The Case for Hispanic Heritage Month

We’d like to welcome our first guest blogger/interviewee Ybelka Medina as she makes the case for HHM!


I can’t say I grew up hearing the phrase “Hay que avanzar la raza” (“advance the race”) verbatim; but I do remember being told and feeling that whiter is better especially when it comes to finding a life partner.  Now as an educator entering her 7th year as a classroom teacher I am internalizing and reclaiming the phrase for myself.  “Avanzar la raza” no longer means to embrace my whiteness and reject my Blackness.  To me it means to embrace all parts of my ethnic heritage and help others embrace it as well so that they may make an informed decision about how they wish to self-identify.  

In the classroom this is especially important in this era where testing and accountability are synonymous with a White-washed history juxtaposed with the current climate on race relations.  This is why, as superficial as it may seem to some,celebrating Hispanic Heritage month is an important vehicle to start the conversation on these two divergent concepts; especially because it falls so early in the school year.   In order to avanzar la raza, all razas, one must celebrate Hispanic Heritage month in a way that encourages exploration of identity.  This means that we do not simply focus on the struggles and heroes of our history as Hispanics in the United States, but on how intertwined our own history is with other racial (Black) and ethnic groups.  We must explore and debunk stereotypes and dive into conversations regarding food, diction, hair, skin color because in the Latin world we are a spectrum of tans but never Black; why is that?  We must work the history of colonialism into this exploration to help ourselves and our students find a deep sense of love for themselves and peers regardless of how they identify.   

Q: How have you celebrated HHM in your 7 years as a teacher?

Sadly I have not until this point.  Prior to now, I thought it was superficial and that I should just embed these themes into my curriculum, which I did but also realized that it’s important for students to see that those are conscious decisions I am making.  When I was teaching in NYC I didn’t see how I could carve out a space for it so I never did; especially because year 1 I was teaching US history, year 2 all 4 years of global in one semester, year 3 2 years of global in 1, and then year 4 – same but in a different school with different rules etc.  So because it happened so early in the school year where I was trying to embed trust and a culture of learning and it seemed like we had no time until the January regents I never did.  Then year 5 I didn’t start until Dec and year 6 I didn’t see the point until Black History Month, where I focused on Afro-Latinas and saw the impact it had on my students and how for many, they had never stopped to think about their own intersectionality and that it’s okay to identify with different labels; which is why now I am advocating celebrating all heritage months; starting with HHM.


Q: Do you have advice for non “Hispanic” teachers  who want to endeavor in this?

Yes.  If you want to celebrate first think about what it is you want students to walk away with at the end and what exactly are you celebrating?  Are you celebrating the struggles that the culture has overcome?  Are you celebrating the culture for what it is? (The section from Coates’ book where he talks about how Black History Month was celebrated at his school comes to mind) For me, I want students to walk away with a deeper sense of what the label Hispanic/Latino means in the United States and how that relates to identity.  Once you have that in mind, map out how you want to get there.  For me that means, starting by dissecting the labels “Hispanic,” “Latin@,” and “Spanish” then mapping out what parts of the world this entails.  Next we are going to talk about the stereotypes within the Hispanic community and outside of it….we will end by looking at some historically influential Latin@s and some of today’s and why they are influential.  I also have to make sure that students who do not identify as Hispanic or Latin@  have an entry point and can connect to the materials because my goal is start the process of identity exploration as a community and not to alienate anyone.  

Now, not everyone’s path has to look like mine but you do have to know what it is you want students to walk away with at the end of the unit/heritage month as well as at which point in your class you will be covering this stuff.  For me, we do a 20 minute lesson on it on Fridays during a section of the school day called PRIDE (seems appropriate, no?).  So for a non Hispanic/Latino teacher knowing what the end value is as well as how much time a week/day you will be dedicating is very important.  And then obviously educate yourself.  Do not just do a simple google search about Hispanic Heritage month but move beyond that so you are doing an authentic connection.  (A simple google search will lead you to lessons on how to make maraccas, and Day of the Dead activities, etc, which are part Mexican culture but does not apply to ALL Hispanic/Latinos).   Reach out to your Hispanic/Latin@ peers, colleagues and friends for advice and inspiration.  And if traditions and music is what you want to highlight that is okay, but make sure you go beyond Mexican culture as that does not encompass all Latin@s, despite what the internet may tell you.  But mainly be ready to answer questions and explain why you believe this is important; and you HAVE to have a good answer, otherwise students will not buy in.


Q: How would you like to celebrate HHM?

I want to celebrate HHM by focusing on what the labels mean and how that relates to identity.  We would do that through activities that look at the labels, maps, traditions, celebrations, possible political issues, and past and present influencers.   My goal is to have a trivia event at the end of HHM with the class where they win something.  Not sure what yet, but maybe just bragging rights lol

I am a Dominican ex patriot living and teaching in Springfield, Mass.  I am a 7th year classroom teacher that has recently come to terms with the journey of my own racial identity.  As a women that identifies as a Dominican Afro-Latina but that is often labeled by others as white, this journey of self love, self acceptance and confidence has taken a while but I am happy about where this journey has taken me.  I no longer shy away from correcting people when they make assumptions about me, my people, or any people.  As a result I have come to realize that I can help other educators start on their own path not only for their benefit but for that of the children they teach.  I am currently a middle school ESL teacher at UP Academy Kennedy in Springfield, Mass. My position as an ESL teacher allows a great entry into further exploring ethnic identity with my colleagues.



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