By Joseph Orosco
We are currently halfway into National Hispanic Heritage Month (NHHM). I asked my students in two classes if they knew anything about it and most had no notion of when it started or when it ended in the calendar. They got the general idea that it was about honoring the contribution of Latin@s to US American life, but nothing specifically about it, or indeed, of any celebrations of it in their communities.
One reason non-Latin@ US Americans ought to take more involvement in the celebration is that it is, in part, a celebration of the best of the political ideals of the United States.
NHHM was started by the federal government over 40 years ago as a week of commemoration of Latin@s in the United States and then expanded under President Reagan to an entire month. It begins around September 15 of each year, marking the independence of several Central American nations, as well as the independence of Mexico on September 16. US Americans are often unaware of how significant the US American revolution was for these Latin American independence movements.
Simon Bolivar, the revolutionary leader of South America, visited the United States before he engaged in armed struggle against the Spanish empire, and sometimes spoke in admiring ways of US society and government. He wrote that “the people of North America are a singular model of political virtue and moral rectitude; … that nation was cradled in liberty, reared on freedom, and maintained by liberty alone.”
In Mexico, the independence movement drew its inspiration from the US American and French experiences. You can see the influence of liberal political philosophy in the declaration, The Sentiments of the Nation, written by Mexico’s version of Thomas Jefferson, Jose Maria Morelos. The key ideas of the consent of the governed as the legitimate basis for government, separation of government powers and offices, and representative law making all are a nod to those two great revolutions in North America and Europe.
But the Latin American independence movements also highlight some regrettable aspects of the US and French experiments in freedom. Before they could set a spark of revolutionary fervor in Central and South America, they lit a fire in Haiti in 1791. The Haitian revolution sent tremors throughout the Western world because black slaves rose up, seemingly against the very natural order of the world, and set about trying to govern themselves according to republican principles. The neglect and refusal of the United States to aid the former slaves clearly illustrates that we were more committed to white supremacy than we were to liberty, especially since we profited by purchasing territory from France so that they could prop up their counter-revolutionary efforts in the Caribbean and elsewhere.
Bolivar believed that the Latin American revolutionaries were going to have a harder time of setting up a just post-revolutionary society because they were going to have to contend with building a multi-racial democracy of some sort. Of course, most of the Latin American countries gave in to white supremacy and engaged in genocidal policies against their African and indigenous communities.
In Mexico, Morelos made it clear that the abolition of slavery and racial caste were central to the Mexican experiment in freedom. Mexico formally abolished slavery in 1829, well ahead of the United States. The difference between the two countries on this matter led to tensions that erupted into the Mexican-American War just a few decades later.
NHHM ought to be a period that US Americans have more exposure to because it is essentially a celebration of an intercontinental revolutionary movement for freedom, one that foreshadows today’s intercontinental horizontal movements for democracy from Chile and Argentina, to the United States and Spain, and now onto Hong Kong. But it can also be reminder of the hypocrisy of states and their willingness to eject their ideals for gain; and of the frightening grip of global white supremacy on our political imaginations, even today.