Empowerment Through History: A Reflection on Latinx Heritage Month

Empowerment Through History: A Reflection on Latinx Heritage Month

September 2017

History is never more valuable a guide than in times like these. It tells us where we’ve been and how we got here, and it reminds us of all we’ve accomplished and contributed along the way. History is power. In the midst of adversity, history reminds us that the real story is the resilience of the people; how so many brilliant and talented minds continue to thrive in spite of the efforts of craven politicians, overzealous law enforcement, and communities conditioned to fear them. As we celebrate Latinx Heritage Month, we honor the heroes and achievements of the past, as well as those making history now, both nationally and here in our UO campus community.

This month-long celebration originated in 1968 and was observed under President Lyndon Johnson as Hispanic Heritage Week. Now, we dedicate every September 15 through October 15 to recognizing and honoring the contributions of Americans of Mexican, Spanish, Caribbean, and Central and South American descent. Their influence is all around us. So far in 2017, Latin@s have made a number of high profile accomplishments, spanning across all aspects of life. For example, Tom Perez was elected as the first Latino to serve as Chair of the Democratic National Committee and Catherine Cortez Masto became the first Latina in the US Senate. In business, Geisha Williams’ became the first female CEO and President of PG&E. While the aforementioned three and many others were exercising their influence at the highest levels of politics and business, others like Carmen Perez, a co-organizer of the Women’s March, impacted and energized countless people at the grassroots level. Lastly, in the world of sports, famed jockey Victor Espinoza was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

These achievements went largely under the radar of the national conversation. Instead, the narrative has been dominated by ICE raids, the end of the Deferred Childhood Arrival Act, and ever-intensifying white supremacist rhetoric targeting Latin@s in general, and scapegoating Latin@ immigrants in particular. However, this highlights why celebrations like Latinx Heritage Month are so important. They remind us that no matter what the demonizing rhetoric says, in reality, the barrage of attacks come from a place of fear. Some in our country, including many who hold positions of power, see Latin@s gaining access to opportunities and running with them, and it triggers their insecurities. They are afraid of the prospect of other cultures influencing the national landscape. Competing on an equitable playing field with all these talented, brilliant, and, most importantly, hungry minds petrifies them.

Yet, all the oppressive efforts can’t stop the demographic shift. Latin@s are a rapidly growing population and already represent the largest racial minority in the US. According to the US Census, Latin@s currently account for 16.3% of the population. In Oregon, as of July 2016, the Census Bureau reports that Latin@s make up 12.8% of the state’s residents.

Not surprisingly, the UO has also benefited from a growing Latin@ presence. The most recent demographic data from fall 2016 notes that Latin@ undergrads now account for 11% of UO students, which is up from 10% in 2015 and a long way from 3.5% in 2006. These growing population numbers are less pronounced in the Graduate School, with Latin@s representing 6.8% of grad students. This is up from 5.7% in 2015 and 3.3% in 2006. In terms of faculty, according to UO’s most recent Tenure-Related Faculty Demographics, Latin@s accounted for 5.2% of the UO faculty during the 2015-2016 school year. They also represented 39% of faculty of color.

To be clear, the influence of these students and faculty goes far beyond the numbers. For example, the Center for Latino and Latin American Studies (CLLAS) has been at the forefront of efforts to institutionalize equity research and improve faculty recruitment practices. CLLAS, MECha, Mujeres, the Latino Strategy Group and the UO Dreamers Working Group have also made a profound impact through community building and engaging others in the campus community with Latin@ history and culture. This work includes providing advocacy, scholarships, tutoring, and community education and outreach resources. By refusing to let an emboldened white supremacist movement slow them down, these groups are setting an important example for us all.

To borrow from a Maya Angelou phrase, in the midst of adversity, still they rise. While Latinx Heritage Month is a time to recognize and celebrate this resilience, let’s also use this time to think critically about what we can do to create a more equitable and inclusive environment for UO’s Latin@ community. The best way we can honor our historical heroes is by continuing to push their efforts forward.

Yvette Alex-Assensoh
Vice President of Equity and Inclusion