people can access the essentials they need to thrive. So we ask that you call on your elected officials to pass the Build Back Better Act now.