GW Celebrates Latin Heritage with ‘Ritmos y Raíces’

Students shared what they hope the community will gain from this year’s month-long celebration, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15.

September 15, 2023

Graphic with text "Latin Heritage Celebration"

“Ritmos y Raíces,” the theme of the George Washington University’s 2023 Latin Heritage Celebration (LHC), has a particular resonance for senior Estefania Hernández Aguirre. Roughly translating to “rhythm and roots,” the theme reminds Aguirre not only of the music she plays constantly—“I don’t go a singular day where I'm not playing music while doing any kind of task, cleaning, studying, cooking,” she said—but also of the strength, connection, joy and perseverance she and other members of GW’s Latin community draw from their heritage.

“Think of a tree: no matter how much you cut it, it’s going to keep coming back as long as the root is still in the ground for it to get nutrients,” said Aguirre, a member of Latina sorority Latinas Promoviendo Comunidad/Lambda Pi Chi. “When that root is fed, it’s going to keep growing. In a way, it’s similar for us. As long as we know where our roots lie, we can go from there.”

Aguirre is one of many GW students and community members involved in bringing this year’s LHC to life from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. For these students from 11 participating student organizations, the celebration serves as an opportunity to bring GW’s Latine community together and to spotlight its accomplishments at the university and beyond.

“This month, we are proud to honor and celebrate the vibrant tapestry of cultures and traditions throughout the Latinx/e/o/a and Hispanic communities,” GW President Ellen M. Granberg said. “These contributions continue to enrich our GW family and remind us of our shared responsibility to cultivate a diverse and inclusive environment where everyone is welcome, valued and empowered.”

What is nationally known as Hispanic Heritage Month began in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week, introduced by U.S. Rep George E. Brown (D-Calif.) and signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. In 1988, U.S. Rep Esteban E. Torres (D-Calif.) introduced a proposal to expand the celebration through a 30-day period. The bill was stewarded through the Senate by Sen. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and signed by President Ronald Reagan that same year.

Latin Heritage Month celebrates the rich history, culture and contributions of Latine individuals and communities whose ancestry can be traced to dozens of countries in the Americas and the Caribbean. Its celebration during the months of September and October overlaps with the independence days of several Latin American countries.

Student leaders helped develop and choose this year’s theme during a meeting for interested participants at GW’s Multicultural Student Services Center, at which they brainstormed a series of possible central anchors for this year’s programming. After a lively discussion of how language, inclusion and authenticity should inform their theme and what message they hoped it would send, student leaders from GW Casa Blanca suggested that “Ritmos y Raíces” could weave together many of these threads.

Senior Ángel Lagunas, a creative writing major from Houston, is co-founder and vice president of UndocuGW, the university’s chapter of advocacy and education nonprofit United We Dream (UWD). The organization, in fact, was born at last year’s LHC, during a Lambda Pi Chi-organized fundraising beauty pageant called “Nuestra Belleza y Galán Latine.” Lagunas, who was seeking to raise funds for UWD, discovered that fellow contestant Javier Oros was representing the same charity. The two collaborated to bring UndocuGW to campus, and Oros now serves as the organization’s president.

Lagunas said LHC 2023 is an opportunity to spotlight the achievements of a population still affected by institutionalized invisibility and to build a foundation for an even stronger future community—and, importantly, to have fun.

“Celebrating LHC at GW as a united front, bringing all of us together, is what builds community, especially with the upcoming classes who are new here,” Lagunas said. “It means creating a space for us to be able to strive together. ‘Ritmos y Raíces’ is both an acknowledgement of the fun parts, the celebratory parts of our culture, as well as the hardships and the past—the things that are often left behind.”

Students also hope this year’s LHC will provide an opportunity for their peers to go beyond GW into the city of which it is a part. Latine communities have long shaped vibrant D.C. neighborhoods like Adams Morgan, Columbia Heights and Mount Pleasant, a short bus ride up 16th Street from the Foggy Bottom campus.

In fact, if you’ve ever gone out to eat anywhere in D.C., you’re likely to have benefitted from the often-invisible work of Latine restaurant workers, said Lagunas, who worked as a server for two years. “Every restaurant I worked at, we’re in the back—we’re making the Italian food, making the Indian food, making all the other foods that we eat.”

This year’s LHC also is a chance to illuminate the diverse perspectives that make up Latine communities in the United States, said junior Denise Román, a business major and an event coordinator with GW’s Organization of Latin American Students (OLAS).

“‘Raíces’ means roots, not just one root,” Román said. “We can have many identities besides our Latine identity—some people are Afro-Latino, some are Indigenous. We are a very diverse community. It’s acknowledging that we are a community that identifies not only with one ethnicity but with multiple.”

Román said she became involved with OLAS because she wants Latine students at GW to feel the same level of community support that she draws from her large Mexican community in her hometown of Chicago.

“It’s important to recognize and encourage students that are here, to let them know that they're seen, because getting here wasn't always an easy thing.” Román said. “I wanted to help people feel like home—like GW is home.”

Alexxa Aponte-Vargas, a senior international affairs major and copresident of LATAM@GW, said that like Román she hopes LHC 2023 will not only unite the broader GW family in commemoration but also speak directly to GW’s Latine community—celebrating their history, their potential and their ongoing impact.

“Latin heritage lives in our music, our accents, our food, our friendships and most importantly in the space we take up when we see the potential our presence has,” Aponte-Vargas said. “As you go through our time at GW, know that your presence is purposeful, it is empowering, and it is a symbol of representation and inspiration for those to come. Our coming together, whether it is to cook, to sing, to converse, to educate, to learn, or to help each other in times of need, that is where our unique rhythm lies.”  

This year’s LHC includes ongoing book displays at the Multicultural Student Services Center and Eckles Library, featuring authors, artists and books from across the Latine diaspora. After Oct. 15, featured books will continue to be available for students at the MSSC. Opening Feb. 24, The George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum’s upcoming exhibition “Irresistible: The Global Patterns of Ikat” includes textiles from Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico and Guatemala.

A partial list of upcoming LHC events at GW includes:

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