Hispanic Heritage Month: Renewing Our Focus on Food Security for All
Quisieron enterrarnos, pero no sabían
que éramos semillas
They tried to bury us, but they didn’t
know we were seeds
Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated from September 15th to October 15th, with its mid-month start date picked as a nod to the handful of Latin American countries whose Independence Day is September 15th. The history of Latinos in the United States is a long and complicated one. While there is a shared ethnic background among us, everything — even what to call that shared ethnic identity — is an unsettled matter. This month is a recognition of culture and resilience, but it is also a reminder that Latinos continue to endure targeted rhetoric from elected officials, higher rates of wage theft due to language barriers, and especially pertinent to our work at MAZON, disproportionately high rates of food insecurity.
An Abbreviated History
Mexican Americans have historically made up the biggest share of the Latino population in the United States, and in a lot of ways our story is woven into the very fabric of this country. Most of the Southwest, from California to Texas, was Mexican land and, although it was sparsely populated before American colonists settled in the area, there are people who never crossed the border – the border crossed them.
Gloria Anzaldúa, a scholar of Chicana culture, feminism, and queer theory, describes that “the U.S.-Mexican border es una herida abierta where the Third World grates against the first and bleeds.” This image of the physical border as an open wound is an apt description, but the wound is deeper than just a single geographical area. Deliberate harm is baked into our country’s social safety net.
For families without immigration stories, for the ones whose history can be traced back countless generations to the same land, the battles over territory have enduring impact. In the 1800’s, Mexican citizens and Tejanos were promised they would keep ownership of their property. They were promised citizenship. Neither of those promises were fulfilled. Meanwhile, an entire militia, that continues to exist as an official law enforcement agency today, was formed in Texas to “protect” white U.S. colonists — it went on to lynch hundreds of Mexicans, Tejanos, and Mexican Americans under the fallacious guise of “protection.”
For families who immigrated to the United States prior to the militant enforcement of the Southern border, the journey was less dangerous, but the welcome — even for day workers — was nothing short of state sanctioned violence. Checkpoints popped up along the border to “sanitize” immigrants by forcing them to take “gasoline baths,” a practice that continued well into the 1960’s.
Present-day immigration stories are different; the population of Latinos in the United States is becoming much more diverse with a larger share of folks from Central and South America, but their stories often include a harrowing journey. Dehumanizing policies along the border have only gotten worse; the stories of children — babies — detained in subpar conditions for days on end are testament to that.
Despite these deep and long-lasting injustices, the United States is home for so many of us now. Our culture, our food, and our music are part of the American story too.
By seizing their property and denying them full citizenship, the U.S. government set Mexicans in the Southwest back immeasurable amounts in terms of generational wealth. Especially vulnerable Latinos, like undocumented immigrants and folks who face language barriers, face the violence of careful exclusion from government programs, like SNAP, that they need to feed their families. This exclusion is based on arbitrary rules that often change depending on which federal politicians are in charge, while state policymakers often create even higher barriers to access.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s best estimates, two-thirds of hired farmworkers in the U.S. are Latino. Those same laborers who put food on the table for millions of Americans face disproportionate rates of food insecurity; a study in California’s Central Valley found that 45% of farmworkers face food insecurity. And it’s not just Latino farmworkers who face this issue — earlier this year, NPR found that 30% of Latinos face “serious problems affording food,” along with 32% of Black Americans and 39% of Native Americans, compared to rates among their white counterparts around 20%. Food insecurity is an issue that knows no race, ethnic, or gender distinction, but government response does.
Studies by the Brookings Institution found that families facing food insecurity are disproportionately Black and and Latino, and SNAP was insufficient aid even prior to the pandemic due to outdated models of food consumption and pricing. The new models have helped immensely in reducing food insecurity for Latino households, but the drastic decline in food insufficiency is primarily due to the expanded child tax credit so the future of this currently temporary support threatens any long-term progress. These payments were lifelines to all families, with an overall 25% decline in food insecurity resulting from these payments.
A Renewed Focus
This Hispanic Heritage Month, we must renew and refine our focus — not into finding a one-size-fits-all moniker, but towards embracing the diversity of the population, and working towards healing longstanding wounds. Our food, our music, and even our countries of origin are beloved and embraced as vacation destinations. It’s time to embrace the people, too.
This also means confronting shameful realities and working towards healing the wounds. We know that ending hunger means addressing the unique root causes and fixing broken systems. Hunger is not specific to any one group, and the pandemic has shown us that people are vulnerable to food insecurity in every state, every town, and every city in the country. It also proved that hunger is an issue that can be fixed with a strong government response that is equitable and just.
Our work must be like seeds: presumed buried, but in reality, planted.
Originally from Texas, Andrea is a first generation American and Chicana community organizer with her work rooted in amor por la patria y la familia/a love for the mother country and family. She has worked local and state level political campaigns in both the Rio Grande Valley and Houston, and most recently she worked as a Legislative Aide in the office of Texas State Representative Ramon Romero Jr. of Fort Worth. She currently serves as Legislative Assistant at MAZON’s office in Washington, DC.