We Celebrate This Heritage Month by Doing the Work

Marissa Gutierrez-Vicario | September 16, 2021
A woman with long dark hair and brown skin faces the camera and has a big smile.

Marissa Gutierrez-Vicario, Founding Executive Director, Art and Resistance Through Education (ARTE) in New York City.

I recently returned from Europe, having served as the Soros Visiting Chair at the School of Public Policy at Central European University. While there in Vienna, I walked along the streets, soaking up the Baroque architecture and passing through the outdoor cafes. One afternoon, a woman on the street approached me and was curious to know where I was from. I told her I was from the United States and identified as Mexican. Looking at my brown skin, her immediate response was, “You can’t be from Mexico. Mexicans aren’t that dark. Your skin is dark. Mexicans aren’t that dark-skinned.”

While I was dismayed by this comment, I wasn’t surprised by this blatant racism and in actuality, it reminded me of the painful, everyday colorism that is prevalent in the Latinx community and embedded throughout our culture. As we celebrate Latinx* Heritage Month, I invite other members of my community to remind ourselves that we best honor our heritage by continuing to “do the work.” The work which reminds us to actively fight against oppression within our own communities and to uplift the voices of all members of the Latinx community, every month and every day.

One People, Multiple Identities

Unveiling of ARTE’s #ImmigrationRightsMural in East Harlem by youth artists. Photo by Corey Torpie

Time and time again, we hear that our culture is not a monolith and there is no singular Latinx identity; that those forces are beautifully complex, evolving, and constantly being reshaped by both the present and the future. Yet also, time and time again, people in the Latinx community are asked to box themselves into more simplistic identities; identities that frequently erase the stories of our community members or skip easily over more complex histories of European colonization.

While we are categorized as a diverse group of human beings, this diversity amongst Latinx communities is frequently used to divide and conquer, rather than build, organize, and amplify our heritage. For instance, it is no secret that the media we consume continues to exploit this division by perpetuating anti-Blackness through positioning white-skinned faces as representatives of the Latinx community over darker-skinned ones. Yet, while great strides have been made, the pain and lack of representation for darker-skinned Latinx community members continues. Much of this was recently explored during the In the Heights casting controversy, where Latinx community members felt the movie had perpetrated the erasure of Black and AfroLatinx voices and histories.

As I once told a good friend, the denial of one’s history is a grave violation of one’s identity and thus, one’s humanity. When you deny people their history and their past, you are also denying their future. For many Latinx, representation is not only about seeing someone that looks like you on screen, but also an affirmation of one’s history. It is a celebration of one’s ancestors, and a reminder of the resiliency of those who came before you.

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A Diverse Community with Diverse Issues

Unveiling of ARTE’s #ImmigrationRightsMural in East Harlem by youth artists. Photo by Corey Torpie

I don’t share this with many people, but outside of my work as the Founding Executive Director of Art and Resistance Through Education (ARTE), I ambitiously attempted to write a screenplay and had even gone as far as submitting it to a contest several years ago. While I recognize that this screenplay needs much revision, I was appalled by a particular piece of feedback. The reviewer questioned why I created a lead character, a young Mexican immigrant, with the dream of becoming a Hollywood actress. They wrote that it just didn’t seem plausible for a person like them to have such an aspiration like that.

I find myself frequently thinking about this because it reminded me that Latinx community members continuously find themselves boxed in, told what type of art one should create to even what social justice issues one should focus on. I see this often as someone who works in the world of grassroots nonprofit organizations. Oftentimes, in the social justice ecosystem that I work in with ARTE, I have noticed that important issues like immigration are incorrectly labeled a “Latino issue.” Yet while immigration does affect many Latinx community members, it is not the only issue that our community faces or should exclusively focus on.

I think it is more correct to say that there is also a wide intersection of issues. For instance, one of my favorite organizations in New York City, ​​Make the Road, focuses on immigration advocacy, but also focuses on policing and criminal justice. Another example, El Puente, based in Williamsburg has been organizing Latinx community members for decades and recently taken collective action on climate change mitigation. One of my favorite Latinx artists, Julio Salgado, creates art as someone who is undocuqueer, acknowledging his identity as both queer and an undocumented immigrant. Lastly, some of my Latinx heroes, both living and those who have passed on, including (Marielle Franco, Dolores Huerta, Berta Cáceres, Sylvia del Villard, Sylvia Rivera, among others), have always understood this intersection of issues.

Just as there is not just one idea of what it means to be Latinx, there is no singular Latinx issue and we believe that fallacy at the detriment of both our work and our movement.

El Pueblo Unido…

Unveiling of ARTE’s #ImmigrationRightsMural in East Harlem by youth artists. Photo by Corey Torpie

As I delve deeper into what it means to celebrate this month, I cannot help but think more of the complexity around Latinx identity and I find myself with more questions than answers. Latinx identities get further complicated when one is asked to explore language. I have lost count of how many times my Latinx-ness was called into question because of my lack of perfect Spanish skills. When you associate speaking Spanish with Latinx-ness, what does that mean for those who speak only Indigenous language? For the Brazilian Portuguese speaking diaspora? For those Latinx in Haiti/Ayiti and other parts of the Latinx, French-speaking Caribbean world?

Furthermore, outside of the discussion on colorism, I find myself thinking about what privilege looks like for Latinx across New York City and throughout the United States. How can the Latinx community be considered united when undocumented Latinx community members may not share the same experiences as those who are documented / citizens? Across the undocumented-documented divide, as the Latinx community, what do we need to finally transform the concept of solidarity from a noun into a verb?

As I celebrate this Latinx Heritage Month, while so many questions remain unanswered, the fact of the matter is that the multitude of identities, issues, and landscapes that the Latinx community holds makes us only stronger. We become stronger when we amplify our diverse stories as Latinx and face our biases, privileges, and actually “get to work.” That, to me, is what truly is worth celebrating, every day.

*As further evidence of the diversity of our community, I recognize that there are multiple ways to identify Hispanic/Latino. Throughout this article, despite it not being a “preferred term,” I will use Latinx. However, I acknowledge that different community members prefer other names to identify ourselves, including Latin, Latine, and Latin@.

This guest contributor essay is part of THIRTEEN in the Community. During National Hispanic Heritage Month – September 15 to October 15 – THIRTEEN celebrates the legacy, contributions and culture of the diverse group of Americans collectively referred to as Hispanic or Latinx (Latina and Latino) in the United States. See what documentaries and short films are premiering or streaming  now from American Masters, VOCES, POV and more PBS productions.