Colombian-German Jew Wrestles with ‘Hispanic’ Heritage Month

Be'chol Lashon's Julian Voloj on why he prefers the term "Latinx."

National Hispanic Heritage Month celebrates the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Team Be’chol Lashon asked our own Julian Voloj, the son of Colombians, about the history and significance of the month.

When is National Hispanic Heritage Month celebrated?

It is celebrated from September 15 to October 15. I admit, it’s a bit lame that Latinx people don’t even get a full month, just two half months. But in all seriousness, the reason why it starts on September 15 has to do with the fact that when it was created in 1968 under President Lyndon Johnson, it was Hispanic Heritage Week. Twenty years later, in 1988, President Ronald Reagan expanded it to a whole month.

The starting day is significant because September 15 is the anniversary of independence for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Mexico celebrates its independence on the 16th, and Chile on the 18th.

In addition, Columbus Day, which is celebrated on the second Monday in October, falls within this 30-day period. But the inclusion of Columbus Day underlines how the perception of Hispanic Heritage has changed in the three decades since National Hispanic Heritage Month was established.

What do you mean?

More and more people celebrate Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a counter-celebration to Columbus Day. While the former honors Native American people and commemorates their histories and cultures, the latter is seen as a representation of the violent history of colonization in the Western Hemisphere.

Another change is related to the terminology. Does it really make sense to still celebrate a Hispanic Heritage Month? The word “Hispanic” refers to a person who is either from, or a descendant of someone who is from, a Spanish-speaking country. This would, of course, exclude Brazilians since they speak Portuguese. However, despite the language difference, Brazilians have more in common with other Latin Americans than with their former colonizers from Europe.

So what term should we use?

Many people have adopted the term Latinx Heritage Month. Latinx is the gender-neutral version of Latinos/Latinas. The term has been around for a while, but it really only gained more prominent usage after the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016. Many of the victims were LGBTQ+ people with roots in Central and South America. Webster’s dictionary added the term Latinx in September 2018. However, a recent Pew Study found that only a quarter of American adults who self-identify as Hispanic or Latino have heard of the term Latinx, and just 3% say they use it to describe themselves. So it’s still a work in progress.

What term do you use?

In written form I use Latinx because it is inclusive. When speaking, however, I find that, “Latino” comes more naturally.

How do you yourself identify ?

I’m definitely in the intersection of cultures and identities. It starts with my last name, which comes from a Medieval German word that means “foreigner” or “stranger” but is spelled according to the Spanish pronunciation. Originally it was Wallach or Wolloch, but when my paternal grandfather moved to Latin America in the 1930s, he changed the spelling.

So your grandparents were immigrants to Colombia?

Three of them were, but my father’s mother was actually a native Colombian who converted to Judaism. My mom’s parents met in Colombia. Her father had fled Germany with his family before the war. Her mother, my grandmother, survived the Shoah with her brother and came to Colombia after the war.

But you grew up in Germany? 

Correct. Both my parents were born in Colombia, but I was born in Germany. And my kids were born here in the United States. Each generation was born in a different country!

Inside a synagogue in Bogotá, Colombia. (Julian Voloj)

Have you lived in Colombia?

I have never lived there, but I have visited the country a few times. It took me a while to embrace my Latinx identity, even though growing up as a Jew in Germany, I often referred to my Colombian roots in order to avoid telling people I was Jewish.

Can you explain?

The identity discourse is very different in Europe than it is here in the United States. I never saw myself as part of the majority culture. From the way I look, it was clear that I was not an “ethnic” German, and in American terms I would have been considered a person of color. Of course in Germany, we do not use the term person of color. Instead, when we talk about racial or ethnic diversity we talk about people with a different “migration background.”

Even if my family is rooted in Germany, we don’t look stereotypically German and people often assumed that I was Turkish, Italian or Greek. Being Jewish in Germany can sometimes be a challenge, not necessarily because of prejudice, but there is sometimes tokenism and guilt, so it was often easier to say that my parents are Colombians to explain why I look the way I look.

Funny enough, while I was born in Germany, I often had to explain or even defend my German identity. I rarely have to do it in New York, where everyone is from someplace else. Living here definitely strengthened my Latinx identity.

How so?

There is a lot of ethnic pride here. I’ve always been very self conscious about my German accent in Spanish, but in NYC I have many Latinx friends who identify as Puerto Rican or Colombian but do not even speak Spanish fluently.

Unlike the often ethnic national identity concepts of Europe, here you don’t have to choose between your identities, you can be one thing AND another. Therefore the name of this blog is also perfect for me. I am Jewish and… I am Jewish and German and Colombian and Latinx and a New Yorker. One thing does not exclude the other.

You have visited many Central and South American countries. How are the Jewish communities different and how are they similar to the ones in North American?

Like here, there are regional differences, but there are also a lot of similarities. For starters, in many cases there are the same immigrant stories, but someone got off the boat in Montevideo or Havana, and not in New York.

Latin American countries are for the most part immigrant countries, even if the perception is very different. For instance, I visited Once (pronounced OHN-tse), the immigrant district of Buenos Aires, and it really reminded me of New York’s Lower East Side, especially because there is a significant Asian population. Latinx identity is diverse; there are Afro Colombians and Asian Brazilians, and Jews with their own diversity are part of this complex identity.

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