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  • Writer's pictureCollective Leadership Strategies

Understanding the Words We Use

As the United States kicks off celebrations of Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15) we are certain to become inundated with images of mariachis and ballet folklorico dancers, Frida Kahlo, and other stereotypical images that are typically featured in marketing pieces. These are all aspects of Mexican culture that should be celebrated with gusto. However, they are also just scratching the surface of Hispanic culture which spans beyond Mexico.

If the intention of companies is to celebrate Hispanic Heritage, then there are some important lessons for organizations and their leaders to understand. This article is written for the purpose of helping people who are NOT members of the Hispanic, Latino, Chicano or Indigenous communities as they implement their social media posts or hold events this month. At CLS, we have a working understanding of identity that an individual will and should self-identify in whatever way they believe to be most appropriate for their situation.

”Hispanic” is Not a Nicer Way to Say Mexican

Mexican” is not derogatory. It is literally the nationality of over 37 million human beings living in the US. Mexicans are not Spanish. Spanish people (or Spaniards) are individuals who live in, immigrated from or are descendants of people from the country Spain. Mexicans are people who live in, immigrated or are descendants from Mexico. Hispanic people are individuals who consider themselves diaspora from countries colonized by Spain and have Spanish as the primary language spoken. If you are referring to a person or a group of people from Mexico, then it's okay to say Mexican.

“Hispanic” Can Be a Problematic Label

The term “Hispanic“ was created to be a label for people who speak Spanish by the US Census Bureau under Richard Nixon. This term was created as a misguided attempt to encompass all Brown people which contributes to the erasure of the complex and multifaceted identities of which the term blankets. This shouldn’t be interpreted as direction to not say “Hispanic.” Hispanic is not a bad word, and is not always problematic. This is direction that - like with all words - you should understand the origin of the term, anticipate the impact of its use, and use it intentionally.

Labels Lead to Erasure

Hispanic Heritage Month was created to honor the rich legacy that comes from countries that were colonized by European nations like Spain and Portugal. Each of these countries boasts their own unique cultures that are anything but homogenous. In their proper context, it’s fine to use these words as long as you are using them within the scope of their proper meanings for the purpose of referring to a wide group of people. The same is true for other terms that have deeper meanings but are often used (mostly by people not of this community) to lump a group of people together like Latino, Latinx, or Latine. There is nuance behind these terms that should be understood first.

We Can Do Better

Don’t worry. This post isn’t just going to point out the problems then leave our readers to figure out things for themselves. Here are a few tips on how your organization may navigate some of the ambiguities of racially and/or ethnically specific language:

  • Put Humanity First- Every single person who works for you and/or consumes your product is first and foremost a human being with hopes, dreams, culture, and attributes that make them unique. All of our various aspects of self intersect to form our individual identities. We are not a monolith. That fact is something that shouldn't be lost in your communications.

  • Be as personal as possible - as communicators and leaders, we generally strive to be as inclusive as possible. Inclusivity isn’t the same as pretending that everyone is the same. Inclusivity requires including multiple backgrounds and perspectives and acknowledging that there is value in those differences. For example, our Co-founder Dr. Jonathan Pérez is a son of immigrants; he's Mexican, Guatemalan, and Indigenous. He's a Christian, a son, a husband, a father, a Doctor of Education, and an advocate for representation in positions of leadership for Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks. These lables acknowledge his humanity and the facets of his identity that make him who he is. To say that he is Hispanic isn’t untrue, but that label fails to acknowledge his specific contributions and identities and experiences.

  • Be unique in your communications - a good way to start on this path is to be intentional and unapologetic about honoring non-stereotypical figures from history and popular culture. We will see a lot of photos and read a lot of stories about César Chavez, Pancho Villa, and Frida Kahlo over the next 30 days, and they are all worthy honorees. However, you can help your company and its communications stand out by featuring profiles on lesser known revolutionaries from history, politics, media, and even folks in your own local community. And especially remember to include figures from beyond the Mexican diaspora.

  • Center voices from Hispanic/Latino/Chicano/Indigenous communities - one of the biggest issues in mass communications is when people in these roles try to make decisions for groups that they have no personal connection to. Educating yourself is good, but it is no replacement for elevating people with actual lived experiences into decision making positions where cross-cultural communication is involved.

  • Also, pay for talent/labor/expertise - this is pretty self explanatory, but we’ll say it loud and clear for the people in the back: it is unacceptable to have an event, rent a location, pay for food etc. and then ask your speakers to come speak and/or entertain your crowd “for exposure.” Or even worse at their own expense. Time is valuable - pay people for their effort.

  • "I am Mexican every day" - Hispanic Heritage Month provides a wonderful opportunity to honor the contributions to the US by individuals from Central, South, and Latin America, but it’s not the only time to honor those contributions.

  • Don't dismiss Afro-Latinos - This topic deserves its own post, which it will get, but it should be said here too. There is a significant number of people among the African and/or Indigenous diaspora who are also Latin American. Their existence is valid and should be acknowledged and included in your communications as well.

  • Understand that mistakes happen - no one has ever gotten it right 100% of the time, including you (especially me). When a mistake is pointed out start with acknowledging your own humanity, then analyse the situation, and self correct as needed. This is called growth, and every single person on this planet is on a journey that includes it.

Ashley Paz. Dr. Jonathan Pèrez and Breinn Richter are co-founders of Collective Leadership Strategies. Dr. Pérez and Mrs. Richter are scholars-in-residence with focus areas in Chicano leadership and interrogating whiteness (respectively) through critical race theory. Ashley is a serial entrepreneur who specializes in business administration and mass communications.


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