The Hearst glossy's September 2021 issue was meant to be "a celebration of our community" — but for many, it missed the mark.
Each September, an all-too-familiar and predictable pattern emerges in media: National Hispanic Heritage Month, which takes place from September 15 to October 15, a federally-designated period intended to recognize "the contributions and influence of Hispanic Americans" (the U.S. Census Bureau uses "Hispanics" and "Latinos" interchangeably), which is typically met with a flurry of Latinx-driven articles and other types of content.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the month into law in 1968, so it's far from new. And, I would argue, it does have value: Growing up in (very white) Middle America, I remember local NHHM celebrations on my alma mater's campus being one of my few ties to understanding and having any sort of connection with my Mexican heritage. It provided a "safe space" before the phrase became common vernacular. It's where I remembered that, even if on most days I'd look around and not see many others like me, my community was there. And having this month inscribed into the government's official calendar gave me a way of knowing where to find them, even in the most non-diverse of places.
But in recent years, NHHM has morphed into more of a lightning rod than a unifying force. There is, of course, the fact that it's still officially called Hispanic Heritage Month, although some organizations (like the Human Rights Campaign) and individuals (including myself) have begun referring to it as Latino, Latinx or Latine Heritage Month. Plus, this heightened focus on the Latinx community and the accompanying "themed" content that surrounds it can leave many Latinx writers, editors and content creators across the board feeling frustrated.
Thatiana Diaz, editor-in-chief of Remezcla, a global media company aimed at a Latinx audience, argues that telling these stories exclusively from mid-September to mid-October can be too limiting, and make the reader feel as if "you're part of a marketing project."
"You don't see Latine designers, critics or influencers getting opportunities when it's not Latino Heritage Month," she says. "They're most likely getting panels and booked for fashion shows during this time, but not any other time of the year."
Media's insistence on relegating all things Latinx to a single month rings more hollow than ever as new 2020 census data reveal that Latinos accounted for more than half of the country's population growth in the last decade. How can a group with so much cultural and economic influence still struggle to secure seats at the table?
"It's really making sure you have the right people in the room," Diaz, who previously launched Refinery29's Somos vertical and People Chica, says. "What I love about consumers now is they're able to smell authenticity from a mile away. They're cracking down on brands because they want things to be aligned with them — it has to be meaningful. If you're missing the mark, consumers will catch on to that."
Last month, Elle debuted its annual September issue. This one starred Selena Gomez, and was billed as the magazine's inaugural "Latinx issue," an effort that had personal implications for Editor-in-Chief Nina Garcia.
"It's been a longtime passion project of mine to create a Latinx issue that's really a celebration of our community, that honors Latinx culture and is representative of the world we live in today," Garcia tells Fashionista. "I'm very proud of my Colombian heritage and when preparing for this issue, I couldn't stop traveling to my hometown of Barranquilla. This beautiful coastal town is where my love for fashion began."
In addition to Gomez's cover story (written by Arina Chocano), the issue featured various public figures whom Garcia describes as "trailblazers for Latinx individuals in the fashion and entertainment industries." Elle partnered with the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) to spotlight Latinx designers like Narciso Rodriguez, Lázaro Hernandez and Gabriela Hearst, in addition to emerging fashion creatives like Kika Vargas, who recently became the first-ever designer from Colombia to be a finalist for the LVMH Prize. Peru-born, Franco-Chilean curator Pamela Golbin wrote an accompanying essay that analyzed their impact in fashion, coupled with words from the designers themselves; the piece was shot by Emmanuel Sanchez-Monsalve, styled by Felicia Garcia-Rivera and featured models Joan Smalls and Manuela Sanchez.
Other stories in the Latinx issue included an exploration of who the "Latinx model" is today and a series of vignettes of nine Latinas, from "West Side Story" star Rachel Zegler to Texas Congresswoman Veronica Escobar.
"We're so proud to shine a light on the Latinx community and have received so much positive feedback from our audience," Garcia says. "We really wanted to honor this community and the way it has shaped American fashion and global fashion."
Elle’s Latinx issue has, however, been on the receiving end of some criticism, too.
"No shade to [Gomez], but I questioned that decision, especially today, when there are so many other artists that could also be a part of this conversation," says José Criales-Unzueta, a designer, consultant and freelance writer. "Why don't you make it multiple covers? Imagine having Indya Moore in Barragán or Shakira, [who is] still a legend."
In an Instagram post, Criales-Unzueta called out Elle for not styling Gomez in any of the Latinx designers it profiled within the same issue. (She wore Chanel on the cover, which was shot by Inez & Vinoodh and styled by Alex White; other brands in the spread: Moschino, Louis Vuitton, Prabal Gurung, Brandon Maxwell, Alessandra Rich and Gucci.)
"If you show me the editorial with the designers, that was actually beautifully shot," Criales-Unzueta says. "And they put it right next to the cover story. I'm like, 'How are these part of the same issue?'"
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In the piece accompanying said editorial, Golbin suggests that these designers handpicked by Elle and the CFDA represent a new wave at the cross-section of fashion and Latinx identity, juxtaposed with trailblazing heavyweights like Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera. She characterizes them as "the current crop of Latin designers bring[ing] fresh perspectives" to fashion. She uses that framing to describe both "emerging" talent like Vargas and more established, influential figures like Narcisco Rodriguez, who burst onto the scene in 1996 when he designed Carolyn Bessette Kennedy's iconic bias-cut wedding dress and has remained a force within the industry, or Hernandez, whose designs for Proenza Schouler have been racking up CFDA Award nominations for almost 20 years.
It's worth noting that there's little to no recognition of Afro-Latinx talent in the spread; race as a topic is glossed over without so much as a sidebar on little-known, emerging Afro-Latinx designers from across the diaspora. It feels a bit jarring, especially given the unmistakable role colorism has played — and continues to play — in the community at large.
Danielle Alvarez, founder and CEO of Latinx-owned public relations agency The Bonita Project, had similar conflicting feelings about the issue. While she calls it "a great first step," the leading visual is what ultimately fell flat for her.
"We all know, as fashion enthusiasts and magazine readers, the cover is what draws the attention and what will trigger you to purchase the magazine to begin with," Alvarez says. "It would've been nice to have seen a cover with Selena Gomez, but dressed in Latinx designers and/or have a backdrop that paid tribute to her Mexican heritage."
Gomez, a popular cover star, has done that kind of visual before: For her October 2020 Allure cover spread, she was outfitted in several looks that honored her Mexican heritage, including a nod to her namesake, Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, in the form of a crystal-embellished Romeo Hunte jacket and a The Way We Wore vintage bustier referencing one of the late Tejano singer's most recognized on-stage ensembles. In that same spread, as well as in her artwork for 'Revelación,' there were other cultural tributes, including Frida Kahlo-inspired floral headpieces and big gold hoops, a signifier of chola subculture. So, there's a precedent.
In the end, Alvarez argues, Latinx Heritage Month is about paying tribute and honoring our roots. "Nothing about the Elle cover spoke to her/our roots," she says. "Instead, the look had her resembling a platinum blonde Marilyn Monroe and dressed in European designers. This was a big opportunity missed."
In response to criticism, Garcia says that she and her team spend a lot of time thinking about cover stars, as each one adds to the magazine's "legacy and speaks to Elle's DNA," and when brainstorming choices for the Latinx issue, they ultimately "couldn't think of a better ambassador" than Gomez.
"Selena has been in the spotlight from a young age, and she inspires millions of people around the world by showing strength in her vulnerabilities," Garcia says. "I think what makes her so compelling and why we continue to be fascinated by her is that she's been so open and honest about her mental health and health struggles, and she's also so focused on making sure her projects have a charitable component, so the work she's doing is helping others. She's exactly what a strong Latina is — driven, smart, open."
Garcia references Gomez's recent Spanish-language debut as another reason for why she was an ideal fit to grace the cover: "She really embraced her roots in a big way this year with the release of her first-ever Spanish-language album. We all danced through 'Baila Conmigo' and felt her heal through 'De Una Vez.' The way Selena's music allows people to feel and relate shows the impact she has on her fans and why she's a global superstar."
For Diaz, both facts can simultaneously coexist: that Gomez is among the most recognizable Latinas in the world who's in the process of learning more about her own heritage, and that the cover could've been approached in different, fresher ways.
"There's so much talent, and for the Latinx issue, what [Gomez] has been doing in regards to connecting with her culture and releasing a Spanish language album is incredible," Diaz says. That's not to say Gomez isn't "worthy of the cover," she clarifies — but rather that an inaugural Latinx issue would've been an opportunity to broaden the list of talent that people know and recognize from the community, to push a lesser-known or emerging artist into the spotlight with Gomez.
"What a moment it would have been to highlight Latina talent that's not typically highlighted [on the cover]," she says. "I actually said this to someone, 'Selena Gomez could be on the cover for May or February.'"
One immediate solution for fashion titles: Don't feel like you need to relegate all this content into these four government-designated weeks. It's great to commemorate the occasion, but expanding this storytelling beyond that not only creates more opportunity, it also allows for more breadth and depth, for capturing the richness and diversity within this community.
"Specifically in fashion, these article roundups, shopping guides or profiles on fashion designers, they're usually just for Latino Heritage Month," Diaz says. "If we have our eyes on these communities year-round, the coverage and content will be so much more authentic. It's about looking at the Latine communities outside of Latino Heritage Month."