“I think that whether it’s Latino History Month, or Black History Month, it’s important for students of all cultures to learn about people that look like them and maybe have a similar upbringing to them because traditionally, in American education, we haven’t necessarily highlighted these voices and these folks that are working to do something in their field, in their passions,” said Xochitl Dueñas, a Berkeley High School Latinx Literature teacher, on the importance of Latinx Heritage Month.
Indeed, national recognition of Latinx people came into fruition in 1968 under the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson, lasting just one week from Sept. 15 to Sept. 22. Only in 1988, under President Ronald Reagan, was it expanded to cover a 30-day period to become what we now know as Latinx Heritage Month. The start and end times of this month are significant; Sept. 15, the start, is the independence day of five South American countries, and the end date is Día de La Hispania, Spain’s national day.
This month, teachers at BHS make special plans to celebrate. Among these is a project conceived by Dueñas, in which students study a Latinx figure significant to them.
“I had each student pick a famous Latino or Latina and sort of do a poster highlighting their life prior to maybe when they were famous or whenever they created an impact in society,” said Dueñas. “They also have the option to … highlight maybe a family member, or someone who’s personal to them.”
According to Dueñas, the goal of this project is for students to learn about a Latinx person they’re interested in who may not otherwise be recognized in history at school. “And the kids have total freedom to pick somebody that is not just maybe historical, but maybe Peso Pluma, for example, somebody that’s all the rage right now in music,” Dueñas added. “Or, like I said, someone personal to them.” The project lets students learn more about historical Latinx figures and also the pop-culture icons and personal heroes who have influenced students’ lives just as much.
This kind of culture-oriented school project differs greatly from what students were assigned just a decade ago, and the lack of cultural representation in school is partially why teachers want to include Latinx history in their curriculums.
“For me, the reason I choose to incorporate these things is because I was never taught this when I was going through school,” Rafael Piedra, a Universal Ninth Grade ethnic studies teacher, said. “I’m a Berkeley High graduate. I never learned about it until I got to college. So, I kind of want my students to know a little bit about the things that happen in our own state when it relates to Latinx people. And I think it’s important that I also put a little bit of myself into the curriculum so that students can feel more welcomed and also to see that we’re all in this together.”
As much as cultural representation has improved, as demonstrated by the existence and celebration of Latinx Heritage Month, this time also gives teachers a chance to talk about the oppression of Latinx people in the past, given that the start day marks the independence of many South American countries from European colonizers.
“I think that it incorporates a lot of opportunities to talk about some of the historical reasons for why things look the way they do today,” Aislinn Klein, a BHS Spanish teacher, said. “The history of colonization, the history of revolution, the history of rebellion, the history of indigenous people, and the history of immigration, migration, voices, oppression, and just all of the different aspects. Just all the different things that continue today.”
Indeed, Latinx Heritage Month is a time to remember the struggles as well as the achievements of Latinx people, as both are significant. This month brings to attention how society can still improve in its representation and recognition of the Latinx community, though it has improved significantly in the past years. “I feel like in terms of the Bay Area, we do a pretty good job of bringing Latine culture everywhere,” said Piedra. “Like, if you look around, there’s a lot of events happening to talk about Latine history and stuff like that. So, I think we do a pretty good job, but I think in general, outside of the Bay Area, there is some stuff that we can still do.”
“I think (Latinx culture is) getting more and more popular, I’ll say that, like, from when I was in high school to now but I also think that, you know, what’s the harm of broadening that exposure as well,” Dueñas said. Some of this newly gained popularity is attributed to Latinx Heritage Month: by it being celebrated nationally, people who may not see as many Latinx people can still understand the contributions they’ve made to the country. In addition, from famous artists like Bad Bunny to actors like America Ferrera, Latinx representation has grown greatly in not much time.
“I think it’s a huge part of our community here,” Klein said. “It’s California history. It’s American history, and we don’t talk about that a lot of the time.”