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By: Susan Valverde

The month of September is important for many of the 60 million Hispanics in the US. From September 15th to October 15th, we observe Hispanic Heritage Month and celebrate our rich culture and the contributions of Hispanics in North America. From the Aztecs, who were the first to implement a universal education system, to the artificial heart invented by an Argentine physician, to the color TV, which was invented by a Mexican engineer, there are countless gifts Hispanics have given the world!

What’s the difference between the terms Hispanic and Latino?

Today, the terms Hispanic and Latino are given to a group of people who share a culture and many important connections, but not necessarily one nationality, ethnicity or race. Labels are often complicated and personal. I believe you should call someone what they want to be called, and the best way to be sure is to just ask what they prefer.

I was born and raised in Northern Mexico, and when I was a teenager, my family immigrated to the US in search of a better life. If you think differentiating between the labels Hispanic and Latino is complex today, imagine being a teenager, who moved to a new country in the ‘80s! It was even more difficult for me to pick a label back then. Was I Mexican? Was I an immigrant? Or maybe Hispanic or Latina? These are all technically correct, but they were all imperfect labels, so I was “label-less” for many years.

To put it simply, Hispanic means that you descend from Spanish speakers, and Latino means you descend from someone born in a country in Latin America. By this definition, a Spaniard is Hispanic but not Latino. A Brazilian is Latino but may or may not be Hispanic. And a Cuban or Guatemalan can be both Latino and Hispanic.

See how tricky this can get?!

Bottom line, these two labels attempt to represent over 20 countries in 3 very different continents. Every Hispanic and Latino country has extremely different foods, customs and even variations in languages. And Hispanic Heritage Month gives us the opportunity to learn more about and participate in these fascinating variations! One of the things I love about this month is how we celebrate the differences that bring us together.

The celebrations happen all month

The month-long period of Hispanic Heritage Month was chosen because this is when many Latin American countries celebrate their Independence Day. I absolutely love the fiestas that happen during this month!

In Mexico, our Independence Celebration is September 16th (nope, it’s not Cinco de Mayo!) and the party starts on midnight of the 15th with a reenactment of the call to arms by the leaders of the Mexican revolution against Spain.

I think this is the most colorful month of the year in Mexico, which is already an extremely colorful country! Every single government building, business, school and home is decked out with vibrant decorations in red, white and green, which are the colors of the Mexican flag.

Below the building pictured is at el Zocalo in Mexico City, which is the main square of the city where buildings date back to the 1500s!

In elementary school, which I attended in Mexico, we would have a blast making papel picado (colorful hand cut banners that have been a tradition since indigenous times) and practicing traditional dances in preparation for public recitals.

In middle school, we would dress in traditional costumes, learn some of the language used by our ancient Aztec civilizations, and also learn about Mexico’s 300-year struggle for independence from Spain. There were always street festivals, plays, music and lively fun in school for several weeks. September equals fun for kids in most Latin countries!

Below is a photo of Susan from Hispanic Heritage Festival, where folks from a few different Latin countries would gather and everyone wore their native dress and shared their country’s favorite piece of history, art or food with other. Susan was on the delegation from Mexico this year and is wearing the traditional women’s dress (Adelita style).

Food is a big part of the holiday

And of course, no celebration is complete without lots of delicious food. As a child, perhaps the thing I loved most about this month is that for my family this holiday–and all holidays–always meant family gatherings revolving around a LOT of amazing food.

My family in Mexico is huge and close-knit, so the sign-up sheets started in August, and everyone, including kids, were expected to volunteer to help prepare a traditional dish so we could all enjoy a huge feast at our family reunion.

We had homemade simple favorites, like paletas (fruit popsicles), empanadas and tacos, but my family’s most elaborate dishes were also reserved for this time of the year, and one my personal favorites is my mom’s Mole. Mole can contain anywhere from 30 to 60 ingredients, depending on your family’s secret recipe. It’s a dark, chocolatey stew that contains turkey, chicken or duck, with flavors that defy description. It would take my mom two days to prepare this dish—so it was extremely special—and as an adult, I have only made it from scratch once by myself. (Of course, there are so many great store-bought options now that I still enjoy tasty mole in September, minus the two day fuss!)

How I celebrate these days …

Because I spent my childhood in Mexico, Hispanic Heritage Month was a distinctly Mexican experience. However, now that I live in Texas, it has taken on a slightly different form, which is another thing I love about this month.

Many Hispanics (especially immigrants) here will tell you that celebrating Hispanic Heritage is about a continued commitment to understanding and valuing where you came from, balanced with deep gratitude for the life and opportunities that America affords its citizens.

It’s about building a society where we can be different, and even disagree, yet where all contributions are valued. It’s also about seeing geographical borders not as something that divides us by the passports we carry, but rather connects us as human beings with fundamental rights and desires.

It took me some time to arrive at this understanding. When we first moved to the US, I didn’t yet feel like I belonged here, but I was also keenly aware that Mexico was no longer going to feel like home, either. For starters, I liked salsa on EVERYTHING, I loved Latin music and I was a huge fan of soccer (as opposed to football). However, I also quickly fell in love with American TV shows, Thanksgiving and the deep patriotism present in the US. Most of all, I admired the US ideals that are grounded in “freedom and equality for all,” which founded this country. My family and I try to use this month to reflect, and to show gratitude for how fortunate we feel living the life my parents envisioned for us decades ago when they brought us here.

What I NOW love most about Hispanic Heritage month is that I get to honor my Aztec roots, my Mexican heritage, my Latino culture, all while calling myself a proud American. I don’t have to pick just one label and I don’t have to sacrifice any part of myself. Not unlike my personal journey with imperfect labels, this country’s identity is ever evolving. I think it’s because Americans dare to constantly question who we are and what it really means to be equal, diverse and just.

Here’s how you and your family can celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month

In honor of Hispanic Heritage month, I encourage you to try new things such as take a Latin cooking class or try out some of our great Hispanic foods at a local restaurant, support a Hispanic/Latino owned business, explore a bit of Latin American history, art or music.

Check out Sylvan Reading Adventures’ September book titles, which are all Hispanic Heritage Month themed. Your child will love diving into these titles, written by Hispanic authors!

You will be enjoying something new and celebrating Hispanic Heritage while reinforcing the very American principle, which is that everyone is worthy of respect, appreciation and acceptance.

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