Understanding the history and origins of Hispanic Heritage Month
Quizlet is proud to partner with teachers to showcase authentic voices on our blog. This guest post is by Katherine Spitzmiller.
Eight-year-old Sylvia Mendez wanted to go to the “beautiful school.” But public-school officials in her town of Westminster, California would not admit her because the school was only for white children. Sylvia, the child of a Mexican father and Puerto Rican mother, was told to enroll in the “Mexican school” instead, an institution consisting of two wooden shacks in the middle of the town’s Hispanic neighborhood.
According to Sylvia, who later described her experience to The Los Angeles Times, the Mexican school had run-down desks, second-hand books, and a different educational goal than the white school. While the white children of Westminster were learning reading and math skills and experiencing various stimulating programs, Hispanic children in the same town were being trained for work in manual labor and housekeeping jobs. Girls like Sylvia were taught knitting and sewing skills rather than academic subjects.
Sylvia’s father Gonzalo sought help from David Marcus, an attorney who specialized in civil rights cases. Together with four additional Hispanic families, Gonzalo Mendez and David Marcus filed a lawsuit in federal court that would eventually become Mendez v. Westminster.
In 1947, seven years before the case of Brown v. Board of Education resulted in school segregation being declared unconstitutional nationwide, Mendez v. Westminster began the successful desegregation of public schools in California. In a 2016 interview with The Los Angeles Times, Sylvia said, “Mendez isn’t just about Mexicans. It’s about everybody coming together. If you start fighting for justice, then people of all ethnicities will become involved.”
Stories such as Sylvia’s are celebrated every year during National Hispanic Heritage Month. While undeniably groundbreaking, Brown v. Board of Education was not the beginning of the fight for school desegregation in the United States. That fight began with a third-grade girl of Mexican-Puerto Rican heritage; a Hispanic child who very few non-Hispanic Americans have heard of despite her adult work as a civil rights activist and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom award in 2011.
National Hispanic Heritage Month brings stories like Sylvia’s into the collective American conversation and celebrates the culture, history, experiences, accomplishments, contributions, and legacies of Hispanic and Latinx Americans.
In the United States, the term “Hispanic” is used to describe a person who is either from, or is a descendent of someone who is from, a Spanish-speaking country. For this reason, the U.S. census bureau uses the term “Hispanic” to identify a person’s ethnicity, or shared cultural history, but not their race. “Race,” in the United States generally refers to a category of people who have shared inherited traits, such as skin color, facial features, and hair texture. These unique physical features are usually “associated with large, geographically separated populations.” Two people of different races may speak Spanish as their native language. Despite differences in their appearances, these individuals are both Hispanic.
However, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2015 found that two-thirds of people who self-identify as Hispanic consider their Hispanic background to be part of their racial background. This, according to the Pew Research Center, “suggests that Hispanics have a unique view of race that doesn’t necessarily fit within the official U.S. definitions.”
The term “Latino/x” refers to someone who is themselves from a country in Latin America or is a descendent of someone from a Latin American country. Latin America includes the islands in the Caribbean where Romance languages are spoken, such as Spanish-speaking Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic, as well as Mexico and most of Central and South America. Territories that are excluded from the regional category of “Latin America” include predominantly Dutch speaking Curaçao, Aruba, and Bonaire in the Caribbean, predominately English speaking Belize in Central America, and Suriname, a former Dutch colony in South America that maintains Dutch as its official language.
Today, Hispanic Heritage Month spans four weeks, from September 15th to October 15th. However, it began as just one week.
On June 11, 1968, a congressman from California named George E. Brown and nineteen congressional co-sponsors introduced a resolution to the House that authorized the President of the United States to proclaim “National Hispanic Heritage Week” every year. Two of the Representatives who worked with Brown on the resolution were Hispanic, Edward R. Roybal of California and Henry B. Gonzales of Texas. Representative Brown’s own district included a significant part of East Los Angeles, an area with a population that was largely Hispanic and Latinx.
The second paragraph of House Joint Resolution 1299 states, “It is in the tradition of our country to recognize, cherish and conserve the many cultural contributions of the people who have helped achieve the greatness of our Nation.” Representative Robert B. Price, in a statement about the resolution he helped sponsor, added: “It is high time that our immigrants and their descendants from Latin nations, as well as those citizens whose Spanish heritage and lineage within the current boundaries of the United States dates back to [pre-pilgrim] days, were honored in the same manner.”
On September 17, 1968, Congress passed Public Law 90-48 authorizing the president—beginning with then-president Lyndon Johnson—to declare National Hispanic Heritage Week each year and request that “people of the United States, especially the educational community…observe such week with appropriate ceremonies and activities.”
Nineteen years later, in 1987, U.S. Representative Esteban Torres of California introduced a bill to expand National Hispanic Heritage Week to a full month. Torres stated that the legislation’s Hispanic supporters “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.”
Representative Torres’s 1987 bill never made it through the committees necessary to move on to the Senate. However, in May of 1988, an intern to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Robert Lopez, accepted the task of working on a similar bill that would amend the original 1968 law by expanding the official observation of Hispanic heritage to one month.
Lopez later told CNN that he was excited about the opportunity and thought getting the necessary number of congressional supporters would be “a slam dunk.” Instead, he encountered resistance.
According to Lopez:
“People just didn’t want to support commemorative legislation. People said things like, ‘Well, why would we do that? Aren’t we all American? That’s not a thing we want to support’…I was a bit naive at the time and didn’t know what to do, so I asked the Black Caucus [for] help.”
To bolster his case with hesitant members of Congress, Lopez asked the Library of Congress for a list of Hispanic American achievements. He was shocked by the amount of history the researchers uncovered.
Lopez was a third-generation Mexican-American whose parents grew up in a part of California where speaking Spanish led to punishment by white authorities. The American society of his parents’ youth required Hispanic individuals to assimilate and “be American.” Lopez recalls that when he was in high school in California, there were no Latino or Chicano Studies courses available.
The 1988 bill, Lopez said, “became a lot about self-discovery.”
The new bill’s sponsor in the House was again Representative Torres. Amended in the Senate by Senator Paul Simon and passed in August 1988, the bill was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan. On September 14, 1989, the first National Hispanic Heritage Month was proclaimed by President George H.W. Bush.
The following year, Representative Dale Kildee spoke on the House Floor honoring Hispanic-American constituents in his Michigan district. He stated that during Hispanic Heritage Month, Americans were celebrating the contributions of the Hispanic community and “also commemorating the growth of our Nation’s culture, vastly broadened and enriched by its Hispanic citizens.”
September 15th was originally chosen as the first day of Hispanic Heritage Week because five Hispanic countries--Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Costa Rica—celebrate the date as the anniversary of their independence from Spain in 1821. In the following weeks, Mexico and Chile also celebrate independence days.
Robert Lopez told CNN, “I hope Hispanic Heritage Month helps people learn the things I didn’t know growing up, the importance of Latinos in our history, and the contributions they’ve made. [It’s] a good way to celebrate our own culture, but also for non-Latinos to be exposed. You can’t really understand American history without understanding Latino history.”