National Hispanic Heritage Month is overdue for a makeover. Originally established as a weeklong event by President Lyndon Johnson, the celebration was expanded in 1988 to the period from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. Since then, companies, politicians, government agencies, and institutions alike celebrate the contributions of a growing population of Latinos — now estimated at 54.1 million. But widespread cultural acceptance has a downside: What started as a cultural tribute has evolved into a bland, and often patronizing, opportunity. Seeking a piece of Latinos’ buying power, estimated at about $1.2 trillion, marketers treat an ethnically and racially diverse group as a monolithic, homogenized cluster.
Latino bloggers and tweeters have a name for the phenomenon: “Hispandering.” Coca-Cola recently posted a Hispanic heritage tweet suggesting the best way to celebrate is by eating guacamole, a condiment that originated in Mexico and is not typical of all Spanish-speaking societies. There was the time when an Environmental Protection Agency official observed Hispanic Heritage Month by sending out an internal e-mail illustrated with a picture of Che Guevara — seemingly unaware of the fact that some Latinos abhor, rather than revere, the Marxist figure. And there was also the time when the Republican National Committee put out a badly translated statement in Spanish about its Hispanic Heritage Month-themed video.
Many dumbfounded Latinos rightly ask: When did celebrating turn into selling? A more welcome approach would be to increase understanding of this community in all its variety. Hispanic Heritage Month could be an occasion to stress that Mexican-Americans have different foods, histories, and customs from, say, Venezuelans or Peruvians. The celebration could provide a platform for a long-standing semantic debate: What are the implications of saying “Latino” rather than “Hispanic”? Having those public conversations is a much more constructive way to honor the positive footprint of Latinos in this country than, say, tweeting about guacamole.