By Catherine S. Ramírez, author of Assimilation: An Alternative History
Each year, Hispanic Heritage Month gives Americans the opportunity to recognize the history and contributions of people of Spanish and Latin American origin in the United States. Yet more often than not, Hispanic Heritage Month emphasizes our past, rather than our future. What do we want our future to look like? And how do we move from institutional recognition to a just redistribution of power and resources?
To celebrate “the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America,” Congress established National Hispanic Heritage Month in 1988, during the “Decade of the Hispanic.” In the 1980s, the “Sleeping Giant” that was Hispanic America was supposed to awaken and realize its political and spending power. Put another way, Hispanics were supposed to assimilate.
In fact, the 1980s saw the Hispanic population grow from 14.6 million to 22.4 million. However, an increase in the number of people didn’t translate into a surge in political power, access to social goods, like health care and higher education, or wealth for the many groups whom the Census Bureau had classified as Hispanic. Among several disturbing trends, the National Council of La Raza found stagnant income levels and consistently high poverty rates for Hispanics in its 1990 economic postmortem of the Decade of the Hispanic. In Generations of Exclusion: Mexican Americans, Assimilation, and Race, their sobering 2008 study of Mexican American assimilation from 1965 until 2000, sociologists Edward E. Telles and Vilma Ortiz ask, “If assimilation happens slowly and direction is often uncertain, can we even call it assimilation?”
My book, Assimilation: An Alternative History, responds yes to their question. Rather than approach assimilation as a process of blending in, becoming more alike, or upward mobility, I show that it’s a relational process whereby the boundary between unequal groups and between inside and outside blurs, disappears, or, paradoxically, is reinforced. I study how social groups that aren’t immigrants, such as Indigenous Americans, Puerto Ricans, US-born Japanese Americans, and enslaved Africans and their US-born descendants, and groups that aren’t recognized as real or legitimate immigrants—namely, the undocumented—have been assimilated as racialized and subordinate subjects. By doing so, I expose assimilation as a relationship of power. Ultimately, I argue that assimilation isn’t only an outcome of immigration. Assimilation is also a consequence of Indigenous dispossession, US imperialism, slavery, and an immigration apparatus that produces and maintains illegality.
What’s more, my book highlights assimilation’s concern with the nation’s future. Since before its founding, the United States has been envisioned as white. Indians were supposed to vanish. Emancipated Blacks would colonize Africa. Chinese were excluded. Mexicans were expected or forced to go back to where they came from once their arms were no longer needed. Muslims are banned. Whether they’re native-born or newcomers, people who aren’t considered real, legitimate, or permanent members of society—in short, who are branded “illegal” and/or “alien” or who are seen as temporary “nonimmigrants”—don’t enjoy the protection of or from the state. Just are they’re erased from the nation’s past, they’re not welcome in its present or future.
While Hispanic Heritage Month recognizes Latinx histories, an essential step in including a minority or minoritized group in the polity as a legitimate, equal, and cherished member, it does little to address our present or future. For a healthy, safe, and just present and future for all, we need health care, especially during a pandemic. With or without work, we need stable incomes that allow us to provide for ourselves and our dependents. We need safe, affordable housing. We need to be able to vote safely and our votes need to count. And we need a healthy planet on which to flourish for generations to come. These are everyone’s needs, but if some continue to be seen as interlopers, as people who don’t or can’t belong and are, therefore, undeserving of recognition, rights, and resources, we’ll continue to live in a society of haves and have-nots, of putative insiders and outsiders.
Like institutional recognition, knowledge of history is indispensable; we can’t understand the present without knowing the past. But institutional recognition is nothing more than window dressing without a real redistribution of political power, social goods, and wealth. Likewise, knowledge of the past does little to serve us if we don’t ask who we want or need to become. To invoke the title of one of N.K. Jemisin’s stories in her fabulous 2018 collection of science fiction and fantasy stories, How Long ‘Til Black Future Month?, we need tomorrows just as much as we need yesterdays. We need Hispanic heritage and Latinx future.
 Edward E. Telles and Vilma Ortiz, Generations of Exclusion: Mexican Americans, Assimilation, and Race (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2008), 16.