In 1988, Congress authorized presidents to proclaim annually the period from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 as National Hispanic Heritage Month. President Ronald Reagan signed the legislation, and his successor, President George H.W. Bush, confirmed that “the rich ethnic heritage of Hispanic Americans gives us cause to celebrate it as a proud and colorful portion of our Nation’s heritage.”
President Donald Trump’s 2018 proclamation stated, “For generations, Hispanic Americans have played a pivotal role in our country’s strength and prosperity. Their spirit, energy, and leadership are woven into the culture of America, and enrich all our lives.”
Hispania is the Latin word for Spain. In the USA, Hispanic, like Latino, refers to people of Latin American descent, particularly those with ties to Mexico, the Caribbean, or Central America. By that definition, almost 60 million people today, or 18 percent of the total U.S. population, qualify as Hispanic.
From 1513 to 1542, Spanish explorers visited the land of the Timucua and Muskogean peoples, the region we now call the U.S. South. St. Augustine, Fla., founded by Spaniards in 1565, is the oldest existing European settlement in North America, preceding Jamestown, Va., by 42 years.
In the 1540s, Spanish explorers reached the land of the O’odham and Pueblo peoples, now called the Southwest. By 1776, a chain of Spanish settlements stretched from Texas to California, and included San Antonio (1718), Albuquerque (1706), Tucson (1775), San Diego (1769), and San Francisco (1776).
Simply put, Spanish-speakers played as big a role as English-speakers in the early founding of what became the USA.
In 1846-48, U.S. forces invaded Mexico and forced the Mexican government to cede its northern territorial claims. The Spanish-speaking residents of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California hadn’t come to the USA, the USA had come to them. Today, many Hispanic residents can trace their ancestry — Spanish, Mexican, and Native American—back to the Southwest long before U.S. arrival.
For many years after 1848, people moved freely across the Mexican-U.S. border. Mexican trabajadores expanded the agricultural and mining economy in the Southwest. Vaqueros introduced the techniques, clothing, and equipment of cowboying, and gave us words like bronco, buckaroo, chaps, lasso, mustang, ranch, rodeo, and stampede.
During periods of high unemployment, like the Great Depression (1929-40), federal officials deported immigrant workers and tightened the border. When labor was in demand, like during World War II (1940-45), federal officials recruited Mexican workers. When the U.S. military needed extra manpower, like in the early 2000s, it inducted volunteers from Latin America.
Today, the California economy — by itself, the ninth largest in the world — would collapse without the consumption and labor of its Hispanic citizens and recent immigrants from Mexico and Central America.
While Mexican and Central American cultures have profoundly shaped communities in the Texas-to-California region, other states exhibit a different Hispanic influence. Cuban food, music, and architecture are prominent in Florida, home to 1.5 million people of Cuban descent. Anyone born in Puerto Rico is a U.S. citizen, and 4.5 million Puerto Ricans currently reside in the USA, mostly in the Northeast. Nuyorican refers to the many Puerto Ricans in New York City and their unique combination of Spanish and English.
Among the more prominent Hispanics in the USA today are Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, astronaut and inventor Ellen Ochoa, chemist and Nobel Prize winner Mario Molina, musicians Joan Baez and Carlos Santana, entertainers Jennifer Lopez and Rita Moreno, and Olympic gold medalists, Dara Torres and Pablo Morales.
Despite the centuries-long connection to the place they call home, Hispanics often face racist discrimination. This year, with the controversial treatment of immigrants in the Southwest, and with the recent mass shooting in El Paso by a terrorist who wrote that he hated “the Hispanic invasion of Texas” and reportedly told police that he wanted “to shoot as many Mexicans as possible,” acknowledging Hispanic Heritage Month seems especially important. We should also honor the Hispanic residents of Boundary County and their contributions to our local community and economy.
Even if you don’t claim Hispanic heritage, you probably still have it — in language, food, and other cultural artifacts. Spanish words commonly used in English include adobe, bonanza, cafeteria, fiesta, guerrilla, macho, mosquito, oregano, patio, plaza, pronto, sierra, tornado, and vanilla. Perhaps you wear cowboy boots and a turned-up cowboy hat. Perhaps you listen to country music, heavily influenced by Mexican ranchera tunes. Perhaps you enjoy salsa, guacamole, and tortillas. And, from the Caribbean, barbecue.
Simply put, Hispanic heritage is not foreign; it is an indelible part of the U.S. American experience. Viva!
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Timothy Braatz is a professor of history and nonviolence at Saddleback College. Previously, he taught at Southern Utah University and Arizona State University. He has a Ph.D. in U.S. history from Arizona State, and is the author of several books, including “Peace Lessons” and “From Ghetto to Death Camp: A Memoir of Privilege and Luck.” Locally, he wrote and directed the dramatic scenes for Vicki Thompson’s recent productions, “A Common Beat” and “Stardust!”