Fifty years ago, the president of this country had the social consciousness to celebrate the contributions of Latinos in United States during National Hispanic Heritage Month. It’s more important than ever to continue the tradition, tell our stories, share our joy, and dispel myths and prejudices. Hispanic Americans have risen in importance and power, but still, we are classified by color and culture.
An intertwined tale of Hispanic Heritage
Nogales, my hometown, is named after a walnut grove that belonged to the Elías family (Los Nogales de Elías), which was then a part of Mexico. Following the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, the Elías land was bisected with two nations staking a claim. It’s known to locals as Ambos Nogales (or both Nogales) and in my youth, the border had a predictable flux and flow. The two cities were intertwined. The border, at that time, was a barrier but not an admonishment. One community in two nations. My tale of Hispanic heritage begins in the pioneer days of the wild west.
A Prussian knife man and his homestead
Karl Holler came to U.S. in the 1870s, peddling handcrafted knives and scissors from his family’s company in Prussia. He and his Swedish bride traveled out west, as many did, in search of fortune. After some time in Sonora, Mexico, bandido raids pushed them north and eventually, they settled in Nogales. At that time, the city was little more than a railway stop and a post office, established by Russian rabbi Jacob Isaacson.
Edward, the eldest of the Holler children married a woman from Spain and had eight children, the youngest of whom was my paternal grandmother, Clara (at right). They established their homestead in a canyon an easy stone’s throw from the border. When my father grew up there, the border was a short fence; he’d buy bread through the fence for lunch. I spent my summers there in the house my grandfather Carlos, originally from Chihuahua, built facing the old Holler house. The border fence at that time was a taller chain-link with sheet metal patches. Much has changed since then.
A French Canadian doctor and the Mexican Revolution
Emile Cyrille Houle graduated from the University of Michigan in 1907 and came out west to work in clinics treating copper miners. Shortly after arriving, he was offered a one-year position on the medical car of the Southern Pacific railroad, traveling through northern Mexico.
He enlisted to serve in World War I in France, starting field hospitals, for which he was honored by General John J. Pershing. Following the war, he married his hometown sweetheart and returned to the Southern Pacific for the following 19 years. He was also named chief surgeon for the Southern Pacific hospital treating people injured in the Mexican Revolution and in Indian attacks and was honored by the Mexican president for eradicating Malaria in northern Mexico.
Dr. Houle’s youngest son, my maternal grandfather Alan Houle (below), was born in Empalme, Sonora, Mexico. The family ended up in Nogales, Ariz., where Dr. Houle had a practice for 32 years. My fair-skinned Mexican grandfather, who loved mariachi and trio music and had a wicked sense of humor unique to the borderlands, only became a U.S. citizen when he enlisted in the Army-Navy during World War II.
My grandfathers and their brothers were all fluent in Spanish, were proud of their Mexican culture, and lived their lives on the U.S./Mexico border. They all fought for the United States in World War II, and were proud of where they came from, with a strong sense of allegiance to their country.
A Hispanic who’s tired of hearing, “You don’t look Mexican”
Growing up on the border, I felt as Mexican as any of my classmates, but one of these things (me) was not like the others. I stake as much claim to my Latino roots as anyone else could, though my eyes are green when I’m tired and my skin burns easily. I grew up speaking with a heavy Mexican accent, more than anything, as a survival mechanism. In a recent episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, one of his guests says of the Mexican American community that we’re not brown enough for Mexico and we’re not American enough for this country. It’s an understatement that unites U.S-born Latinos.
It’s hard to conveniently put us in a demographic bucket and people are uncomfortable with ambiguity, so we define ourselves. To some degree, Americans of Hispanic heritage, whether Mexican, Boricua, Hondureño, or whatever color or flavor of Latinx, have more in common with each other than with the secondary cultures to which we feel fiercely loyal.
I spoke bad border Spanish until college, but it was important to me to speak English well, speak Spanish well, and understand both of my cultures, so I immersed myself fully in a personal cultural exploration. I brought my Spanish to an academic level and lived in Mexico, and although my ancestors hail from far away places, I felt at home there.
One day walking across campus in Tucson, Ariz., cracking jokes with my Mexican friends in Spanish, I heard the girl behind us say to her friend, “They should just go back where they came from.” I replay that scene in my head often, and if I could hit the rewind button on my life’s DVR with the fortitude and self-awareness I have now, I’d whip around and tell her, “I am where I came from. I’m American and I’m multilingual – deal. Why don’t you go home?” Of course, in the version in my head, there are expletives.
I always felt loyalty to Mexico and the U.S. separately, but more and more, as my belonging, authority, and culture are questioned, I realize that like Nogales – neither here nor there – I am Hispanic American and from a community with our own unique culture, challenges, and opportunities and a persistent sense of displacement wherever we are.
The antidote to ignorance is sympathy and understanding
In a fantastic NPR Alt.Latino podcast with 87-year-old Chicana activist Dolores Huerta, she says, “If people are not heard, if their stories are not told, this is why we get so much discrimination.” That’s why Hispanic Heritage Month matters.
You can’t always tell Hispanics by looking at them. U.S. Latinos are not a group of murderers and rapists. We are immigrants and natives, soldiers, executives, Supreme Court justices, celebrities, journalists, philanthropists, authors, thought leaders, parents, and neighbors. We have ties to South America, Central America, Mexico, and even the United States. Speaking with an accent is a superpower; language builds bridges to the world – more languages, more bridges.
As our values are coming into question, our determination and unity are being tested. National Hispanic Heritage Month is about striving to realize our ancestors’ American dreams with the ideals of hard work, earnesty, and equal opportunity, but it’s also about honoring and being proud of where we came from. Progress is progress, no matter your color.