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Latinos don't need a made-up identity

Hispanic Heritage Month lumps together too many Latin American nationalities, ethnicities and cultures to have any real meaning.

September 29, 2005|Jose Enrique Idler | JOSe ENRIQUE IDLER, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is writing a book on federal ethno-racial classification and Latino identity.

WE'RE IN THE middle of Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 each year. Since the celebration's inception during the Lyndon Johnson administration, it has been, along with other ethnic celebrations, a staple of the cultural diversity movement. As the appreciation for diversity has become stronger, so has the length of the celebration -- from a week in 1968, it was extended to a month in 1988.

But do we need it at all?

What exactly does Hispanic Heritage Month celebrate? During this month, the Smithsonian Institution is planning to have a performance featuring the release of "Rolas de Aztlan: Songs of the Chicano Movement," along with Brazilian jazz and Andean music. It will also show movies on the cultural and artistic expressions of Latinos in the United States, mariachis and the victory of a black woman over racism in Brazil. National parks will put together concerts and festivals featuring performances ranging from Yoruba drums to Cueca dances, linking in one stroke Cuban Santeria religion (heavily influenced by African cultures) and Chilean folk dance.

In this potpourri of national folk music, dances and foods emerges the Latino heritage. But just as Christian philosopher Tertullian exclaimed, "What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?" one is left wondering, what does Mexico have to do with Brazil? Are Cubans, Venezuelans, Salvadorans and Bolivians -- not to mention national subgroups such as Quechuas and Yanomamos -- members of the same family? Considering the strong national allegiances and identities of most Latin American nationals, whether in the U.S. or continent-wide Latin America, the answer is no.

Simon Bolivar's Pan-American dream was first destroyed when he saw his Great Colombia fragmenting into national parcels: Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Panama. The big bloc of continental solidarity proved to be impossible. Despite grand visions of reunification that appear periodically -- Venezuela's Hugo Chavez being the most recent advocate -- national fragmentation has long been enshrined in Latin American history.

Latin American nations are self-consciously different from each other. National affiliations trump the possibility of a common identity. In the United States, an often-quoted report from the Pew Hispanic Center and the Family Kaiser Foundation found in 2002 that Latinos see themselves as having different cultures based on their countries of origin. Mexican migrants are still very different from Puerto Ricans.

So this month is not so much about celebrating a common Latino heritage as it is about combining every manner of folk manifestation under the same umbrella.

And so, in the tradition of ethnic identity-making, a heritage is born -- first in the imagination of multiculturalists and then, eventually perhaps, in the lives of real Latin American immigrants.

Is this celebration of disparately regional folk expressions a good idea? To some, Latino heritage-building is profitable; that entrepreneurs push for it is not puzzling. Consider how major educational publishing companies produce books, lesson materials and videos that celebrate diversity and Latino heritage. Food producers also will probably sell more beans and rice.

Along with diversity entrepreneurs, however, the federal government is also in the business of heritage-building. Each year, the president issues a proclamation inaugurating Hispanic Heritage Month. This year, once again, we're asked to recognize "the proud history and rich culture of Hispanic Americans."

But if there's no common Latino heritage to celebrate, why recognize and build one? Entrepreneurs might benefit, and the livelihood (read: funding) of many Latino interest groups depends on the novel identity. And politicians are trying to tap the Latino voting bloc, although they will find that Latinos defy common categorization.

In the end, only the industry of multiculturalism stands to gain from a newly formed Latino heritage. Multiculturalists display tremendous imagination. But when it comes to strengthening an overarching American identity and assimilating Latinos into the mainstream -- which would benefit Latinos -- the record is poor.

Latinos don't need a new heritage. The government will make them feel at home by not trying to fabricate one.

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