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Oct. 7, 2022

Podcast: Hispanic Heritage Month recognizes contributions and influence of Hispanic Americans

National Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated in the United States every September 15 through October 15 to recognize the contributions and influence of Hispanic Americans to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States.

Show notes

Today, I have four distinguished Spartans with me to discuss Hispanic Heritage.

Deyanira Nevarez Martinez is assistant professor in the Urban and Regional Planning Program in the School of Planning, Design and Construction. Francisco Villarruel is interim director of the Julian Samora Research Institute and professor of Human Development and Family Studies. María Isabel Ayala is director of Chicano/Latino Studies in the College of Social Science and associate professor in the Department of Sociology. And Luis Alonzo Garcia directs Migrant Student Services.

What does Hispanic heritage mean to you? What do you want us to be more aware of by celebrating it?

“It’s about the contributions that we have made to this country,” says Martinez. “It's so important to make sure that we acknowledge that we have been here for a long time. In many cases, we've all heard that saying ‘We didn't cross the border, the border crossed us.’ We've been in this place. We are from this place and so acknowledging that I think is really important.”

“Hispanic Heritage Month is really a special time,” adds Garcia. “We've been part of the machine that's been feeding America and people just quite don't understand that. We've only started. I think you will have great things to see in years to come.”

“Hispanic Heritage Month is about celebration,” Ayala says. “It's about celebrating the contributions of Latinx folks throughout the United States, and it’s a very diverse group. Oftentimes I think we think of Hispanics or Latinx folks in terms of music and food but what this allows us to do, especially this month, but hopefully throughout the year, is recognize that we have folks contributing in science, in the arts, in politics, in government, and in higher education. In programs like mine, Chicano/Latino studies, what we intend to do is offer the curriculum that speaks to this contribution so that students feel and see themselves represented and reflected not only when they turn on MTV or Spotify, but they see themselves in the science that they learn and in the communities that they engage with and feel proud.”

“For me this is a month where we begin to write the right history,” says Villarruel. “That may sound like an odd term, but I want to exemplify what everybody has said. There are STEM initiatives right now that are really trying to bring Latinos into science and technology. When I say it's the time for us to write the right history, it's an opportunity for us to claim not only our indigeneity, but also to recognize the contributions of multiple people. Go to the Detroit Institute of Arts and look at the Diego Rivera murals. That was a century ago and yet is still prophetic to today. But we undervalue those contributions of some of our Latino relatives.”

“Oftentimes I get asked where I’m from,” says Garcia. “I say I’m from Texas. Then I get asked ‘No, but where are you really from?’ I'm from the Mexican territories which is now the state of Texas. I'm always intrigued by how people define their history because it's convenient oftentimes to forget other people's history and what America is today. I think that this time of the year, it provides us an option to talk about these things and recognize that we have been here before other people got into this country. We're not foreigners; we are part of the landscape.”

Can you explain the similarities and the differences between Hispanic, Latino, Chicano, and Latinx?

“It's very important to recognize that identity is multi-level and that we have multiple identities,” Ayala says. “The part of the reason why we really focus sometimes on Hispanic is because it was a term developed in the 1980s because of the growth of the population that was speaking Spanish. The government was very interested in trying to begin measuring some of the social demographic changes that were happening. Hispanic is really a term that was imposed by the government at the time that really focused on the Spaniard heritage for folks that spoke Spanish. The problem was that this was not something that really resonated with a lot of folks, especially from Latin America ancestry especially because of coloniality. It was resisted in that it was not inclusive enough. Especially we know that in some countries in Latin America or the Caribbean, not everybody speaks Spanish.

“There was a grassroots movement for Latino, and Latino intended to recognize that Latin American heritage and tried to be more inclusive of those folks who did not speak Spanish. The problem with Latino is that it is very male centered, and you had Latinas, females, push against that Latino term. However, there are also different voices that are unaccounted for in this dichotomy. Now with Latinx, what we're intending to do is to be more inclusive of those non-gender binary identities that are within the group of Latinx folks. So what is the correct term? It depends who you ask. Some folks will self-identify as Latinas and Latinx. Some folks, especially those who have a history of political activism, will self-identify as Chicano and Latino. It's a matter of asking. It's a matter of recognizing what drives people to self-identify in different ways and recognize that it's not something that is very static. It changes through time.”

“It depends on who you ask, but then also it could depend on the day,” says Martinez. “I mostly always identify myself as a Chicana depending on what rooms I'm in. If I'm with other Latinos and because I see Latino and Latinx also as a term of ethnic solidarity, I am a Latina. Those things can be true at the same time. It can be very fluid within each person.”

“It’s really about respecting where people are and how they want to be identified,” says Garcia.

“If a person says they're Chicano, they're telling you something about their history and what's important,” adds Villarruel. “If they're telling you their Mexicano, they're telling you something that's important about their history. If they're telling you they're Mexican American, they're giving you some insight about them. The self-expression of identity and the terms that are used are fluent and fluid, but they're also rooted in history that we need to understand to better serve the communities that we serve across the state and that nation.”

“Oftentimes when we think about identity, we self-identify just as our parents or grandparents did,” continues Ayala. “That's why it's so important to have access to curriculum that addresses these histories and allows people an exposure to the different origins. Oftentimes we think because we’re Latinx or Mexicana or Latina we know everything there is to know about the group. There's so much intragroup diversity and just as there is privilege and marginalization outside of the group, there's privilege and marginalization within the group. That can materialize not only in color but also whether people speak Spanish or not, whether they're considered authentic Latinos or not because of how they see themselves. I think not only in terms of Hispanic heritage but in terms of curriculum and interacting with other folks. We need to recognize and value those differences.”

“And I think our students are sometimes grappling with some of these issues, too,” continues Martinez. “As a young person growing up on the U.S. Mexico border for the majority of my life, I identified myself as Mexican, not Mexican American, not Chicana. As I came into college and gained my own academic identity and learned more about our history in the United States, I realized that I am a Chicana and that's what I choose to call myself. It's also a journey that we go on as we're trying to figure out who we are and what our identity is and where we fit in this place. So, I think our students also grapple with some of these questions on what do I call myself and who am I?”

“Oftentimes in our conversation we've talked about representation, and seeing students reflected in faculty and staff I think is crucial. But it's also very important to recognize that we come with knowledge that hasn't been part of the fabric of the universities,” explains Ayala. “So, what happens when you have not only faculty and staff in these positions across the university in leadership positions is not only that students see themselves reflected, which is a very big part. It's also the questions that we bring, the knowledge that we bring, the questions that haven't really been asked by other folks because they don't have that knowledge and that history. Oftentimes in higher education we view knowledge as something that is only acquired through formal education.

“The reality is that there's knowledge all around us. There's a certain knowledge that is acquired through formal education, but that also complements and builds upon the knowledge that has been acquired through lived experiences. That is very important. Understanding these lived experiences as critical is not only shared among Latinx faculty and staff, but other groups like Asian Americans and Native Americans. That's why it's so important to really have an institutional commitment because everyone at this table and a lot of folks outside of this space are doing a lot of that invisible service that involves addressing some of the unique needs of these populations and yet continues to be not recognized or acknowledged. It's wonderful that we have people truly committed to making that change and advancing other folks of color, but we need the support of institutions. We have this structures in place, but they also need the support of the institution to not only make it but really thrive and continue to do wonderful work.”

“I would like to add that every time the university changes leadership, I get nervous because I'm wondering whether the next leader is going to understand and be supportive,” says Garcia. “We are fortunate to have President Stanley, who has been very supportive of diverse communities and is willing to take the heat as we cultivate a further understanding of the broader community and of the contributions that these communities have had and will continue to have. For our future existence, they will be a vital component.”

“I would add to what Luis has said,” Villarruel says. “It's not only the president, but it's also Provost Woodruff and Vice President Bennett. In the 35 years that Luis and I have been here I can comfortably say that we have leadership now that is not going to help just sustain, but is committed to investing, promoting, and enhancing what we have at this institution, not only for the institutional sake, but for the communities across the state in the Midwest and more importantly, for student success.”

“This time of year is an opportunity to make sure that we are doing the work to make sure that Latinx students know that they belong here,” says Martinez. “My goal for this month and every month of the year is trying to make sure that our community knows that they belong here.”

MSU recognizes National Hispanic Heritage Month, and our community is coming together to strengthen resources, programs, research centers and scholarships serving Hispanic and Latinx students at MSU. Learn more at givingto.msu.edu.


MSU Today airs Saturdays at 5 p.m. and Sundays at 5 a.m. on WKAR News/Talk and Sundays at 8 p.m. on 760 WJR. Find “MSU Today with Russ White” on SpotifyApple Podcasts, and wherever you get your shows.

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MSU Today is a lively look at Michigan State University-related people, places, events and attitudes put into focus by Russ White. The show airs Saturdays at 5 P.M. and Sundays at 5 A.M. on 102.3 FM and AM 870 WKAR, and 8 P.M. on AM 760 WJR.

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