National Hispanic Heritage Month

September 15 – October 15, 2020
Looking backward and forward, but with stronger racial intelligence
By Grace Menchaca

Cultural recognition days, weeks and months are like doors. Visitors are welcome to turn the knob and enter a culture of food, dance, history and tradition. But when we leave, what do we take with us? That is a question to ask ourselves as National Hispanic Heritage Month comes during a time of unrest.

National Hispanic Heritage Month is a celebration of histories and cultures of the American citizens who have ancestry in Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. The month starts on September 15, the independence anniversary of many Latin American countries such as Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Within the 30 days of celebration and recognition, important dates like the Mexican and Chilean independence days (September 16 and 17) and Día de la Raza (October 12) add important historical context.

In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson signed Hispanic Heritage Week into law, which expanded to a month-long observation in 1988 under Ronald Regan’s presidency. The official website states, “The Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum join in paying tribute to the generations of Hispanic Americans who have positively influenced and enriched our nation and society.” October 15 officially marks the last day of recognition but is far from the end of celebrating how Hispanics impact the United States.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of July 1, 2018, Hispanics make up 18.3% of the United States’ total population, making people of Hispanic origin the nation’s largest racial minority. “Our culture is so rich and colorful and so alive. We have nothing to envy any other culture for,” says Eva Cruz Peña, a proud Puerto Rican and expert on emotional intelligence surrounding diversity and inclusion. “They’re there,” she notes about the Rochester Hispanic community. “When it comes to agriculture and manufacturing, or even in the restaurant industry, we see it’s full of Latinx.” Mayo Clinic’s world position and health care innovation have made Rochester an epicenter for international discussion and migration of Hispanic people. “It’s really beautiful,” she continues, “but at the same time, there’s a piece that’s sad because I know there’s a lot of invisibility, and it’s intentional.”

The Alliance of Chicanos, Hispanics and Latin Americans (ACHLA) is a local nonprofit that addresses the same issue of representation and equity in Rochester and the surrounding regions. According to the official website, ACHLA aims to create a better quality of life by offering educational opportunities, civic engagement, community partnerships and collaborations, cultural exchange and building capacity within the communities. Currently, the ACHLA is focusing on awareness of the 2020 Census and COVID-19 resources.

But of course, there is still room for improvement. “I feel Rochester has a huge opportunity to bridge the gap,” says Cruz Peña. There is a big pocket of the Latinx community, and the contributions are there—to the economy, but also the social life of Rochester.”

So how can community members—particularly non-Hispanic ones—support and learn more? The simple answer: Show up! Because of COVID-19’s swift and halting presence, many community engagement events in Rochester are canceled or are subject to change. Visit and for more information on local events and engagements. Readers can also visit to learn more and to access resources.

The more difficult answer: Have intentional conversations. Quarantine may cause stir-crazy Rochester residents to go out and celebrate, but what are the core reasons behind participating? “It’s a firm intention of having the desire to connect with somebody,” Cruz Peña notes. “It starts with a conversation with people about who they are and being curious about their history and heritage.” She adds, “We need all the voices in this conversation.”

Cruz Peña is a certified life coach with a bachelor’s degree in nursing and two master’s degrees in theology and mental health counseling. Her passion to help women reprogram their brains to welcome the topic of race and inclusivity inspired her Sacred Inclusion Master Class. “The George Floyd and Breonna Taylor incidents highlighted how ill-equipped women, especially white women, are in managing their own emotions when it comes to collectively being called out. It causes either reaction, defensiveness, or it causes them to shut down and not speak at all.” Cruz Peña helps women develop their ability to have uncomfortable conversations about topics like privilege and fragility, which is important when deciding to have intentional conversations.

Cruz Peña finds this difficult for others to do during a particular Mexican celebration. “I get very protective and cautious when I see Cinco de Mayo,” she says. “It’s one of the holidays that drives me a little bonkers. I feel people really don’t understand the meaning behind the day. It’s just an excuse to party.”

When asked about the difference between appreciation and appropriation, Cruz Peña explains that appropriation is taking elements from a culture that’s not your own for personal or profitable gain. Food and fashion industries commonly walk a fine line, even if it’s unintentional.

The most basic step to distinguishing both and building racial awareness is having the conversation. “I have found that Latinx people, and people all across the board, are very hospitable, welcoming and generous,” she says. “But if you’re invested in creating change or opening some dialogue, then get really clear about what the intention is, but also examine yourself and your emotional capacity.” In the end, awareness is key, but opening the door is entirely up to the individual.