Hispanic Heritage month. I have a love/hate relationship with this notion. First, let’s get on the same page. Hispanic and Latino are NOT the same. Latinos are from certain countries in Latin America and some parts of the Caribbean. Hispanic is any culture that has influence from Spain. So, Spaniards are NOT Latino. And Brazilians are NOT Hispanic. They have Portuguese influence but live in South America thus making them Latino. You can be one, you can be the other, and you can be both. But enough of that. Anyway, I love being Latina and Hispanic don’t get me wrong. But I hate heritage months because there’s always some nutter who comes out of the cracks and says well why don’t “well why don’t white people have a heritage month.” Here’s why. Because the white narrative whether it be American, European, Australian. etc., has always had the white people in charge. I vividly remember my world history classes beginning with the story of white warriors, white scholars, white doctors, and white kings and queens and ending with white men on the moon, and until recent years as Presidents. (Still no Latino or Hispanic identifying Presidents, but we’ll get there.)
The Hispanic narrative when told by a Hispanic is no different, it’s just been buried. Our history through the colonizers lens is shown as Aztecs, Mayans, Incans, and Taínos, all being savages. Slicing hearts out of a still living body and making sacrifices to appease serpent and jaguar gods, trying to figure out fire until the colonizers (Columbus) finds them in their mud huts and ultimately slaughters them. Leaving only the docile, subservient, or Eurocentric ones behind. But that story has it all wrong. Latinos built civilizations that modern technology still can’t explain. Latino culture was more advanced than the white-washed version history gives it credit for. If it wasn’t for Latinos, you’d have no chocolate, rubber, law and order would be far behind and the number zero wouldn’t exist. And that’s just the Mayans. Like women’s rights? That’s Taínos, villages ran with a matriarchal system and the women birthed rulers in pre-colonized Puerto Rico (Boriken), men could only become rulers (Caciques) through the maternal bloodline, and it wasn’t only men rulers there were many cases of female Cacicas, and you can thank them for the hammock and the word “Hurricane”. You can thank the Inca Empire for advances in stonework; did you know that Machu Picchu is earthquake proof? Even after 500 years? Moving on. Have a headache? Cramps? Muscle pain? Thank the Aztecs for your pain medication. They studied botany and understood how plants could influence the body. These advances were all done by “savages”. The strange thing about history is that it can be changed to suit the desired narrative. Hispanic Heritage month gives all Hispanic People a chance to share their story. Our successes. And here in Thailand it’s no different.
Group 131 is running with 10 percent being Latino/Hispanic identifying (Mexicans, Colombians, Puerto Rican, and Ecuadorian), and how great is that? Combined with the previous groups we have our own small, strong, familia, which as all Latinos know is everything. Almost hitting the 9-month mark of our time in Thailand we have been reflecting on the experiences. The joys of being bicultural, both American and Latino/Hispanic. We share the joys of showing our sites the electricity in our language, the sweet sounds of our music, the passion we bring to the table and to our work. But we also share our struggles of being not quite American. Falling into the gray zone of being from the colony, or first generation, or immigrant. Explaining why our families back home may not speak English. Why is there an accent when you speak English? Why does your hair or skin look like that? Why is your mother black and you are white? Why is your sister a different color? And I can never forget all the various, unwanted hip, thigh, and leg touches from people at my site. Often making me feel like I’m on the KFC menu. These issues being thrown at us make it hard to not break face. It’s so personal that to answer it in a politically correct way which doesn’t minimize our own culture y la raza is like walking in a minefield. But somedays when you take a step back, Thai culture is so similar to Hispanic culture. Yai and Abuela are both pinching you saying within ten minutes you need to “Eat more you’re too skinny!” “Eat less you’re gaining too much weight!” but don’t you dare deny that second serving. Both Puans and Compañeros are giving sly gossip in the corner of the lunch room. Y la comunidad and your site will find a reason to party and dance. Pero just make sure you make it to la Iglesia on Sunday and give merits to the monks when you see them.
But introductions are so tricky when you are a (insert race here)-American. I typically find myself introducing myself as Puerto Rican, the sentence when translated from Thai goes like this “I am from the colony of Puerto Rico, the country of America.” To which Thai people give me a confused look because last they heard America didn’t have colonies. The next question runs like “So is she American or not?” I still don’t know how to properly answer that question without going into a full-fledged history lesson. But so far, the answer has been “Both.” It works better on my students than adults. The students are the easiest ones to explain my culture to. They enjoy having impromptu bomba beats lessons, they enjoy watching Teacher do her “wild” dances, between the bomba y plena and the salsa I keep them on their toes, they like that my Puerto Rican flag has the same colors as Thailand, and it’s just not a normal day to them if I don’t have on red lips and a palm tree head wrap. They like that Teacher is colorful, loud, and expressive. All things that stem from the roots of being Hispanic. All things that aren’t limited to a month. All things that I share every day. That and maybe an accidental Spanish curse cause somedays all you can say is “PUÑETA”
However, we continue to share these experiences and learn more about our own identities through the questions that our communities ask. The Peace Corps experience has helped us find more pride and strength in our culture, especially when we look back to the United States and see how it is under attack. We stand with our people, even from across oceans, and we continue to share and embrace our culture even when it’s not the designated month.