For Hispanics in America, this is the Dickensian period. An estimated 57 million people — linked by a shared heritage forged in Spanish-speaking countries — are living in the best of times and the worst of times.
Amid this confusion, it’s time for Hispanic Heritage Month. Designated by Congress to give Americans a chance to recognize the historical contributions of the county’s largest minority, it falls on the calendar from September 15 to October 15.
Imagine Hispanics sitting by a quiet stream on a lovely spring day, plucking petals off a flower, asking the universe: “America loves me, America loves me not…”
It’s hard to know which is true.
There are days I think Hispanics are finally coming into our own, and other days when I’m convinced that hordes of angry and scared Americans are coming after us.
Fortune 500 companies spend billions of dollars on Hispanic advertising campaigns, vying for their slice of a much bigger pie — $1.8 trillion in annual spending by Hispanics on goods and services; at the same time, President Trump got elected, in part, by scaring the knickers off white voters in the Rust Belt states (Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania) by convincing them that Mexican trade deals took their jobs, Mexican immigrants are taking their culture, and Mexican gangbangers want to take their children’s lives.
Hispanics are influencing music, sports, food, fashion, business, media, publishing, and pop culture; but they have, each year, less and less influence over politics and politicians to the point where they are written off by one major party and taken advantage of by the other.
Hispanics get respect from employers by working hard and taking pride in a job well done; yet they get no respect in the political world because they don’t punish enemies and they stand by friends even when they get betrayed.
Hispanics are basking in prestige because some of them have broken through to the top universities, boardrooms, newsrooms, movie studios, television networks, tech companies, and digital platforms; but the vast majority of them live simple lives, work hard, and have no prestige, more likely to wipe a table than to sit at one.
Hispanics have presence, making up more than 17 percent of the U.S. population on their way to 25 percent by 2040; and yet Hispanics are, in a country that is stuck on a 19th century paradigm of black and white, largely invisible.
Lastly, Hispanics have power — to define social trends, reshape the mainstream and elect presidents. Of course, Hispanics are mostly powerless, unable to stop politicians who treat us like pinatas or combat cable news demagogues who cast us the cause of all of society’s ills.
In my role as a journalist, I spend a lot of time chronicling the Hispanic experience. Which is to say, I travel between two planets that are 100,000 miles apart.
On the bright planet, I talk to Hispanic CEOs who describe an optimistic and prosperous future where successful Hispanics will live up to their full potential and control just about everything, and Hispanic media figures making high six-figure incomes for simply expressing their opinions.
On the dark planet, I speak to Mexican farm workers who haven’t seen their kids in 10 years because, without documents, they go home again — unless they stay forever, and I listen to grieving mothers whose children were kidnapped by Uncle Sam at the U.S.-Mexico in order to secure the homeland.
One day, a few years ago, I was in an Albuquerque bar. There, I met a middle-aged Mexican-American woman nearing retirement who said that life had not turned out as expected.
She said that, when she was in college, she told herself that, one day, Hispanics would achieve their full potential, break down all barriers, and enjoy every opportunity. With that, she thought, would come respect and influence.
Well, she said, the years had passed by and there had been some successes — both for her, and for the Hispanic community as a whole. However, while — on a personal level — she did feel as if she had progressed a great deal in her own life, she could not say the same for the community.
On the larger scale, the respect never came. Any influence that Hispanics enjoyed seemed to diminish from year to year. The more numerous Hispanics became, the more panicked African-Americans and white Americans became — and the more determined to hold back Hispanics. As for the solution, she had no idea.
Me neither. But I know this much: Demographics don’t lie. America cannot succeed if Hispanics don’t succeed. And Hispanics won’t experience real success, until all of them do. It’s not enough for a lucky few to break through barriers, when what’s really needed is to create a world with no barriers at all.
Ruben Navarrette is a contributing editor to Angelus and a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group and a columnist for the Daily Beast. He is a radio host, a frequent guest analyst on cable news, and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors and host of the podcast “Navarrette Nation.” Among his books are “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano.”
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