Hispanic Heritage Month runs from Sept 15 to Oct 15. Join us in celebrating cultural touchstones and famous people, as well as learning things like the distinction between Latino and Hispanic.
The first thing we need to do is to clear up some confusion on nomenclature, specifically the terms Latino and Hispanic. The first thing to get out of the way is that a Spanish person is a person from the country of Spain. Hispanic refers to people of Spanish-speaking descent. Latino refers to a person of Latin American descent. There are also terms specific to one country, such as Chicano for someone from Mexico, or those referring to a specific ancestry, such as Boricua, for the native people of Puerto Rico. While there are many people who are both Hispanic and Latin American, the terms are not interchangeable. For example, a Brazilian person is Latino, but not Hispanic, as Brazil is a Portuguese-speaking country.
There is also the emerging term Latinx, but this one has some starch attached to it. Latinx is a gender-inclusive term, as opposed to Latino for males and Latina for females. Like many languages, Spanish is gendered, meaning nouns are either male or female. If I were talking to three lady friends, we are amigas, but if a guy friend comes over, the whole group becomes amigos. Latinx was created more than a decade ago to erase the gender bias of the term. By dropping the traditional –o or –a ending at the end of the root word ‘Latin,’ Latinx encompasses those who identify outside of the gender binary, such as transgender people or those who are gender-fluid. But there are those who counter that it’s an unnecessary effort to forcibly change the language of millions of people. As with most things in life, if you aren’t sure what to say, ask politely.
Speaking of nomenclature, why are the countries of Latin America called that when they don’t speak Latin? Where did the name come from at all? Contrary to the answer I once came up with for and by myself, it had nothing to do with the region being settled by Catholics. Latin refers to the language Latin and Latin America is made of up countries whose language developed from Latin. It was actually French emperor Napoleon III who established the name. These equatorial and southern hemisphere new world countries has been known as Hispanic America, meaning origination with Spain. During the Mexican war, Napoleon III wanted to make the Austrian archduke Maximilian emperor of Mexico. He referred to the region as “Latin America,” saying that, via their language, France were closer to Mexico than Mexico is to Britain or the United States which both speak a Germanic language. France would be allowed to claim some paternity or at least influence, this in turn would justify the Mexican adventure.
A little history on how Hispanic Heritage month came to be, and why it falls from the middle of one month to the middle of the next. Each year, Americans observe National Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15, by celebrating the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. The observation started in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week under President Lyndon Johnson, whose Presidential Proclamation 3869 stated in part, “Wishing to pay special tribute to the Hispanic tradition, and having in mind the fact that our five Central American neighbors celebrate their Independence Day on the fifteenth of September and the Republic of Mexico on the sixteenth, the Congress by House Joint Resolution 1299, has requested the President to issue annually a proclamation designating the week including September 15 and 16 as National Hispanic Heritage Week. Not to get off topic so early, but if you want to hear something else memorable that Johnson said, google his phone call to the Haggar slacks company. Please note that particular slice of Americana is not safe for workplaces or kiddos, and it totally worth it. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan wrote the current period of into law. The day of September 15 is significant because it is the anniversary of independence for Latin American countries Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua in 1821 . In addition, Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days on September 16 and September 18, respectively.
How do you properly elucidate the history of 18% of the world’s population in a half-hour show? You simply can’t, so I will do my best with a smatter of illustrious names and fascinating stories. We could start from the top, as it were, with the highest court in the land and its first Hispanic or Latinx justice. That’s no mean feat when you consider that of the 113 justices we’ve had, 107 have been white men. Sonia Sotomayor, the Bronx-born daughter of native Puerto Ricans, is only the third woman to serve on the High Court. Her father passed away when Sonia was in grade school and her mother worked six days a week as a nurse to provide for her children and ensure they could attend private school. Sotomayor decided to become an attorney at the age of 10 upon watching an episode from the legal drama “Perry Mason.” With this goal in mind, she studied diligently while attending Cardinal Spellman High School and graduated valedictorian of her class in 1972. She was awarded a scholarship at Princeton University, where she was active in student groups, particularly the Puerto Rican activist group Accioncion Puertorriquena. In 1976, Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude with her bachelor’s degree in history, gaining election into Phi Beta Kappa, before moving on to Yale Law school.
Upon graduating in 1979. the 25-year-old Sotomayor became an assistant district attorney, quickly establishing herself early as an imposing and steadfast prosecutor. Sotomayor helped put some of the most heinous criminals behind bars and triumphed in high-profile cases, including the famous Tarzan murder case and a major child pornography bust. As judge for the Southern District of New York, she gained fame as the judge who “saved” Major League Baseball with her strike-ending decision in Silverman v. Major League Baseball Player Relations Committee, Inc. In another widely read decision, her majority opinion in Castle Rock Entertainment, Inc. v. Carol Publishing Group finding a copyright infringement on material from the television show Seinfeld became a standard for applying the fair use doctrine. This decision is highly relevant for podcasters, YouTubers, and other such content creators who might want to use clips in their work. President Clinton nominated Sotomayor to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1997, where she would hear more than 3,000 cases and write around 380 majority opinions.
Justice David Souter’s retirement in 2009 opened the seat into which President Obama would nominate Sotomayor that May and the Senate confirmed her in August. Hispanics celebrated her appointment to the Supreme Court as a first, and the working-class of the Bronx hailed the success of one of their own. Jumping right into the thick of the job, Sotomayor began to fire questions during oral arguments immediately. The first case she heard was Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, where she dissented from the majority opinion in favor of the rights of corporations in campaign finance. Sotomayor has specifically fought for the protection of affirmative action programs and ruled in the majority which upheld the Affordable Care Act twice, and to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states. While she is cutthroat toward ill-prepared attorneys, Sotomayor is known for her kindness toward jurors and the attorneys who work hard to advocate for their clients.
Hers is a story in great contrast to that of many women on the island of Puerto Rico in the 1950’s, who found themselves unwitting lab rats. Although the birth control pill allows American women to feel more in control of their body, many do not realize the dark history behind its creation. In 1956, researcher Gregory Pincus and gynecologist John Rock conducted the first experiment to test the effectiveness of hormonal birth control. Pincus had to perform the experiment in Puerto Rico to avoid legal conflicts in the United States, since birth control and even information about it was widely illegal until the 1960s. The experimenters had nearly 1,500 women try the birth control. Many of the women were poor and illiterate, which made a free drug that allowed them to plan their next pregnancy irresistible. None of the women were told about the potential side effects. They were not even told that the drug was experimental, only that they could not get pregnant as long as they took this pill regularly.
On August 2nd, 1959 Pincus wrote an article in the Washington Post detailing his observations of the experiment. He noted that at least 25 percent of women quit taking the pill because it had not been effective, causing less interest and desirability. Many participants found that the pill made them nauseous and dizzy. Other side effects included weight gain, vomiting, headaches, stomach pain, severe cramping, constant mood changes, lack of sexual desires, and depression. The researchers were far less concerned with the subjects’ condition than they were with proving efficacy. In August of 1962, the FDA was notified that 26 of the women developed blood clots. Three patients died, though no autopsies were performed.
Why was Puerto Rico chosen to be the site of these trials? In the early 1950s, Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, became aware of Pincus’s creation of the pill to prevent unwanted pregnancies. Sanger was a promoter of contraception, so it is not surprising that she wanted to test the pill to see if it worked. Sanger and Pincus decided Puerto Rico would be the perfect site to do so. In 2013, Planned Parenthood claimed they went to Puerto Rico for the following reasons: Puerto Ricans accepted contraception, they were geographically close to the United States, and researchers were testing to see if even illiterate women would be able to manage their own hormonal contraception.
Life being what it is, this wasn’t the only suffering visited on the women and other residents of this US territory. Half a million homes were destroyed when Hurricane Maria made landfall a year ago. The death toll may never be known with certainty, but it is at least 2,900. Even now, there are communities relying on generators for electricity and homes with only blue tarps for roofs. Many roads are still impassible. Our fellow citizens still need our help. If you visit the bit.ly link bit.ly/PRcharities, it will take you to the website Charity Navigator, which assesses charities based on important criteria like how much of your donation gets eaten up by administrative costs. The page lists several three and four starred charities helping Puerto Rico and the surrounding region. Even though it feels like the mid-Atlantic is a magnet for hurricane, we rarely have to go more than a few days at worst without electricity and I’ve never actually been without access to water or communication. Realizing how fortunate we are, I challenge my gentle listener to visit bit.ly/PRcharities, select a charity and donate one hour’s wage. That’s all. Imagine how much good we could do together.
Speaking of segues, which I’m doing now, how about a sampling of folklore? One of the best known tales from Latin America is that of La Llorona. Hers is not a happy story. They say that the Llorona was once a poor young girl who loved a rich nobleman, and together they had three children. The girl wished to marry the nobleman, but he refused her, because she had not born the three out-of-wedlock children, which he considered a disgrace. His children, in case you lost track. Mad with grief at his rejection, the girl was determined to have the nobleman for her own, so she drowned her children to prove her love to him. But still he would have none of her and married someone else. The girl walked along the river, weeping and calling for her children. But they were gone, so she drowned herself. For her crime, her spirit was condemned to wander the waterways, weeping and searching for her children until the end of time. It was said that whenever the wailing woman appears, someone will die.
La Llorona is also sometimes identified with La Malinche, the Nahua woman who served as Cortés’ interpreter and bore him children, whom some say was betrayed by the Spanish conquistadors. In one folk story of La Malinche, she became Hernán Cortés’ mistress and bore him a child, only to be abandoned so that he could marry a Spanish lady. There’s no evidence that she killed her child, but there’s not really anything that says what happened to her children one was or the other.
The most famous cryptid of Latin America is undoubtedly el Chupacabra, the goat-sucker. Descriptions vary, but generally they are said to bipedal creature, 4 to 5 feet tall with spikes down its back, long, thin arms and legs, and an alien-like oblong head with red or black eyes. They have long vampire-like fangs and are said to suck the blood of livestock in the night, hence the name. The legend of el Chupacabra isn’t ancient, though. Benjamin Radford, author of several books on monsters and paranormal phenomena, dug through every El Chupacabra mention and traced the physical description of the monster to a single event in the second week of August 1995, when a sketch from an eyewitness named Madelyne Tolentino ran in a Puerto Rican newspaper. Locals immediately tagged the alien-looking animal as El Chupacabra. The creature, Radford noticed, shared a strong resemblance to the alien/human hybrid in the 1995 sci-fi thriller “Species.” When he spoke to Tolentino, he asked her if the thing that she saw could have been inspired by the film. Indeed, she had seen the movie in the weeks prior to making her description. There have been cases of four-legged Chupacabras in Texas and New Mexico, but these invariably turn out to be coyotes or racoons with mange.
Have you ever noticed that since we all started carrying hi-res cameras at all times, there haven’t been any new photos of cryptids, no more blurry shots of Nessie or shaky footage of Bigfoot? Funny how that happened. You’d think that would be all over social media. Speaking of social media, in the name of “branding,” I’ve changed the handle for our Twitter account. It’s now BrainOnFactpod. If you’ve previously clicked follow on the moxielabouche profile, you’re already set and will still see our posts. If you’re not into tweeting, there’s also Facebook or Instagram, both of which are /yourbrainonfacts.
A Mexican-American soldier was killed in action in the Philippines in the last days of WWII. No one could have known then that his burial would push forward the fight against anti-Hispanic discrimination. In 1948 the remains of Private Felix Longoria were shipped home to Three Rivers, Texas, where the “Mexican” section of the cemetery was segregated by barbed wire. The director of the funeral home would not allow the Longoria family use of the chapel because “the whites would not like it.” Longoria’s widow and her sister took this to Dr. Hector Garcia, the founder of the American G. I. Forum, a Congressionally chartered Hispanic veterans and civil rights organization. He, in turn, contacted the funeral director, but received the same refusal. Garcia sent numerous telegrams and letters to Texas congressmen. Senator Lyndon B. Johnson responded immediately with support and an offer to arrange the burial at Arlington National Cemetery. The funeral took place on February 16, 1949, at the Arlington National Cemetery. Senator Johnson and a personal representative President Truman were in attendance.
After the funeral, the Texas House of Representatives ordered a committee to investigate the Felix Longoria incident. The committee held open hearings at the Three Rivers Chamber of Commerce and concluded… that there was no discrimination on the part of the funeral director and that he had acted in anger but had apologized. One committee member stated that the funeral director’s words “appear to be discriminatory” and another member withdrew his name from the majority report and filed his own account, which stated that the actions of the director were on “the fine line of discrimination.” The report was never filed. The Felix Longoria Affair would provide Mexican Americans an example to unify and expand their struggle for civil rights in the coming decades.
A topic I wanted to cover in the banned books episodes preceding this one is the controversy surrounding Arizona schools Mexican-American studies program, or rather the controversy around it being removed and the books it used being banned from the schools. The Mexican American studies program first started in 1998, partly in response to claims by black and Latino parents that the district’s make-up promoted “intentional segregation and unconstitutional discrimination on the basis of race or national origin.” The program aimed to narrow the academic gaps between Latino students and their peers through Mexican American authors and other writers of color. The program was meant to build confidence in students who didn’t engage in a traditional curriculum. Ethnic studies courses, which first arose at universities during the civil rights movement, have been expanding into high schools in recent years. A 2012 study by University of Arizona professor Nolan Cabrera found that students who participated in the program’s courses performed better on state tests and graduated at higher rates.
The crusade against the Mexican American studies program began in 2006 when labor rights activist Dolores Huerta gave a speech to students at Tucson High Magnet School, calling on students to look at the immigration legislation arising at the time and address why “Republicans hate Latinos.” The comment stuck with Thomas Horne, then superintendent of public instruction for Arizona’s Department of Education. When students weren’t allowed to ask questions at a meeting with Horne’s deputy, some raised their fists and turned their backs in protest. In an open letter to Tucson residents, Horne blamed teachers for the students’ actions and criticized the Mexican American studies program for teaching students “a kind of destructive ethnic chauvinism.”
In 2010, the same year Arizona lawmakers passed an infamous anti-immigration law, SB 1070, a Republican-controlled legislature passed HB 2281. Specifically, the bill set out to ban courses that “promote the overthrow of the United States government,” “promote resentment toward a race or class of people,” “are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group,” or “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.” Only one program in one school district qualified to be shut down: the Mexican American studies program. That October, a group of teachers sued the state, alleging that the elimination of the program violated their First Amendment rights. In July 2011, on Horne’s last day as state superintendent — right before he officially became state attorney general — he announced that the Tucson program violated state law and ordered that the district terminate the program or face losing 10 percent of their state funding. John Huppenthal, a state senator who helped pass the law, succeeded Horne. Despite an independent audit that found “no observable evidence” that the program violated Arizona law, Huppenthal rejected the findings of that and a second investigation, threatening to withhold state funding from Tucson’s school district for failing to end the program. In January 2012, in the wake of sanctions, the school board voted to end it and physically confiscated books from schools.
In 2013, District Judge A. Wallace Tashima upheld most of the 2010 law, arguing that the students involved failed to show that it was passed with discriminatory intent. Two years later, a federal appeals court in San Francisco disagreed and ordered the case back to trial, concluding that there was enough evidence to determine otherwise. Huppenthal denied his actions in enacting the law were made with discriminatory intent. That might be more believable if he wasn’t shown to have made inflammatory remarks on different websites before and during his time as state superintendent, for which he refused to apologize. Under different pseudonyms, Huppenthal lambasted the program’s teachers, likening them to the Ku Klux Klan and saying the classes “use the exact same technique that Hitler used in his rise to power,” according to court documents.
Unlike the Felix Longoria Incident, this situation saw changes implemented. In August 2017, a federal judge declared that Arizona’s 2010 ban of the Tucson school district’s Mexican-American Studies program was unconstitutional and enacted with discriminatory intent. In a 42-page ruling, US district judge A. Wallace Tashima, the same one who originally upheld the ban, found that the state’s actions “were motivated by a desire to advance a political agenda by capitalizing on race-based fears.” As far as my research indicates, the program has not been reinstated, but the teachers have been allowed to integrate the previously banned books into the main curriculum. If I have any gentle listeners in Arizona, please let me know the status there. I am always open to updates and especially to corrections.
National Hispanic Heritage month ends two weeks before Halloween, which makes it an ideal time to point out that, while Halloween and Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, do share common roots, they are totally different holidays. One major distinction is that Halloween is only one night, whereas the Day of the Dead is actually a three-day event that is just getting starting on Oct. 31. The Spaniards learned that when they arrived in central Mexico in the 16th century. They viewed the ritual, which was started by the Aztecs some 3,000 years ago, as sacrilegious. But the festival couldn’t be quashed. Originally celebrated in the summer, it moved to Nov. 1 and 2 to coincide with All Saints Days and All Souls Day. Not only did it survive, it thrived, moving from southern Mexico and spreading north. It also merged with elements of Christianity. All Saints Day and All Soul’s Day are observed across the Catholic world, as well as by some Protestant faiths. Many of the elements that make up the Day of the Dead, including the gravesite vigils and sweets are not unique to Mexico. But Mexico stands out for the rich, joyful flavor of the celebration.
Halloween’s connection to the afterlife has largely been stripped from the holiday. The aspects of the holiday that do touch on death — such as the prevalence of ghosts, ghouls and other spirits in costumes and decorations — tend to focus on our fear of mortality and the spookiness of the unknown. The Day of the Dead, on the other hand, focuses squarely on death (it’s in the name after all). But rather than treating it as something dark and frightening, the Day of the Dead is largely about laughing in the face of death, as represented by the ubiquitous skulls and skeletons known as calaveras and Catrinas, which are often depicted dancing or playing music. And though it is about remembering lost loved ones, the holiday is more a time to celebrate their memories than to mourn their loss. The Day of the Dead is believed to be a time when the spirits of dead ancestors and relatives return to the world of the living for a visit. “The Day of the Dead is a day of connection, remembrance and love — for and with — those who have died (‘the ancestors’),” said Kristin Norget, author of Days of Death, Days of Life: Ritual in the Popular Culture of Oaxaca. “Halloween is completely lacking this important dimension.”
From Oct. 31 to Nov 2. people across Mexico clean relatives’ graves and decorate them with bright flowers (typically marigolds) candles and things the deceased loved in life (food, coffee, alcohol and tobacco are common). They stay overnight in the cemetery and hold a vigil at their loved one’s grave. There is wide variation in the way the Day of the Dead is celebrated across Mexico and the holiday is constantly evolving. For example, Halloween costumes are becoming more common in parts of Mexico on Oct. 31, and large parades have become part of the holiday, especially in Mexico City.
It is also very common, especially for the people unable to make an overnight gravesite visit, to build an elaborately decorated altar in their home, known as an ofrendas, that incorporates reminders of the dead person, including photographs and the things the person loved.
The ofrenda is often the most recognized symbol of Día de los Muertos. This temporary altar is a way for families to honor their loved ones and provide them what they need on their journey. They place down pictures of the deceased, along with items that belonged to them and objects that serve as a reminder of their lives.
Every ofrenda also includes the four elements: water, wind, earth and fire. Water is left in a pitcher so the spirits can quench their thirst. Papel picado, or traditional paper banners, represent the wind. Earth is represented by food, especially bread. Candles are often left in the form of a cross to represent the cardinal directions, so the spirits can find their way. The cempasúchil, a type of marigold flower native to Mexico, is often placed on ofrendas and around graves. With their strong scent and vibrant color the petals are used to make a path that leads the spirits from the cemetery to their families’ homes. Monarch butterflies play a role in Día de los Muertos because they are believed to hold the spirits of the departed. This belief stems from the fact that the first monarchs arrive in Mexico for the winter each fall on Nov. 1, which coincides with Día de los Muertos. Calaveritas de azucar, or sugar skulls, along with toys, are left on the altars for children who have passed. The skull is used not as morbid symbol but rather as a whimsical reminder of the cyclicality of life, which is why they are brightly decorated. “Decorated breads, paper cutouts, and plastic toys, most of them playing humorously on the death theme are evident everywhere,” says an article for the American Folklore Society. “Sculpted sugar candies in the form of skulls, skeletons, and caskets suggest an almost irreverent, macabre confrontation with mortality.”
And that’s where we run out of ideas, at least for today. In addition to my request for help for Puerto Rico (bit.ly/PRcharities), I beg you for one other thing. Unless you grew up leaving flowers on the ofrenda, please do NOT paint your face like a sugar skull Halloween. I don’t care how many times you watched Coco. Cultures are not costumes. Personally, I’m doing Halloween dressed up as Mary Berry from the Great British Bake-off, so I can passive-aggressively critique everyone else. Thanks for spending part of your day with me.