Sometimes it’s easy to forget what Independence Day is really about. And Mexican Independence Day, celebrated on September 16, is no different. The territory now known as Mexico was once called “New Spain,” and Mexican Independence Day commemorates the decision of a group of landowners of mostly European descent to create an economy and identity independent of the Spanish Empire in 1810. But this decision did not necessarily produce the freedom Americans have come to associate with Independence Day. For Mexican natives and for those who had been enslaved in the Spanish territory, it spelled genocide and land theft even greater than what they had already experienced leading up to this cry for autonomy.
“It’s easier to educate kids according to this romantic idea of the nation,” says Dr. Emmanuel Ortega, who recently received his Ph.D. in Ibero-America colonial art history from the University of New Mexico and currently teaches art history at UNLV. “We have to understand history as an interpretation of events, and that interpretation is very one-sided for the purpose of colonization,” Ortega says. Studying images of Franciscan martyrs and the role of native resistance in colonial Latin America (which Ortega did for his dissertation) is just one way to uncover and reclaim parts of history that are not necessarily taught (sometimes not even mentioned) in school.
Ortega also works to bring that historical context to the foreground under the alias Babelito in the Latinos Who Lunch podcast. Since starting the podcast in May 2016 with local artist and best friend Justin “Favy Fav” Favela, Ortega has seen the digital media platform become a safe space to talk about things from food to politics to identity. This is especially true for the podcast’s many Chicanx and Latinx listeners, who prefer the “x” ending to avoid gender-binary descriptors “Chicano” or “Chicana.” And it’s based in Las Vegas.
“When I see the Strip, I don’t see capitalism, I don’t see spectacle; I see my family more than anything else,” Ortega said in a promotional video for Latinos Who Lunch. The podcast aims to increase Latino visibility in a town where Trump Tower gets more attention than the communities who actually built it. Babelito wants his audience to understand how cultures represent themselves (as Latinx, Las Vegan, American, etc.) and how those representations affect people’s daily lives in ways we are sometimes not even aware of.
“It’s not until you historically contextualize everything that you really understand how [systems of power] function,” explains Ortega. This applies to his academic career as well: “If I can do that through images, through pictures, it’s even better.” Studying and discussing art history connects us in new ways not only to our own history, but also to other cultures’ experience of colonialism. For example, Ortega cites how one of his shyest students gave a final presentation that blew him away—that connected Mexican art’s depiction of race to how race is understood in the Philippines. Rather than forcing one interpretation of events, Ortega focuses on sparking dialogue and an interest to keep learning.
“Being woke is very hard, but staying woke is even harder,” Ortega says of uncovering and coming to terms with history. “We tend to look at social media and feel like we know and understand how systems of power work today.” Which is why Ortega teaches his students to be critical of visual culture, and why Babelito speaks his mind when he talks about being Mexican in Las Vegas—to better understand how we got here, who we think we are, where we are going and what this means for real communities who make their homes here and in the United States.
Cues like fireworks and margaritas prompt us to celebrate national identity, which has been interpreted and reinterpreted for more than 200 years in Mexico. So, does Ortega have a woke way to celebrate on September 16?
“No, I don’t engage in any symbols of patriotism,” he says. “I don’t believe in the project of the nation, but nations are very real and they create borders and they separate people.”
Latinos Who Lunch