Today marks the start of Hispanic Heritage month. The “month” that lasts from mid-September to mid-October begins with Mexican Independence Day, commemorating the first of many independence wars that occurred in Latin America during the 19th Century and that decimated the Spanish Empire in the New World. Culturally, it is a marker of the common history that many Latino/as in the United States share - that at different points in the same century, our ancestors fought (and often defeated) a common enemy. It is a moment of pride and remembrance, and the one time during the year when mainstream America shows any interest.
Unfortunately, a lot of that interest is superficial and stereotypical. As a result, Latinos need to brace themselves for a month-long paean to the likes of Cesar Chavez and Sonia Sotomayor and endless analyses about the “up-and coming Hispanic vote” in panels where Latino voices are often absent from the debate.
Fortunately, Latinos have what I call the Latino counterpublic. As I define it in my dissertation, the “Latino counterpublic conveys messages about who is a Latino, what issues are important to Latinos, and what it means to be a Latino.” This counterpublic includes legacy media organizations like Spanish-language television, radio, and newspapers, newer English-language outlets like the NPR shows Latino USA and Alt-Latino, and many blogs, websites, and outlets where Latino voices can tell our stories. The possibility of a counterpublic sphere has been possible thanks to advances in technology that allow Latinos to connect with each other in real-time. It is a national phenomenon and a transnational phenomenon simultaneously.
No greater example exists of the role of the Latino counterpublic than the death of Latin pop giant Juan Gabriel, perhaps the biggest pop music star in the Spanish-speaking world, at the end of August. Despite lifetime record sales similar to the late David Bowie and countless awards, his death was a footnote for most major media outlets unless those outlets happened to be part of the Latino counterpublic.
The coverage of Juan Gabriel’s death may not have any political implications but it is a symptom of a greater phenomenon. For all the talk about the increasing importance of Latinos and the changing demographics of the country, American society and the media at large still knows very little about us. If the death of one of the greatest recording artists of all time is not important because he sang in Spanish, can we really expect nuanced and accurate interpretations of our lives in this country? Moreover, if something like Latino pop culture can be easily botched by the media, can we expect a better job understanding our politics?
This is why, in this Hispanic Heritage Month, I want to salute the Latino counterpublic. Thank you for your role in helping shape a unifying narrative for Latinos. A narrative that is nuanced and recognizes, but doesn’t dwell on, the differences between different groups. A narrative that fosters a sense of a common destiny that increasingly manifests itself politically in what I call a pan-ethnic ideology. Thanks to you, the Latino vote is a force to be reckoned with. Happy Hispanic Heritage Month to my fellow Latino/as.