Is there a more perfect pun than Hispandering?
The term refers to a dynamic seen far too many times in recent years: It’s when officials or candidates running for office suddenly “discover” Latinos and pander politically to them just to win their votes. Think of when the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign wrote a post comparing “La Hillary” to your abuela (grandmother in Spanish) during the 2016 election cycle. Or when Donald Trump tweeted a photo of himself eating a taco bowl to wish Latinos a happy Cinco de Mayo.
The concept of feigning interest, deploying stereotypes, or speaking Spanish to earn votes has no doubt grown familiar in Latinx circles and even transcended the political sphere and been used to call out brands for their opportunistic — and often simplistic — marketing. And there is no better opportunity to indulge in thoughtless outreach to Latinos than during National Hispanic Heritage Month, which is observed officially from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. It’s why the digital outlet Latino Rebels started calling it Hispandering Heritage Month.
It’s also why every year I feel a sense of dread as Sept. 15 approaches. Which brand or político (politician) will be the first to engage in cringeworthy Hispandering? Can we just not? It’s similar to the feeling I have around Cinco de Mayo, a fake holiday that I kept throwing copious shade at until I gave up.
But lately I have been pondering a different question: Is it so bad that the United States dedicates a month to elevate Hispanic culture? And the answer is absolutely not. These two things are not mutually exclusive: Latinos can celebrate and take ownership of Hispanic Heritage Month while at the same time continuing to guide and hold politicians and corporate America accountable for their lack of authenticity about our culture.
“I think Latinos and Latinas are still challenging Hispanic Heritage Month in general,” said Julio Ricardo Varela, president of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Futuro Media Group. Varela also founded the aforementioned Latino Rebels, which was one of the first digital spaces to call out questionable approaches toward Latino voters and consumers. “But now, it’s almost like [Hispanics] are saying, ‘OK, this is not going to go away.’ So it’s more about using this time when everyone pays attention to us to actually bring” conversations around to issues like identity and race, he said.
Call it pragmatism or surrender, but that seems like a reasonable place to land. And there has been some progress in moving away from stereotypical renditions of Latinos. Varela singled out Target as a corporation that has done Hispanic Heritage Month right. Last year, the mega retailer launched its first Hispanic Heritage collection showcasing culturally sensitive Latino-owned brands and their products. One of them was the Millennial Lotería, a product inspired by the Bingo-like Mexican game. This year, Target is spotlighting the creator’s new product, the Millennial Lotería Gen-Z edition, among many other Latino artists and businesses. “There’s been enough pushback in the last decade and people got smarter,” Varela said.
Indeed, the sheer force of numbers has made it impossible not to take the collective power of Latinos in the United States seriously. At 62.5 million, Hispanics account for roughly 19 percent of the US population. A recent study from the Latino Donor Collaborative found that the total economic output of Latinos was $2.8 trillion in 2020, an increase of 64 percent since 2010. We are the largest group of eligible voters of color in the country: Almost 35 million Latinos will be eligible to vote in November, according to estimates from the Pew Research Center.
All of that said, let’s not rush to retire the term Hispandering. “We’re still a sideshow item to Democrats,” Varela said. “Some attempts to reach out to us Latino voters still don’t feel genuine.” Yes, there has been progress, but more remains to be done and Latinos are figuring that out right now. For instance, what do we do with the deep anti-Blackness that exists within different Hispanic communities? “We have to deal with all of that. But we also have to keep people in check,” said Varela.
So what are good, authentic ways for American society to celebrate Latinos? First and most obvious, do it year-round. Make Hispanic Heritage Month — like Asian Pacific Heritage Month and Black History Month, among others — more than just checkpoints, Bryan Fonseca, a New York-based sports journalist, wrote last year. Second, elevate nuanced narratives and intersectionality, such as Afro-Latinidad and Hispanic LGBTQ individuals. And last but not least, have fun — by all means, get a piñata but respect the ñ. Listen to Bad Bunny on repeat but also pay attention to his advocacy around Puerto Rico. And for the one hundredth time, it’s Colombia, not Columbia.