I recently visited Orlando, Florida, home to more Puerto Ricans on the mainland other than New York City. I was there to spend time with my grandson Ricardo, who earlier this year graduated from high school with honors and is now into his first year of college. Ricardo is part of the Puerto Rican side of my family, wonderful law-abiding Christians, who worked hard and provided a loving home for my grandson when the world around him seemed bleak.
For fifteen years, I lived in a mostly Puerto Rican community of Chicago, where Ricardo's mother grew up. Although I am Chicano, born on the Mexico-U.S. border, I've also lived among Mexican migrants, Central Americans, African Americans, Asians, Cuban Americans, and European Americans in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Miami, San Bernardino, and San Fernando. For years, I've spoken at and participated in ceremonies in Native American reservations (a Navajo medicine man and his wife around ten years ago adopted my present wife). My other grandchildren are half German, half Scottish-Irish, and half Hungarian.
My former wives and live-in girlfriends include a barrio-raised Chicana, an undocumented Mexican, a Mexican/Colombian, a poor white mother of two, and an African American. My own roots are with the indigenous Tarahumara (who call themselves Raramuri) of Chihuahua on my mother's side. My father--and you could see this on his face and in his hair--was native, Spanish, and African from the Mexican state of Guerrero.
In fact, Ricardo's girlfriend is from Guyana, whose family was originally from India.
To say the least, my extended family is complex and vibrant, made up of all skin colors, ethnicities, and languages... and as "American" as apple pie (or burritos, for that matter, since these were created on the U.S. side of that border).
Purportedly I'm a Latino, although I rarely call myself this. I mean the original Latinos are Italians, right? Yet Italian Americans are not considered Latinos in this country. And so-called Latinos have origins in Native America, Africa, Europe, Asian, and a vast array of mixtures thereof. We are known as the largest "minority" group in the United States, yet we do not constitute one ethnic group or culture.
Let me put it this way: Despite the umbrella of "Latino" above our heads, Puerto Ricans are not the same as Dominicans. And many Salvadorans I know don't want to be confused with being Mexican.
Still, today we officially launch Latino Heritage Month, configured to run from September 15 to October 15, largely to coincide with the Independence Days of countries like Mexico, El Salvador, and others. Unofficially, of course, people who claim roots in Latino countries celebrate every day--they're also into the Fourth of July, Christmas, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Hanukah, and Native American Sun Dance ceremonies. Regardless of their country of origin, these people are central to the American soul and deeply intertwined with the social fabric.
Despite this Latinos seem to be a rumor in the country, a "middle people," neither black nor white, hardly in the popular culture, mostly shadows and shouts in the distance.
Maybe what we celebrate is the complexities, the richness, the expansiveness of who we are. Maybe we celebrate that Latinos have bled and sweated for this country. Hundreds from the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Mexico, Ecuador, Argentina, and other Latin American countries died during the 9/11 attacks. People with Spanish or Portuguese surnames garnered more medals of honor during World War II and had a disproportionate number of casualties during the Vietnam War. The first known U.S. death from the Iraq War was a young man originally from Guatemala.
Perhaps we celebrate that Latinos have worked in the auto plants of Detroit, steel mills of Chicago, cotton fields of Texas, textile centers of Massachusetts, and crop fields of California. That they are among the best in professional sports, and I'm not limiting this to soccer--they have been some of the world's best boxers, baseball players, footballs players, golfers, and tennis players.
Let's celebrate that Latinos have been in the forefront of the organized labor movement and fought alongside African Americans against slavery and for Civil Rights. That they are among the oldest residents of the continent, as indigenous peoples from places like Mexico, Central America or Peru. And they are the majority of this country's most recent arrivals.
Let's recognize that U.S. Latinos can be found among scientists, professors, doctors, politicians, and judges. That renowned actors, musicians, and writers include Carlos Santana, Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez, George Lopez, Danny Trejo, Celia Cruz, Oscar Hijuelos, Sandra Cisneros, Junot Diaz, Salma Hayek, Antonio Banderas, Los Lobos, Cheech Marin, Shakira, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Eva Mendes, and Bruno Mars.
Our ancestors were former slaves and former slaveholders, peons and nobles, poets and conquistadors, African miners and native rebels. They include practitioners of the Flamenco and canto hondo with ties to the Roma people (so-called Gypsies) and the Arab/Muslim world, which once ruled Spain for close to 800 years. And so-called Latinos still use words, herbs, dance, and clothing from the wondrous civilizations of the Olmeca, Mexica (so-called Aztec), Maya, and Inca.
The fact is Latino heritage is U.S. heritage. You wouldn't have such "American" phenomena as cowboys, guitars, rubber balls, gold mining, horses, corn, and even Jazz, Rock-and-Roll, and Hip Hop, without the contribution of Latinos. And besides the hundreds of Spanish words that now grace the English language (lariat, rodeo, buckaroo, adios, cafeteria, hasta la vista, baby), there are also indigenous words that English can't do without... chocolate, ocelot, coyote, tomato, avocado, maize, and barbecue, among others.
Unfortunately, as we contemplate what Latino Heritage means, we have to be reminded that Latinos have been among the most scapegoated during the current financial crisis. States have established more laws against brown-skinned undocumented migrants while Arizona is trying to outlaw teachings on Mexican/Ethnic history and culture. They are also among the poorest, least healthy, and most neglected Americans. Spanish-surnamed people are now the majority in the federal prison system and the largest single group in state penitentiaries of California, New Mexico, and Texas. And they are concentrated among this country's homeless and drug-addicted populations.
So while all Americans have much to celebrate in Latino heritage, like most Americans we also have a long way to go.
Whatever one thinks of Latinos, one thing is for sure: They have given much to this country, and have much more to give. I'm convinced any revolutionary changes in the economy, politics, technology, cultural life, social equity and justice must have Latinos (regardless of race, background, religion, social class, or political strain) at the heart of them. They are integral to the past, present, and future of this country.
And this is a beautiful thing, baby.