By Katherine T. ’22
From Alexandria Ocasio Cortez to Cezar Chavez to Jennifer Lopez to 83% of farmworkers who risk their lives every day to put food on our tables amid a pandemic, Hispanic Americans have made extensive contributions to various sectors of American society. Hispanics bring their rich culture and perspectives to new spaces, challenging and redefining what America represents every day. In a 30-day celebration from September 15 to October 15, we applaud the accomplishments of Hispanic, Latinx, and Latino-identified communities and figures that have shaped our country.
What is Hispanic Heritage Month?
Hispanic Heritage Month is a time to acknowledge the vast contributions and influence Hispanics have had on the United States. Hispanics are the largest ethnic minority group, making up 60.6 million of the US population in 2019. According to the official website, the purpose of the month is to pay tribute to this colorful array of cultures and generations of Hispanic Americans “who have positively influenced and enriched our nation and society.”
When is Hispanic Heritage Month?
The month spans from September 15 to October 15. The start date was chosen to honor the anniversary of independence of five Hispanic countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, all of which declared independence from Spain in 1821. The next day, September 16 is Mexican Independence day (contrary to popular belief, it is not May 5), followed by Chile and Belize’s independence days on September 18 and 21, respectively.
What is the history of Hispanic Heritage Month?
In 1968, the National Hispanic Heritage Week bill was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson. It wasn’t until about two decades later that Representative Esteban Torres of California submitted a bill to expand Hispanic Heritage Week into a Hispanic Heritage Month.
In Torres’ words, “we want the American people to learn of our heritage. We want the public to know that we share a legacy with the rest of the country, a legacy that includes artists, writers, Olympic champions, and leaders in business, government, cinema, and science.”
Torres opted for a month instead of a week because he felt that the month-long celebration “will allow our Nation to properly observe and coordinate events and activities to celebrate Hispanic culture and achievement.”
Torres’ bill died in committee, but Senator Paul Simon of Illinois later submitted a similar one which successfully passed Congress and President Ronald W. Reagan signed it into law on August 17, 1988.
Hispanic Heritage Month Through a COVID-19 Lens:
Now more than ever it is imperative that we recognize the nameless heroes that have kept society buoyant during the COVID-19 crisis. Hispanic American farm workers continue to work the fields amid California wildfires, Hispanic Americans continue to work in meat processing factories with high rates of COVID-19 infection, and Hispanic Americans continue to be key players in the healthcare industry. Hispanic Americans are cogs in the intricate clockwork of our society and we must recognize these heroes.
The pandemic has renewed concerns over the health of the nation’s farmworkers since they “often earn poverty wages and live in overcrowded housing.” This year’s Heroes Award during the 33rd annual Hispanic Heritage Awards recognized nearly 3 million farmworkers who have served as essential workers during the coronavirus pandemic.
What does this month mean to Hispanic Americans?
Ms. Páez, an outspoken advocate for Latinx representation in our own community and curriculums, feels that “As Latinos gain more representation in the field of business, education, politics, science, and services, we still long and appreciate having spaces in which we can collectively celebrate our cultural differences and commonalities. That is what this month of Hispanic Heritage brings to me. Such an opportunity to rise up and say, ‘We are here. we’ve been here and we will continue to have a significant presence in the making of this country.’ We are no longer only on the sidelines.”
For many young Hispanics, this month is also a time of educating ourselves and the public. In the remarks of Melissa G.‘23, a passionate member of SOMOS the Latinx Affinity Group, “Often, Hispanics go unrecognized for their successes simply because of their ethnicity, because they are not what some people believe is the representation of America. Even though it is not taught to us what Hispanic Americans have accomplished for America, this is the month where we get to truly broadcast how Hispanic Americans have enriched society and contributed to the successes that America withholds today.”
Although the month is coming to an end, we should always keep the hard work and dedication of the Latino community present in our minds.