"Hey Google, what happened today in Latino history?"
Thanks to a collaboration between Arizona State University, the U.S.-Mexico Foundation (USMF) and Google, this is a question you can now ask any Google Assistant-enabled smart speaker, display or phone.
For each day of the year, ASU and the USMF worked together to curate a fact celebrating the achievements, culture and impact of the Latino community in the U.S. and the world.
To do so, they brought on two researchers and journalists with significant experience covering Latin America and Latino communities in the U.S.: Julio Cisneros Cabrera, professor of practice at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and Rodrigo Cervantes, an independent journalist and researcher and the former Mexico City bureau chief for Arizona’s KJZZ radio station. Andrés Martínez, special adviser to ASU President Michael Crow and Cronkite professor of practice, and Mia Armstrong, coordinator of ASU’s Convergence Lab, are leading the project for ASU. Throughout the project, the USMF and ASU are consulting various experts to provide advice on content, approach, sourcing and presentation.
The feature launched on Sept. 15, marking the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month, and content will be available throughout the year. The content itself is ambitious in scope — aiming to recognize important figures and moments, and ultimately to encourage listeners to dig in further.
ASU News spoke with Cabrera, Cervantes, Martínez and Armstrong about the what, how, and why behind the project.
Question: How did this collaboration of ASU, the U.S.-Mexico Foundation, and Google come about?
Martínez (ASU project co-lead): We have a very productive relationship with the U.S.-Mexico Foundation, a binational nonprofit organization that is actively working to build bridges between our neighboring countries and has also been a vehicle for empowering Latino/as and developing leaders in the community. I have the great honor of representing ASU on the foundation's board.
I really admired Google’s initiative and goals behind this project, and so when presented with the opportunity to collaborate with the U.S.-Mexico Foundation — under the leadership of Executive Director Enrique Perret — to curate the content, I couldn't say yes fast enough. Researching, celebrating and communicating the important contributions of the Latino/a population in the U.S. and throughout our hemisphere is a natural extension of ASU's commitment to serve our community and to reflect our state's demographic diversity and cultural heritage. Our university's purpose is to expand the universe of whom we include, and this takes many forms, from diversifying our student body to being more aware of, and grateful for, all those who have contributed to building our societies.
Q: What is the goal of this yearlong project?
Armstrong (ASU project co-lead): In short, to make it easier than ever for people to expand their knowledge of significant events and people in Latino and Latin American history. We hope that giving people access to short, interesting facts will encourage them to dig further into this history, which is key to understanding where we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going, as a country and a world.
Q: How did you go about gathering the historical facts for each date?
Cisneros Cabrera (researcher): I began by remembering names of people who inspired me. Then I started searching biographies in history books, later exploring the internet. But at the same time, I started asking people if they knew Hispanics who are making this country and this world a better place. We look to people who did amazing things in life, those who inspire us, those who changed the world with their ideas, those who made us look at life with a different and positive perspective.
Cervantes (researcher): The key word for the item search was: diversity. We wanted to reflect how rich our culture and history is, regardless of the background of the people, places or moments in history addressed. Unfortunately, many amazing sung or unsung heroes had to be left out due to space and balance reasons, but we hope that the project may truly honor our community and homelands, while inspiring generations in the present to build a future filled with awareness about who we are.
Q: What was the most surprising/interesting/noteworthy fact that you came across — the one that you turned to the person next to you and said, “Hey, did you know this?”
Cervantes: There were many surprises, I would say, even while researching people or events I thought I knew. For instance, I grew up listening to the ranchera music album of Mexican-American singer Linda Ronstadt (who received the Hispanic Heritage Award on Oct. 6, 2020). Thanks to my growing taste for Neil Young's music in my adolescence, I would learn about her country and rock background, but I had no idea until now that she was born in Arizona and, furthermore, that she's the first Latina inducted in the Rock N' Roll Hall of Fame.
Cisneros Cabrera: I knew of his accomplishments, but every time I go into detail about what he's done, I'm left fascinated: Guatemalan entrepreneur Luis von Ahn, a pioneer in human-based computation. He invented reCAPTCHA and is the co-founder and CEO of Duolingo, the world's most popular language-learning app. He was born on Aug. 19, 1978.
Q: What was the most challenging or rewarding aspect of the project?
Cisneros Cabrera: The most challenging was to choose a name among many great people who deserved to be recognized. The most rewarding is to contribute to highlighting the work of Hispanics, especially for future generations. I would love to see children saying “I am proud to be Hispanic; I admire this person — this person is my hero, my mentor; I want to be like this person.”
Cervantes: Like in journalism, fact-checking is probably the most complicated part; particularly while you work with information that relates to people, places or events that have been ignored or undervalued for a long time. Many well-known figures nowadays or amazing talents under the radar have blurry data or public information sometimes. Then it comes the challenge of identity: What does Latino mean? And many gray areas have to be inspected. But the most rewarding part is most definitely to know that these bits and pieces of information will transcend borders of all kinds — geographical, ideological, chronological, you name it — and will hopefully plant a seed of hope, inspiration and happiness into those who get them and wish to honor the legacy of the Latino community throughout time.
Q: Who are you hoping uses this?
Armstrong: In one word: everyone. Working on this project has made me reflect on how often my own history education has excluded Latin America and Latina/o/x leaders in the U.S. — and I’m certainly not alone there.
Representation is key. We know that being able to see oneself in the pages of a history book — or in this case, in the words of a voice assistant — is crucial. At the same time, as a non-Latina, it’s equally important for me to know this history. Sometimes, we silo Latin American or Latino history — maybe it’s a special-topics course, for example, instead of being integrated into core curriculum. But the reality is that Latino/a/x history is the history of the U.S., our region and the world, and it’s hard to understand one without the other. We should all be learning and celebrating this history every day, and I hope this project brings us one step closer to that.
Martinez: It is hard to improve on Mia's answer. I would simply add that while we often hear people say Latinos are not a monolith, it can be hard at times to find single sources that illustrate the incredible diversity of our community, and also the connective tissue bonding Latinos in the U.S. with people living across Latin America. As the son of a Mexican father and American mother born in Mexico, I am particularly eager to participate in any projects that help reinforce these cross-border ties between Latino/as.
I hope that through efforts like this, Latinos in the U.S. will gain a further appreciation for the rich history and cultural achievements of the broader Latin world, and that folks across Latin America conversely gain more awareness of how foundational Latino culture is to making the United States what it is, and what it is becoming.
Top photo by Christian Horz/iStock