Celebrating 'Hispanic Heritage Month' in the Age of Trump

Celebrating 'Hispanic Heritage Month' in the Age of Trump

It’s hard to celebrate when you’re worried about survival. Sunday marks the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs through October 15. This celebration of Latino culture began as a week in 1968 under President Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan extended it to a full month in 1988. Since then, it has become an annual tradition, a time to recognize and honor the achievements of Hispanic Americans — at least in theory.

In reality, most Latinos live their cultural pride every day. Hispanic Heritage Month is an artificial construct, created by and promoted by the U.S. government. It cannot be viewed without acknowledging its political component, especially since we are living under the most anti-Hispanic administration in modern history.

The president’s antipathy towards Latinos is well-documented. He has attacked Latino leaders, politicians, and journalists. He cancelled DACA. He ignored the people of Puerto Rico during their darkest hour. His administration brought us kids in cages, family separations, and an attempt to depress Latino participation in the Census. Then came Aug. 3, when a shooter inspired by the president’s brand of bigotry killed 22 people in El Paso.

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No wonder a study by the Pew Research Center found that more Latinos have serious concerns about their place in the U.S. under Trump than under past administrations. Two-thirds of Hispanics say this administration’s policies have been harmful to Hispanics. A majority says it has become more difficult to live in the U.S. as a Latino in recent years.

Since the El Paso massacre, many Latinos are rightfully feeling fearful and targeted because of their ethnicity. So how are Latinos supposed to celebrate during these trying, even dangerous, times?

As a community, the best response to Trump’s bigotry is our own visibility. We cannot let fear keep us from claiming our place in society. Only we can show our fellow citizens that you can be fully, proudly Latino and still 100 percent American.

There is historical precedent for the challenges Latinos are now facing, as past generations of Hispanics have endured bigotry, discrimination, and violence as well. In 1918, 15 innocent men and boys of Mexican descent were killed by a posse of U.S. Army cavalry soldiers, Texas Rangers, and ranchers in Porvenir, Texas. In the 1930s, as part of the Mexican Repatriation Act, President Hoover deported one million Mexican-Americans for supposedly stealing U.S. jobs. In 1954, President Eisenhower launched “Operation Wetback,” which forcibly removed hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants from the U.S., among them many Hispanic Americans.

The fact is that Latinos have never needed government validation or permission to savor our heritage, no matter what time of year it may be. We can take pride in everything from our rich cultural contributions to this country — remember, a Puerto Rican wrote Broadway’s “Hamilton” — to our long tradition of service in the U.S. military. Though Trump may see Latinos as “animals” or “illegals,” these days Hispanics are on the Supreme Court, serving in Congress, and running for president.

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Sure, the president might send out a random tweet acknowledging Hispanic Heritage Month, or the White House may hold an event for the occasion. But actions speak louder than words, and Latinos know who Trump is. Consider that in his lukewarm denunciation of white supremacy following the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Trump did not even utter the words “Hispanic” or “Latino.”

Where this president is divisive, Latinos can be decisive — where it counts, in the primaries and upcoming presidential election. Although Latino voter turnout hit record highs in the 2018 midterms, Trump’s potential re-election should be a catalyst for stronger turnout among the country’s 32 million eligible Hispanic voters in 2020.

During this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month, affirming our heritage represents a kind of defiance to a president and an administration that is hostile to Latinos. Thriving and succeeding as Latinos is a reproach to the roughly 39 percent of Americans who still support a toxic individual wholly unfit for the office of the presidency.

Continuing to fiercely believe in a country that doesn’t always believe in us is perhaps the greatest act of resistance of all.

Raul A. Reyes is an immigration attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.  A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he is also a contributor to NBCNews.com and CNN Opinion. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaulAReyes, Instagram: raulareyes1.