Last week, Mayor Gerard Giudice on behalf of the entire city council proclaimed September 15 through October 15 as Hispanic Heritage Month in Rohnert Park. This 31-day period coincides with the yearly dates for the National Hispanic Heritage Month designation used throughout the United States. Let’s look at the origins and purpose of this annual event.
It was during the civil rights era of the 1960s that Congressman George E. Brown of California wanted to recognize the contributions of the Hispanic and Latino communities to the United States. During that time frame “awareness of the multicultural groups living in the United States was also gradually growing” according to the nationaltoday.com website. The purpose was to celebrate “the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America.” The observation started in 1968 when President Lyndon Johnson issued a proclamation for a Hispanic Heritage Week. President Ronald Reagan expanded it to a month-long observation in 1988.
Unlike other national heritage months which are usually celebrated within a single month, this one spans a few weeks in two different months. That was done purposefully. September 15 was used as a kickoff date because it coincides with several “Independence Day” celebrations in several Latin American nations. On that date, the countries of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua gained their independence from Spain in 1821. Mexico had previously declared independence from Spain in 1810 on September 16. Likewise in 1810 on September 18, Chile also became independent of Spain. Later, Belize was added to the Latin American countries celebrating this month after declaring their independence from Great Britain on September 21, 1981.
According to npr.org, It was President Johnson who coined the term “Hispanic” for this celebration. He said, “The people of Hispanic descent are the heirs of missionaries, captains, soldiers, and farmers who were motivated by a young spirit of adventure, and a desire to settle freely in a free land.” He also proclaimed, “This heritage is ours.” But the use of the term “Hispanic” as an umbrella term to cover a wide variety of people from many different countries isn’t without its critics. The use is primarily tied to the Census Bureau’s use of the term to categorize folks under this broad umbrella. Many preferred the term Latino, and more recently the term Latinx has become popular.
Part of the debate was the origin of the word “Hispanic.” It’s the English translation of the Spanish word “Hispano” which means a person “whose cultural traditions originate from Spain.” In talking with National Public Radio, Paul Ortiz said that starting point “immediately erases all of the centuries of pre-Columbian history, culture and civilizations that existed before the European conquest and colonization of the Americas… and that’s understandably upsetting to people who are not white.” He went on to say, “It alienates indigenous and Afro-Latino communities whose history includes deep resistance to the Spanish invasion and is not necessarily tied to Spain.” Ortiz is the author of the book “An African American and Latinx History of the United States.”
Regardless of where one might stand on the use of the term “Hispanic” for this month-long celebration, the purpose and concept remains the same. Certainly, it is to share in the diversity of the various cultures, the food, the dress, the music, and the dance. It’s also important to share the history of these nations as well of the contributions of Americans descended from these nations.
And not just the visible and famous actors, politicians, or personalities in the news. Yes Jennifer Lopez, Roberto Clemente, Rita Moreno, Cesar Chavez, and Bill Richardson should be recognized and celebrated; but during this month you might want to use your search engines and learn a bit about some not as visible Hispanics. Here are five to start you off: Victor Orozco Ochoa, the painter; Albert Baez, the physicist (and his family); Zoe Saldana, the actress; Jose Antonio Romualdo Pacheco, the statesman; and Ellen Ochoa, the engineer. In closing consider this quote from Cheech Marin, “We are a multicultural country – always have been, and to our credit, always will be. It is something that we should be very proud of and embrace.”