From the White House to statehouses across America, from Main Street to Wall Street, there will be many commemorations marking Hispanic Heritage Month, which officially kicked off on September 15 -- but does all the hoopla matter?
Yes. All the proclamations, mariachi music and exultations, even the tacos served at these tributes are necessary -- especially if, beyond cocktails and soggy nachos, everyone takes the time to learn the stories and recognize everyday Hispanic American heroes who gave and continue to give of themselves to this nation.
The story of my father, a patriot and Korean War veteran, is worth highlighting, particularly during this month when the nation pauses to celebrate Hispanic contributions.
Two years ago he was buried, draped in his two beloved flags -- an American and a Puerto Rican flag. The fact that he went into the afterlife swathed in 51 stars and eighteen stripes spoke to the duality of my father's bicultural experience. This twin allegiance was neither exceptional nor paradoxical. Dad's double cultural devotion is at the heart of the Hispanic American experience.
When he was deployed at the age of 17, my father was a country boy from the southern coast of Puerto Rico who spoke only a few words of English. And yet he served this nation valiantly and was honorably discharged after three years of combat in Asia. Even though it was a source of immense pride (and pain, too, I'm sure), Dad rarely spoke about his time in Korea. And he didn't have to -- his body bore the evidence of the physical wounds endured, including a missing finger, blown off by a mortar attack. And while curious to hear war stories, we respected his wishes and never brought up the conflict. Implicitly, we understood to steer clear of that part of his life.
So upon his death at 76, we learned something astonishing about our dad. Though he was racially black and ethnically Puerto Rican, a Hispanic American who lived his adult life in New York City, Dad was officially listed in Army documents as white. While we were shocked at how a dark chocolate Latino would be mistaken for a Caucasian, historians looking into the exact numbers of Hispanic soldiers who served in wars aren't.
Detailed accounts of Hispanics in the armed forces were not kept until the 1970s, according to the Pew Center for Latino Studies. While some records show that thousands of Hispanic American men -- Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans for instance -- fought in the Civil War as well as the two World Wars, researchers have determined that many more served and died than official documents show. As a result of the omission, the full story of Hispanic sacrifice may never be fully told. And that is a shame, since Latinos have been part of the building of America -- including dying while protecting it -- for hundreds of years. If the records don't show that Hispanics served and died, that we toiled in the trenches and contributed with blood, how does our nation measure Hispanic contributions, let alone acknowledge them?
In the new American conversation, cultural celebrations like these matter, and they matter greatly. They help us better explain our Hispanic story to each other and ourselves; they matter for the individual and national psyche, because they allow the 50 million-plus Hispanics, and the larger American family, to better appreciate the Hispanic story within the greater American narrative.
For a long time, I didn't know about my father's heroic efforts in Korea and the legacy that he left his blood family and larger American family. Learning his story and that of the Borinqueneers and the 65th Infantry, for example, allowed me to more profoundly appreciate and connect with my larger American heritage. And it filled me with a mix of pride and cultural strength.
This is why commemorations like Hispanic Heritage Month are important -- a collective look back affirms that we were there, and that we are here, legitimately. Celebrations like these serve as reminders that we belong and that this nation is ours too.
Pausing to take stock and celebrate Hispanic heritage matters today more than ever, because it cancels out the cries of xenophobes with bully pulpits and megaphone outlets who scream at Latinos to go back to where we come from, who question our American legitimacy and our stake in conversations beyond immigration. (Hello Syria!) Knowing that our forebears served with distinction defending freedom and were just as patriotic as any Marlboro man shuts down the voices of separation and hate and propels a song that unites. It also sets the record straight.
A month dedicated to Hispanic heritage also adds to the richness of our story -- a story that tells the world that even if our grandmothers and grandfathers were born in or immigrated from other lands, and their English was broken, they, we, their heirs are no less American than any of the Mayflower descendants. These stories are living testaments to the complexity of how this nation was built and an affirmation that we are one nation, indivisible, made up of many. It is this rich and powerful heritage of many who together have built and continue to shape these United States.
Glossing over Hispanic contributions puts in danger this great American experiment; celebrating it fortifies it. These celebrations nourish our country's exceptionalism because they declare to the world -- as well as to us and each other -- that of many, we are one.
If ever the ignorant and divisive haters question my sons' American legitimacy, it warms my heart that they know their chapter in America's story -- that their abuelo, their grandfather, was an American patriot who fought for this country while being 100% Puerto Rican and 100% American. And that the two loves are hardly contradictory -- in fact, it's a 100% hecho in America story!