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'We belong here, we have always been here': A conversation on the Latinx identity

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today marks the end of National Hispanic Heritage Month. It's a time of celebration for many, punctuated by festivities, panels and events. But some within the Latinx community question the need for this occasion. They're asking, who does this month represent? We wanted to mark its closing by inviting two Latinx thinkers for an open conversation on the Latinx identity.

YESIKA SALGADO: Hi. My name is Yesika Salgado, and I am an LA-born Salvadoran poet, writer, and I go around the world telling my story to folks about my Latinidad and my body as a fat woman and my family, my cities and my home country of El Salvador.

LAZARO LIMA: It's great to connect with you, Yesika. I'm Lazaro Lima. I'm a scholar of Latino literary and cultural studies. And I am a first-generation immigrant born in Cuba who grew up in the northernmost city in Cuba, which I affectionately refer to as Miami.

SALGADO: I like to tell people that I was born in LA but have always lived in El Salvador because of the way my parents raised me. My first five years of life, we lived in a building that housed everybody that migrated from my mom's village. So it had all her siblings and other people that came, and all I knew was people that knew back home and that were living in LA because they had to 'cause of the civil war, not necessarily because they wanted to. The word refugee is a word that I've been, like, kind of getting my mind around lately because I'm like, yeah, my parents are refugees; they left because of the war.

LIMA: Well, you know, I mean, that's a big topic there. And of course, the immigration experience is certainly a huge part of the Latinx experience. But we also need to remember that this geopolitical construct that we call the United States has been and always was infused by Spanish speakers. Places like California, Nevada, New Mexico, parts in Wyoming and Colorado and Texas were part of Mexico. And those parts of the United States that get subsumed linguistically as California, Colorado, as opposed to Colorado or California, weren't just named places; they tell stories of the people who inhabited and were subjected to historical oblivion. To look at Latino-ness, Latinidad, solely through the context of immigration, is important and necessary, but it's also important to acknowledge that hidden history.

SALGADO: I mean, I think also it's really important to understand, too, that we are so much more than just being migrants. Like, for myself, I don't know what migrating to a whole new country is 'cause I didn't do that, but it doesn't take away any of my experience as a Latina. Sometimes these home countries make fun of us because they're like, your idea of what you are is so narrow, or you're so focused on identity that it's like, El Salvadoreno in El Salvador is just a El Salvadoreno They don't need to explain to anybody that, no, I'm not Mexican. No, I'm not this. No, I'm not that. We're just Salvadoran. You just are what you are.

And that - I didn't think about that until I had a friend that migrated here from Ethiopia. And he told me - he goes, in Ethiopia, there's no concept of Blackness because everybody's Black. And so this whole having to, like, demand people to acknowledge that I'm worth having a life because I'm Black is ridiculous because everybody's Black where I came from. I think that in some ways that has affected the way that I look at identity beyond what we try to tell everybody else in the U.S. 'cause in the U.S., we're so focused on the individual person instead of the general narrative. And I think that it's kind of cool to take off that lens and put the lens of being like, oh, yeah, we're so much more than this just one little box that we have to check off on the census.

LIMA: And a lot of people have really fought very hard to get that box on the census because it's also related to privilege and resources. It's really interesting how identities travel in different contexts, and we might see them as appropriative or we might see them as celebrationist (ph), but to make those identity monikers - Latinx, Latina, Chicano, Chicano, what have you - and take them outside of the historical milieu from which they emerge and only celebrate the positive also obviates the very stories that these communities have been dying, literally dying, to tell in order to create a more accurate version of American cultural identity as Latinx, Black, as Indigenous, as Asian American at its core.

SALGADO: And that's truly beautiful because I can't tell the story of my parents' migration without saying that it was forced because of a civil war and the fact that the civil war happened because of U.S. intervention. So yes, it's important to celebrate my Latinx American identity and to acknowledge the people that have sacrificed to be able to share that importance narrative, and - but what I do love more is the reckoning, saying like, we Latinx folks are so much more than what you seen us as. We're Black. We're Asian. We're Mestizos. We're - some of us are white, and we have to accept that, too. And we have all different levels of privileges, and I'm excited to see how the future generations continue to dissect it and push and question and probe. I find beauty in that for Latinx Heritage Month. All of the pushback from the new generations that are like - you've seen the memes, that everybody's just like - Happy Latinx Heritage Month, and they're using - they're making fun of it, right? And then I'm like, yeah, challenge it. Why not? Let's see - what else can we imagine for ourselves beyond this identity? And so I'm just excited to see what language comes from all of that, and I'm down for the ride. And if we start calling ourselves something else next, then, you know, I'll just roll with the punches.

LIMA: Yeah, I know it's daunting to keep up with all the names, especially when it's so important to democratic systems to come up with a name that references a particular history. So I think those interscene battles between, no, I don't want the X; I prefer Hispanic. No, I don't want it all together; I'm just an American - can oftentimes also just be a distraction. But that's not the reality. We need structural change, and that structural change happens with laws, enfranchisement, not depriving people of access to voting rights, making them aware of redistricting. We become political beings not by navel-gazing but by attaining a certain type of analytic distance that allows us then to say very clearly, we belong here; we have always been here. And then we can worry about the nomenclature and the specifics of those naming strategies.

SALGADO: And for me, maybe the word itself is not the problem; it's who we envision to fit that word, you know, who we envision to fit that term. And we have to wrap our minds around the fact that we are not a monolith and that Latinidad is not a race. And so when we're celebrating Latinx Heritage Month, there's a lot of historical things that we need to remember that are very - like, we just had Indigenous Day. And I love the fact that in our lifetime, we got to see something change where the true history of something is being acknowledged. It used to be Christopher Columbus Day, and everybody said, no, we don't stand for that; that was a day of violence for many of our people. And so now it is Indigenous Day, and we will celebrate the beautiful traditions of Indigenous folks and those folks that are alive now that are Indigenous.

LIMA: Beautifully put, Yesika. And to that, I would just simply add that we need Latinx Heritage Month as long as Latinos continue to be represented as the forever foreigners and not as a constitutive part of the American experiment in democracy and inclusion.

(SOUNDBITE OF RITA INDIANA'S "PA AYOTZINAPA")

CHANG: Yesika Salgado is an LA-based poet and writer, and Lazaro Lima is a professor in the Department of Africana and Puerto Rican Latino Studies at Hunter College in New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PA AYOTZINAPA")

RITA INDIANA: (Singing in Spanish). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.