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Latinx & Hispanic Identities at the Intersection of Working at The People’s Music School

Latinx & Hispanic Heritage Month is a commemorative holiday celebrated since the 1960s that  recognizes the achievements and contributions of  Latinx & Hispanic Americans.

The month is significant because it offers an opportunity to discuss the diverse cultures and identities of Latinx & Hispanic people in the United States, as well as dispel prejudice and stereotypes surrounding Latinx & Hispanic communities.

At The People’s Music School roughly 50% of our students are Latinx/Hispanic, as well as a large number of staff and faculty. Thus, our school community represents a large variety of Latinx and Hispanic identities, cultures and experiences. To celebrate the month, we wanted to highlight a few of these specific experiences by hearing from some Latinx & Hispanic staff about the intersection of their identities with the work they do for People’s.

Read on to learn more about the history of the month, and hear from our staff members Felipe Tobar Blanco, Miriam Owens, Ariel Garcia and Pedro Guerrero!

History of Latinx & Hispanic Heritage Month

Latinx & Hispanic Heritage Month has been officially observed in some form or another since 1968, when President Lyndon B. Johnson designated Hispanic Heritage Week to celebrate the histories, cultures and contributions of citizens of Hispanic origin to America’s national heritage at the height of the Chicano Civil Rights movement. Later, the week would be extended to a full 30 days, starting on September 15 and ending on October 15 of every year. 

Although the 30 day stretch straddling two different months may seem a strange choice, there is a reason for the timing. Many Central American countries — including Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua — celebrate the anniversary of their independence from the Spanish Empire in 1821 on September 15.  Mexico, which became independent from Spain in 1810 on the 16th, and Chile’s anniversary is observed on the 18th. 

The time period also captures the mid-October observance of Columbus Day, which is more often celebrated as “Día de la Raza” in Latin American countries. Instead of honoring the colonial legacy of Christopher Columbus, Día de la Raza day commemorates the mestizo or mixed indigenous and European heritage of many people living in Latin America.

Beyond anniversaries of independence, the month has also become a vital opportunity to counter ignorance, prejudice and fear through educating the general public about multiculturalism, the history of the Americas, and countless contributions of Latinx communities to U.S. society. 

Chicano Rights Movement

To understand the designation of the month, it is also important to recognize that Latinx & Hispanic Heritage Month was grounded in the Chicano Rights Movement. The Chicano movement was both a human rights struggle and a movement for liberation that primarily took place in the 1960s. It was the largest and most widespread civil rights and empowerment movement by Latinx and Hispanic people in the United States in history.

The movement began in 1965 with a grape workers’ strike in California’s Central Valley (San Joaquin Valley) led by César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and others, to fight for better pay, working conditions, and respect for farm workers. Leading up to the 1960s, Mexican-Americans and other Hispanic & Latinx groups had endured decades of discrimination in the U.S. West and Southwest.  The Chicano Rights Movement formed as a way to address that discrimination.

The movement quickly came to encapsulate a lot of different initiatives affecting Latinx and Hispanic communities across the country, including demands for reform in education, labor, politics, history, and socioeconomic standing. Ultimately, the movement was incredibly effective, leading to many changes in the U.S., such as: the creation of bilingual and bicultural school programs, improved conditions for migrant workers, the hiring of Chicano teachers, and more Mexican-Americans serving as elected officials. 

Latinx vs. Hispanic: What’s the Difference?

In recent years, there has been a lot of discussion around the words Hispanic and Latino/a/e/x. The distinction is important because, although often used interchangeably, the words have very different meanings.

The word “Hispanic” as it is used in the United States today, was created specifically by the U.S. government in the 1970s for use in the census. It legally refers to “people living in the United States who are of Spanish-speaking origin or descent”, and is categorized as an “ethnicity” rather than a race for this reason. According to the government, “Hispanic” might refer to anyone from Spain or Spanish-colonized Central and South America and the Pacific — anywhere with a historical connection to Spain.

The word “Latino,” or its feminine form “Latina,” is derived from the Spanish words “latinoamericano” or “latinoamericana.” (Recently, there has also been a move to “Latine” or “Latinx” to be more gender-inclusive.) Any version of “Latino/a/e/x” typically refers to anyone from a country in Latin America, regardless of language. 

These labels still leave many in-between spaces, though. For example, Brazilians are Latinx, though not Hispanic, and Spaniards are Hispanic, though not Latinx. Filipinos are from a Spanish-colonized country, though on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. There is also ongoing debate as to whether people with origins in the South American countries of French Guiana and Dutch-speaking Suriname are technically Latino.

Throw in as well the mestizo, or “mixed”, racial background of much of Latin America, the interpretation of North and South America as one single “America,” and many other related questions, and you find a complex definition of the U.S. Latinx & Hispanic population.

Celebrating with the People of People’s

This month, we talked to staff members across our programs, development, learning & teaching and operations teams about their experiences as Latinx and Hispanic people, and how it intersects with their work at The People’s Music School.

Felipe Tobar Blanco

Professional Development Coordinator

Curious, Chilean, Multicultural, Composer

Being Latinx and/or Hispanic is not necessarily an all-defining identity. How else do you define yourself?

I’m a very curious person, always trying to learn new things, especially in the field of music and acoustics.

What does being Latinx and/or Hispanic mean to you? 

Being born and raised in Chile, it means a huge part of my heritage and at the same time makes me acknowledge my multicultural background. There is also a special connection with other people from all America (the continent) that share with me the same background. 

What does Latinx & Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you? Do you honor/celebrate it? If so, in what way?

Lately, the month has become more important. It’s a great way to talk with my son and daughters about their Hispanic heritage. We try to speak both English and Spanish as much as possible at home and this month is a very good opportunity for that. 

Has being Latinx and/or Hispanic intersected with your experience of music? Please explain.

Absolutely. I had the honor of playing with some great bands in Chile that dedicated a lot of their repertoire to Latin American folk music. I learned a lot about different styles and rhythms from all over the continent. Now I try to incorporate as much as possible into my own repertoire, compositions and teaching. 

Does being Latinx and/or Hispanic relate to, inspire, encourage, or inform your current work at TPMS? Please explain.

The Latinx and Hispanic community makes up a big part of TPMS students and parents. Sharing the same cultural background and language as Spanish-speaking families allows me close communication with them. My background also inspires some of the repertoire we have learned in orchestra lessons.  

Felipe Tobar Blanco moved to Chicago in 2011 from Santiago de Chile, where he is a violinist and composer. Felipe’s style is influenced by classical, folk and jazz. His repertoire includes South and North American folk and classical music, jazz standards and his own compositions. Felipe has played in venues in Chile, Argentina, Peru, the United Kingdom and the United States. He is a violin teacher, orchestra conductor, and Professional Development Coordinator at The People’s Music. He is a graduate of the Conservatory of the University of Chile and has a Master’s Degree in Applied Pedagogy from Northeastern Illinois University.   

Miriam Owens

Chief Operating Officer

Mexican-American, Ashkenazi Jewish, Musician, Mother

Being Latinx and/or Hispanic is not necessarily an all-defining identity. How else do you define yourself?

Lots of ways! My mother is Mexican-American and my father is Ashkenazi Jewish, so I identify as bi-cultural. I’m also a woman, a mother, a musician, and many other things depending on the day.

What does being Latinx and/or Hispanic mean to you?

It’s an important part of my identity, especially because it’s not immediately obvious when people meet me. Nothing about my name or appearance necessarily gives my Mexican heritage away. I get a lot of people asking me, “You’re something – what are you?” 

I grew up in San Antonio, Texas, which has so many people of Mexican heritage and is so hugely shaped by Mexican culture. I spent a lot of time around my Mexican-American grandmother growing up, and while she didn’t speak to me in Spanish exclusively, my brother and I learned “kitchen Spanish” from her. I didn’t grow up fluent, but I have a good Spanish accent from hearing it so much growing up, and I learned to speak it conversationally in college. Some people mistake me for fluent after a few phrases, but I’m definitely still learning!

Where my Mexican heritage influences me most from day to day is in food. Tex-Mex food is different from Mexican food – it’s an American regional cuisine, not necessarily something you’ll find in the country of Mexico. I have strong opinions about Tex Mex food, and you’ll often find me making a batch of fajitas with homemade flour tortillas (don’t skimp on the lard), or making potato and egg breakfast tacos like my grandma used to make. My mom always used to tell me that the true sign of a bad taco is overfilling, and to this day she can’t stand eating wraps with cold tortillas. I learned to flip tortillas on the griddle with my bare fingertips from watching my grandma. And even though I was raised Jewish, I would always go to my Aunt Carolina’s house on the South Side of San Antonio for Christmas, where we’d have incredible borracho beans and tamales. Food is where I have the strongest cultural sense memories and what ties me most viscerally to my Mexican heritage.

What does Latinx & Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you? Do you honor/celebrate it? If so, in what way?

I haven’t historically, but I might need to now! I think a batch of fajitas might be in order.

Has being Latinx and/or Hispanic intersected with your experience of music? Please explain.

Absolutely. I grew up in Texas at a time when Selena Quintanilla-Pérez was huge, and I remember having a couple of CDs of hers that I listened to on repeat. To this day I think I remember most of the words to most of the songs off of Amor Prohibido, and I think I did sing one of those songs in a high school talent show. I love singing in Spanish, and I identify with Selena because she also didn’t grow up fluent in the language but it was still so important to her musically.

Does being Latinx and/or Hispanic relate to, inspire, encourage, or inform your current work at TPMS? Please explain.

Yes! I joined TPMS fairly recently, and I am so thrilled that our community of students and families have such a broad Latinx/Latine contingent. I’m so excited to get to know the community in Chicago better, and to feel like I’m personally more a part of it. I also love that I can get a chance to practice my Spanish!

What do you wish more people knew about being Latinx and/or Hispanic? 

It’s not always visible, and not everyone has the same experience of it. Not all people who are Latinx or Hispanic speak Spanish, not all of them look like what you’d think, and there’s no “wrong” way to experience your Latinx or Hispanic identity. It’s also not a monolith in the US culturally or politically.

Anything else you want to add on the topic?

Come to my house for Tex Mex food!

Miriam Owens is the Chief Operating Officer of The People’s Music School, overseeing Development, Marketing, and Administrative functions. Prior to joining TPMS, Miriam was an Associate Partner at McKinsey & Company, where she was a leader in McKinsey’s Organization practice. Before joining McKinsey, Miriam focused her career in education: She was a 5th grade science teacher with Teach for America and a Program Manager at Raise Your Hand Texas, an education advocacy organization, leading programs that built the capabilities of public school principals. A native Texan and proud Latina, Miriam is a lifelong musician. She studied piano from grades K-12, and has always found opportunities to make music a part of her adult life. At Harvard, she spent four years in the women’s a cappella group the Radcliffe Pitches, serving as their Music Director and Stage Manager. She is currently the lead singer in the rock cover band Model-J.

Ariel Garcia

Community Manager

Mexican-American, Child of Immigrants, Helpful, Resilient

Being Latinx and/or Hispanic is not necessarily an all-defining identity. How else do you define yourself?

When I think about my identity in terms of race and/or ethnicity, beyond being Latino, I identify as a Mexican-American child of immigrants. 

What does being Latinx and/or Hispanic mean to you? 

Being Latino means joy. I love to be able to relate to others by exploring the similarities and differences between cultures of the Americas, especially in the kitchen. 

What does Latinx & Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you? Do you honor/celebrate it? If so, in what way?

Laitnx & Hispanic Heritage month is an opportunity and a reminder to educate myself not only about my own culture, but others’ as well. 

Has being Latinx and/or Hispanic intersected with your experience of music? Please explain.

In terms of music I listen to, I’ve developed a taste for many genres. In a single day, I will listen to Rigo Tovar, Marian Anderson, Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlán, Brahms Symphonies, Celia Cruz, Kid Cuddi, etc.

In terms of what I’ve performed, I can navigate through Western Classical Music and mariachi music.   

Does being Latinx and/or Hispanic relate to, inspire, encourage, or inform your current work at TPMS? Please explain.

I always tell people that TPMS is a place where I can be the adult I needed when I was kid.

What do you wish more people knew about being Latinx and/or Hispanic? 

Unfortunately, this community is one of several afflicted with the consequences of societal inequities and systematic issues. My hope is that people understand that in spite of these very real consequences, our community is full of strength and resilience. 

We were always told, both implicitly and explicitly, that success meant earning enough money to get out of the neighborhood. What people rarely mention is the fact that at one point, the amount of revenue generated by local business in Little Village was second only to Michigan Avenue.

Anything else you want to add on the topic?

Mexican Independence Day is September 16, not May 5.

Ariel Garcia is the Community Manager at The People’s Music School, where he primarily works on projects like family communications, managing service hours, the student fundraiser and family workshops. Ariel’s parents are both from the beautiful state of Durango in Mexico. His mother is from Los Pinos (near Tepehuanes) and his father from Escobedo (near Santa Maria del Oro). His proudest achievement is every time he is able to help a TPMS family with anything.

Pedro Guerrero

Development Manager

Peruvian, Immigrant, Advocate, Proud

Being Latinx and/or Hispanic is not necessarily an all-defining identity. How else do you define yourself?

I am so proud to be a Peruvian immigrant. I use these two words intentionally because I want people to know of the incredible culture that raised me and the motivations that I was raised upon as an immigrant to the United States. 

What does being Latinx and/or Hispanic mean to you? 

To me, being Latinx means preparing this world for future generations of Latinx people. As the United States’ racial and ethnic demographic is changing to accommodate more and more Latinx people each day, my effort to share my culture is more crucial than ever. By being proud of who I am and where I was born, I am actively contributing to the fabric of American society, and I hope other people can do the same! 

What does Latinx & Hispanic Heritage Month mean to you? Do you honor/celebrate it? If so, in what way?

Latinx & Hispanic Heritage Month is a start to celebrating many different cultures, but it is not the be-all-end-all of celebrations for Latinx & Hispanic people. I appreciate that there is now a month dedicated to amplifying the voices and experiences of people like me, but I look forward to a day when the same celebration of people that play an active part in building American culture is not confined to one month. 

Has being Latinx and/or Hispanic intersected with your experience of music? Please explain.

Yes! As an immigrant who was encouraged to assimilate to white, American culture, music has played an active role in encouraging a synthesis of cultures, rather than the strict replacement of my home culture. I have fallen in love with the music and sounds of Peru, and enjoy pointing out different influences when I hear or see them in music performance. Additionally, I find it important to acknowledge that a lot of the music that has influenced Peruvian culture (and Latinx culture in general) has also emerged from influences from various African countries and the people that were forcibly brought to Latin America to work as slaves. This often goes overlooked, and it is not right. 

Does being Latinx and/or Hispanic relate to, inspire, encourage, or inform your current work at TPMS? Please explain.

I am so fortunate to work at TPMS because of the incredible Latinx people that I am surrounded by in my work. I see a lot of myself in the students we serve, and see a lot of my own parents in the incredible parents that take time to ensure their children have access to music education. Additionally, I look forward to being able to use my Spanish to tell the stories of the students and families that come in contact with TPMS. 

What do you wish more people knew about being Latinx and/or Hispanic? 

I wish people’s initial reaction to identifying a Latinx or Hispanic person (specifically a brown Latinx or Hispanic Person) didn’t automatically default to assuming that the individual is from Mexico. Unfortunately, we have seen the onus of turbulent United States’ migration policy fall upon the Mexican people, which is unfair. Many of us from many different countries come to the United States–myself included. To assume that someone migrating or seeking asylum comes from a certain country, just based on the color of their skin, is totally wrong. 

Pedro Guerrero is a proud Peruvian immigrant, as well as the Development Manager at The People’s Music School, where he creates relationships with individuals that want to make TPMS’ mission more tangible within their own lives and raises funds for the school. Pedro has advocated for comprehensive immigration reform in Congress and within state legislature as both a Congressional Intern and a legislative Staffer in the Missouri Legislature. He also spoke at Loyola University Chicago’s 2014 commencement for the College of Arts and Sciences, where he had the pleasure of sharing his immigration story.


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