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St. John’s Celebrates Latino Heritage Month (September 15 to October 15)

Although designated Hispanic Heritage Month, Latino Heritage Month is a more accurate designation since it recognizes the many contributions and influence of peoples not from Spain but from Latin America.  Another name controversy arose recently with the introduction of the term, Latinx, as a gender-neutral alternative to Latino/Latina.  Used generally by younger, U.S.-born, bilingual or predominately English-speaking Latin Americans, this new term is yet to gain widespread acceptance among others.  Not only is it a word that they don’t recognize as part of their language, but the majority of Latin Americans self-identify with their country of origin instead of Latino, let alone Latinx.

Latin America covers South America, Central America and the Caribbean islands.  It includes countries like Mexico, Columbia, even Brazil (where Portuguese, not Spanish, is spoken), Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua and the island countries of Cuba and Puerto Rico.  With a current combined population of some 55.6 million, Latin Americans are the largest non-European ethnic block in this country.

For many of us, Latinos mean migrant workers, cheap laborers with leaf blowers or any number of media-driven stereotypes with exceptions like Cesar Chavez, Enrique Iglesias and Jennifer Lopez.  The reality is that mainstream Americans have failed to realize that, since the inception of our country, Latinos have played a crucial role in every venue of American life.  It began over 500 years ago when Spanish explorers discovered California, the Mexican states, Florida and the Southwest (well before the English arrived at Jamestown in 1607 or the Pilgrims dropped anchor in Massachusetts Bay in 1621).  Later with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, the U.S. claimed sovereignty over a huge swath of formerly disputed or Mexican territory, including the present states of Texas, Arizona, California and Utah, and parts of New Mexico, Colorado, and Wyoming.  This brought with it a new set of customs, traditions, food and music of the conquered people.  Since then, the blending of various Latin American cultures and traditions has been defining and redefining American life without many of us even realizing it.

To better understand these traditions, we asked some of our Latin American friends to share their experiences with us.  Most spoke of a family-centered life, great food made with delicious spices and fresh ingredients, colorful textiles, lively music and dance and a deeply religious background.  They also described a lot of festivals interweaving religious, historical and everyday celebrations that include the entire community -- to name a few, Carnival, Día de los Muertos, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe and, for Latinas, their quinceañera.  

Carnival is celebrated all over the world as part of the pre-Lenten Christian calendar, but Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro Carnaval is world-renowned with bands on floats, featuring Afro-Brazilian percussion sounds; primarily the samba, and the streets are invaded by revelers dancing, singing and partying.  The party is different in each region and each country.  

Día de los Muertos, celebrated on the first two days of November (our All-Saints Day, and Al-Souls Day), began in Mexico where it has become world-famous.  A colorful and wonderfully macabre celebration to honor the dead, it actually acknowledges death as an integral part of life and joyfully celebrates life as much as death.  (Día de los Muertos is the backdrop of the 2017 Disney animated movie, Coco).

Our Lady of Guadalupe, patron saint of Mexico, is celebrated on December 12, honoring the date in 1531 when the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to an Aztec Indian, Juan Diego.  In a display of the rich faith of the Mexican people, days beforehand there are gaily decorated trucks, cars and bikes, walkers carrying pictures or placards of Our Lady and even runners carrying torches (a tradition carried over from the Mexico City Olympics) all headed to the feast.  Famous singers and Mexican dignitaries join the celebrations at the Shrine the night before and on the actual feast day, groups of native Indians arrive in their original costumes to perform ancient tribal dances on the grounds of the Shrine before moving inside for Mass. 

Latinas all remember fondly their quinceañera (15th birthday), an important milestone in a girl’s life.  It is part elaborate birthday party, part rite of passage with the customary trappings of a Mass, a catered bash with live music and a ceremony marking her transition to womanhood.  With its cultural roots in Mexico, it is a tradition in many Latin American countries as well as among Latino immigrants here and in other countries.

The food memories shared, whether at festivals or at home, include traditional favorites like sofrito sauce, empanadas and flan, each recipe varying widely from region to region.  Latin American cuisine embodies diverse flavors, a mix of indigenous, African and European influences.  Its uses fresh foods available in each region and country, fish and other seafood, beef, avocados, beans, chili peppers, corn, tomatoes, rice and tropical fruits. The trans-Atlantic slave trade added to the rich variety when enslaved Africans introduced new ingredients and cooking techniques.  

How does it feel to be a Latino living in the US?  History is rife with examples of betrayal and destruction or theft of property and the very identities of our Latin American populations.  In recent years, we have stoked the fear of illegal immigrants coming across our southern border with the grossly inaccurate and factually unsupported claim that they are mostly criminals invading our country, making every Latino suspect, including those already here and long an integral part of our social fabric.  By learning more about our Latino neighbors, the people, their history and their culture, we can respect and embrace the differences as part of building community with them and every other immigrant group that also calls this country home.  Vaya con Dios!

Heather G. Kress
for RR&SJM