This weekend, the US wraps up its celebration of Latin American culture, begun September 15th with the start of Hispanic Heritage Month.
Since its creation a little over four decades ago, Hispanic Heritage Month has come a long way in terms of shedding stereotypes. Awareness of authentic customs and cultural significance has grown in tandem with the numbers of Hispanic Americans living in the US, now constituting roughly 17% of the population.
Coincidentally, our preparations for opening a Panama resort on Isla Palenque have had us ambling through Latin American culture more extensively than ever over this past month to fulfill our promise to guests that they will find an authentic experience when visiting our eco-resort. Not all of it has been “work,” either – preparing a menu of tropical cocktails and Latin culinary classics for our resort’s restaurants has led to some incredible taste-testing sessions, and we’ve discovered a world of stirring sounds and infectious beats while exploring the music of Central and South America. It’s these kinds of details that allow for the most meaningful connections between travelers and their destinations. And the results of our cultural investigations are something we are proud to share.
But all of these endeavors relate to our ongoing mission to provide a certain kind of travel product, one missing in Panama and in many other undiscovered places. Which leads me to wonder what an arbitrary holiday such as Hispanic Heritage Month can really accomplish. What sort of impact does a federally-mandated month of cultural awareness actually have? And what action can we take beyond infusing our speech with talk of cultural sensitivity for 30 days, in the hopes that our thoughts will follow?
I decided to open this conversation to a few people whose perspectives I trust. One of them, Stacey Holeman, founder of the Beca Project and leader of language immersion trips to Latin America, supports the message behind Hispanic Heritage Month.
“I think it’s critical to give everyone – but especially children – cause to celebrate diversity,” Holeman says. “It’s important for kids of all backgrounds to grow in their awareness of cultural diversity and the rich histories of other cultures. In other words, Hispanic Heritage Month is not only important for children of Hispanic descent.”
I agree that an annual, month-long reminder to celebrate our cultural differences is valuable – but ideally, Hispanic Heritage Month resuscitates ongoing efforts towards greater cultural understanding for people of all backgrounds.
We can pursue this from the everyday through earnest discussions, listening closely to people from faraway lands to hear the values that underwrite their customs and attitudes, and by favoring immersive travel that lets us experience these things firsthand.
As a US citizen who feels fortunate to have been born in this country, I am forever intrigued by the people I meet who’ve journeyed here from worlds away. And I usually try to talk to them about it. For example, I recently learned from a Russian nail technician that weddings held in her home country often exceed 300 guests and go on for days. I left the salon carefully preserving her handiwork to show off at my cousin’s wedding, which (thankfully) was attended by far fewer.
Provided I don’t get the impression it would make the person uncomfortable, I’ll also often ask a non-native person living in the US what their “real” name is. So many adopt an easier American name along with their new home country; as a Kowalczyk, I can understand the impulse. I forgot to do this with “David,” a Nigerian cab driver whose taxi I rode in last week.
He acknowledged a reality of life in the US that was hard to swallow and difficult to deny: we take things for granted here, despite tremendous opportunities we enjoy that are scarce or nonexistent nearly everywhere else.
Surprisingly, this sobering truth opened up a lively conversation. With a face-cracking smile, David laughed at the often idiosyncratic behavior of people living in this over-provisioned country, and I was helpless to the commiserating grin that overtook my own face. We agreed that in the absence of most challenges to basic survival, we’ve done a fabulous job inventing a rich set of first-world problems for ourselves. Still, David takes pride in his new life in the US, a sentiment shared by his family members still living in Africa. Prosperity is nothing to be ashamed of – but without an equal measure of global mindfulness, success leaves an aftertaste not worthy of savoring.
Progress towards greater cultural sensitivity continues, sometimes fueled by celebrities and public figures who garner the attention necessary to involve the mainstream in these efforts. This Hispanic Heritage Month, Obama ate at a Cuban restaurant, Hillary Clinton wished Belize a Happy Birthday, and Eva Longoria and George Lopez teamed up to host the annual ALMA awards recognizing outstanding Hispanic artists, musicians, and athletes prominent in today’s entertainment world. But these events only entered my consciousness as the result of a couple of purposed Google searches; a more lasting impression of the importance of Latin cultures came to me by way of a relative’s recent return from Peru. The pictures she shared from her trip opened a window onto a people and a culture that resonated more deeply than the most star-studded event could ever hope to.
Widely-publicized events often fall flat, as if clamor and hype only serve to attenuate the genuine expression of culture. To truly understand a different culture, it is often necessary to travel, while also adopting a humbler posture than anyone upholds at the galas and ceremonies – hunched over a traditional meal with elbows on the table in the home of a local, or kneeling in the dirt to learn a craft from someone whose ancestors have been perfecting it for generations. Among the Spanish-speaking countries whose past, present, and future we celebrate with Hispanic Heritage Month, you’ll find both the hottest tourism destinations as well as the undiscovered – and to continue in the spirit of this national event, we recommend choosing the latter when planning your next vacation. Sustainable tourism initiatives and development projects in Panama and beyond are following our example in inviting travelers to experience Central American culture authentically, and the positive repercussions of this movement will bear more fruit as time goes on.
For a life-changing travel experience that will deepen your understanding of the nature, history, and culture of Central America, we invite you to visit our Panama resort. It is my strong recommendation that you take a camera along – I know from my own experience that your photos have the power to foster awareness in those you choose to share them with back home.
Images of Peru courtesy Rob and Becky Swislow-Meyers.