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Latin America Policy Journal

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

Aquí Estamos: HKS Latinxs Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month

Every year, National Hispanic Heritage Month is observed in the United States between September 15 and October 15. This 30-day period is symbolic because it encompasses the independence days of several Latin American countries –Mexico, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Chile. During this time, Americans honor and celebrate the cultures, histories, and contributions of Hispanics and Latinxs in the U.S.

This year, the Latinx Caucus, a student organization at HKS, decided to celebrate this occasion by elevating the discourse of U.S. Latinxs to showcase the rich diversity of narrative, experience, and identity in the community. The task was simple –every participant would have a portrait taken and would have the space of a single sheet of paper to reflect on their latinidad; those aspects of their Latinx identity that they most connect with. The art installation, consisting of portrait photography and creative writing pieces, would then be unveiled during an opening reception and hung at the Kennedy School until the end of National Hispanic Heritage Month.

At the reception on October 3, a panel of Latinx students reflected on the challenges facing their communities. From a student who crossed the border every day to attend school, whose relationships, education, and opportunities were split in 2009 when a border fence went up, to a student whose family went three days without electricity or water during Puerto Rico’s debt crisis and blackout last week, the panelists encompassed a wide variety of contrasting stories and issues they were committed to. Others spoke about the challenges of being multiracial in a world forcing them to ‘check a box,’ meanwhile others discussed the role of language as a connector or a barrier to familial ties.

The one-page reflections in the art installation were equally powerful. Here are some of their stories:

Hiram Rios Hernandez

In high school I decided to go by “Hi-rum,” and not the actual pronunciation “E-ram” with a silent ‘h’ and a rolled ‘r.’ I would never reveal my two last names, and would instead just use my father’s surname “Rios.” I would avoid any and all interactions with other Latino/a students, with fear of being seen as more brown. I avoided the sun and tried to get as pale as possible to maybe one-day pass as white. These years were marked by the systematic destruction of the very fiber of my identity, and the construction of a plastic and shallow personality grounded in my perception of the white American ideal.

My sense of other-ness is evident in my name, my speech, and in my physical features. As much as I want people to just see me for whom I am (a musician, a linguist, a friend, etc.), I feel that I am seen as Latino first, and then as an individual. I myself question my own value, when I remember that assimilation to me meant getting beat up, being ostracized, and later being hailed as the token Latino student. I am more than just an ethnicity, I am more than just a quota, and I am certainly worth more than the way I have been treated.” –Hiram Rios Hernandez, MPP2


“For me, home is people and place. Home is sitting at the kitchen table in my abuelita’s house in a working-class neighborhood in Utah. Home is watching her brown hands, hands that hold memories of picking oranges in Texas and assembling shower rings in factories in Chicago, cut the spines off of nopales (cactuses). Home is watching my abuela’s hands, hands that have loved and cared for me my entire life, make flour tortillas from scratch. Home is watching the skillfulness and ease with which she cooks, despite being blind in one eye, wishing that one day I can have as much faith as she has in her wisdom of experience. Home is knowing that I learned how to speak my truth because she never hesitates to speak hers.” –Erika Carlsen, Center for Public Leadership


When I moved to California from México at 15 years old I felt alone, alienated, isolated. I counted the days until I was able to go back or until a part of it came to me in the form of a visiting family member; but every time I had to say goodbye once again. And there I found strength in the two men named Carlos, middle-aged Mexican immigrants, one my neighbor and another an auto mechanic that shared with me a common parting place: Zacatecas, México.

Carlos my neighbor shared his home, his cooking and his memories whenever we could get together. Although he missed México and everything about it, he had given up on a future in his home country; he went back once every couple of years for a week and then had to come back to work. Carlos the auto mechanic could never go back and had to fear deportation around every corner. He had not given up on a chance to eventually return to the land he loved, but had given up the 28 years away from his parents, to whom he did not even get to say goodbye when they passed away. He had also given up his present, slaving away for more than 15 hours a day to feed his kids and keep up the mortgage payments.

Their struggle and their yearning for home were both so much greater than mine and yet they kept going, without hesitation, without complaints really. If they and millions like them could do it, so could I, all of us looking, searching and making a better future for us and our people, on both sides of the border. –Jesus Reyes, MPP2

These aren’t only our stories; they’re the stories of millions of Latinx Americans. This is the Kennedy School, and Aquí Estamos.
— To see the full installation, follow the Latinx Caucus on Facebook: @HKSLatinx.