Words are powerful. The words we use to reflect our identity can be the difference between a limited understanding of our history or a rich complexity of our culture, history, and contributions to society. They can also be the difference between how services are funded and who they are made available to. Within the immigrant community, there are many ways to identify. But within our society or within the U.S. Census, that diversity is not always reflected. 

Hispanic Heritage Month started out as Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968 and was then expanded to what we now know as Hispanic Heritage Month in August 1988. The month officially refers to the heritage, cultures, and contributions of people with ties to Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central American. Hispanic Heritage Month is observed from September 15 to October 15 coincides with the independence days of many Latin American countries. 

“Todos Somos, Somos Uno: We Are All, We Are One” 

— Jennifer Lasko, Human Resources Specialist and DEIA Advisor, U.S. Department of the Treasury

This year’s national theme for Hispanic Heritage Month is Todos Somos, Somos Uno: We Are All, We Are One. It aims to celebrate the diversity of the Hispanic and Latinx community while reinforcing the power of uniting together.  

Not everyone is represented or feels connected to the term “Hispanic,” which gained widespread use when a question relating to it was added to the U.S. Census in the 1980s. Since then, and with growing dialogue about the importance of self-identification, terms like Latino, Latinx, Afro-Latinx, and many more have grown in use in the U.S. to not only better reflect communities without ties to Spain but also to reflect the rich history of indigenous cultures and racial diversity within many Latin American countries. 

To better understand the nuance of Hispanic and Latinx identity and how this complexity is reflected within the U.S. health care system, we spoke with Alhelí Irizarry, a Community Engagement Consultant at Community Catalyst. In her role, Alhelí brings over 15 years of experience as a community organizer and facilitator to advocate for health justice resources rooted in race equity at statewide and local community-based organizations.

Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Author poses with a group of eleven community organizers in Chicago, Illinois
Alhelí Irizarry poses with community members and grassroots organizers in Chicago, IL
What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you and your community? 

Currently, this month feels like an opportunity to spotlight the many contributions people with roots in Latin America, Central America, and the Caribbean have made to the United States. However, it doesn’t encompass all the complexity that needs to be talked about and addressed within these identities.  

While the concept of “Hispanic Heritage Month” is newish for me, within recent years, I’ve noticed that it has been analyzed and challenged for its lack of inclusivity. Some feel that this identity was placed on people of different ethnic backgrounds to group us as one and often this leaves out a lot of nuances in our cultures and the ways we are different and unique within those cultures.  

What I hope the month could be is a reminder that as a country, we need to continue diving deeper into support, equity, and justice for all people who share in this identity…

What I hope the month could be is a reminder that as a country, we need to continue diving deeper into support, equity, and justice for all people who share in this identity and for the countries and communities they may represent.  

What hurdles or barriers do Hispanic/Latinx communities still face in the health care system?  

Despite being one of the largest racial or ethnic populations in the U.S., there are still everyday challenges to obtaining support in languages that communities from Latin America and the Caribbean speak. While we see more inclusion of Spanish, this is still only one language spoken by these communities, and not the only one. Many associate the Hispanic/Latinx community with immigration and think that our main barrier is status, and while that is probably one of the biggest hurdles impacting the community, it stems from systemic oppression and contributes to lack of access in basic human needs, like health care. Our community, like other communities of color, faces disinvestment, lack of access, language barriers, and a need for culturally competent services.  

How are Hispanic/Latinx identities and culture currently being centered in the health justice movement?  

Within the larger movement, the main way our culture seems to be centered is through language access, like printing and translating materials into Spanish, and even that is not guaranteed.  However, Spanish is only one of many languages spoken in the U.S. amongst immigrants and Latin American and Caribbean migrants, leaving out many non-Spanish speakers. Meanwhile, I see the many other ways we are dismissed, pushed to assimilate and distrusted, especially when it comes to our health. Often there is a disregard of forms of community and holistic healing that do not align with western medicine. Many of us who come from indigenous backgrounds rely on these methods as cures and they are part of our way of life for generations. Within the health justice grassroots movement, there are many organizations that are made up of and center Latinx communities in their advocacy and organizing. These groups work with communities and follow their lead to remove barriers to access to health care.  

Who do you feel is left out when we talk about Latinx/Hispanic identities and heritage? 

We don’t talk enough about Blackness, indigenousness, diversity, racism, colonialism, and colorism. And, at times, the full complexity of our humanness. We are trying to lump a group of people into a huge umbrella that is not and has never been homogenous. 

Holistic forms of medicine that can be used in tandem with western medicine should also be discussed more. There is no insurance coverage or space for practices like curanderismo, practices of traditional healing rooted in energy work, natural medicine, indigenous medicine and knowledge, community healing, and leading with positive outlooks. Often these practices are looked down on and dismissed, yet they are sacred forms of healing for many indigenous communities based in Latin America and the Caribbean.  

Are there any Hispanic/Latinx centered individuals or organizations you feel inspired by in the health justice community? 

Yes, all the folks tapping into their ancestral knowledge and roots. All the folks fighting for justice, to continue uplifting our communities and pushing for their complexities. I’m inspired by the racial healing work happening at the Culture of Health Leadership Institute for Racial Healing, who work with practitioners already advancing racial and health equity in their practices to further conversations around race equity in health care access.  Groups like Radio Caña Negra who are having conversations that center the Black experience in Latin America.  

This perspective is part of a series of interviews we’re conducting to better understand and reflect the lived experiences of people from systemically and historically excluded communities. We are grateful to our colleague, Alhelí for lending her expertise in community engagement in addition to her candor about the ways the health justice movement can deepen its commitment to race equity. At Community Catalyst, we will continue to work with our state, local, national, and tribal partners. Together, we can build power towards a health system rooted in race equity and health justice for all.