National Hispanic Heritage Month in the United States: A Brief Note About Its Past and Future

October 4, 2019

As communities around the United States prepare to initiate the 30th anniversary of the first observation of National Hispanic Heritage Month, many citizens and attendants do not think to question the origins of what people have come to know as Hispanic Heritage Month. The complex history of this celebration started as a week highlighting Hispanic U.S. contributions, but over time has morphed into a month focused on education, self-healing, cultural healing, and rewriting history with a more encompassing lens. Is there anything that can be learned from the origins and transformations of a month-long celebration? Why do people celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month in the United States? Also, what does “Hispanic Heritage” have to do with the United States?

National Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated annually in the United States between September 15, through October 15. Every year around this time, large scale events happen all across the United States, each with a mission of bolstering Hispanic contributions, culture, and people. It is well known that Hispanic and Latinx Heritage are closely tied, but they are also both separate from one another and equally complex. The term Hispanic stems from a Spanish or Spanish-speaking background while Latino, denotes a close tie or heritage to Latin America, not necessarily of Spanish origin. The term Latino also has been written as Latin@ or even Latinx, to be inclusive of all gendered people. If Hispanic Heritage Month is to continue, community organizers and Latinx individuals need to be at the forefront of defining how to celebrate the month. As one interviewer in Yara's article put it, “Because Hispanic, as I understand it, refers to Spanish speakers, I would prefer a Latinx History Month” (Simón). Under these conditions, we can start to see how Hispanic Heritage Month is more of a “Latinx Heritage Month” for many people (Simon).

Cities all around the U.S. join in on the celebration. In Charlotte, there is Hola Charlotte; in Philadelphia, there is Feria del Barrio; The Smithsonian in D.C. hosts an event called ZooFiesta; in Coachella, California there is the Latino Short Film Festival; and this year New York will host the 54th annual Hispanic Day Parade (Weaver). Nearly every state in the U.S. does some regional Hispanic Heritage Month celebration. What is particularly interesting, however, is that the definition of what exactly “Hispanic Heritage Month” means for U.S citizens changes upon a person that you ask, and the time of the year that you ask.

According to the Library of Congress, Hispanic Heritage Month celebrates Hispanic American contributions to society and culture in the United States, while also honoring the independence of Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, México and Chile. President Lyndon B. Johnson during his first proclamation of Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968 notes those mentioned above, but he also highlights "Operation Bootstrap" in Puerto Rico - an economic developmental program after World War II (Proclamation 3869). President Lyndon B. Johnson also emphasizes "Hispanic valor in [war]," and even recalls "[Hispanic] missionaries…soldiers, and farmers who were motivated by a young spirit of adventures" (Proclamation 3869). This remark shifts the Hispanic narrative as something that holds value to the United States due to it's imperial and economic contributions, so we can presume that people celebrate this day mainly because of the Hispanic contributions to the USA final goal.

Hispanic Heritage Month originated as “Hispanic Heritage Week” in the Lyndon B. Johnson administration under Public Law No. 90-498 (National Hispanic Heritage Week). Later, in 1988 it was amended to be a whole month under the George H. W. Bush administration (National Hispanic Heritage Month). Hispanic Heritage Month ends on October 15th to align with the belief that Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas on October 12th. One question arises: what does Christopher Columbus have to do with Hispanic Heritage? In 1989 George H. W. Bush proclaimed of the first official Hispanic Heritage Month; he starts his speech by highlighting Spanish colonizers (Proclamation 6021). He recognizes the Spanish for settling in St. Augustine, Florida, while also commending them for establishing some of the oldest churches in the United States (Proclamation 6021).

At its surface level, the celebration was established to benefit and acknowledge Hispanic and Latinx contributions in the U.S. However, community organizers think otherwise. For example, some articles highlight how, despite its good intentions, Hispanic Heritage Month has done more harm than good. As Isabelia Herrera puts it in her New York Times article, Does Hispanic Heritage Month Need A Rebrand?, “Many of us bristle at the persistence of the term “Hispanic,” given its connection to Spain and colonization” (Herrera). It is evident that the origins of Hispanic Heritage Month acknowledge Spanish colonization, but many outright looks over the effects of colonization. It begs the question of whether Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrating the Spanish language, ethnicity, shared experiences, or even race. 

Similarly, Yara Simon notes in her article, How Do Latinos Really Feel About Hispanic Heritage Month? An Investigation, how “[she] found that many of the [Latinx professionals she] reached out [to] did not feel a special connection to Hispanic Heritage Month.” One of Yara’s interviews even as far as to say that, “[the] objective of Hispanic Heritage Month has been swallowed up by profit-seeking brands,” instead of celebrating Hispanic culture.

In an age where anti-Latinx sentiment runs rampant in the U.S., celebrating one another’s differences is beyond valuable. Just this year, one of the deadliest hate crimes against Latinx people living in the U.S. happened; killing 22 citizens. Would having more festivals for Hispanic Heritage Month solve the issue? It is hard to say, but it is clear to say, that for better or worse, Hispanic Heritage Month should go beyond celebration and reduction of the Hispanic/Latinx experience. Hispanic and Latinx heritage are closely tied, but they are also both separate from one another and equally complex. If Hispanic Heritage Month is to continue, shifting the attitude and approach to more healing and enriching should naturally be the next step. As an interviewer in Yara's article put it, "The formation of a Hispanic Heritage Month, at no point in our history here, has ever addressed or compensated the abuses the Latinx families of his and con generation endured” (Simón). Latinx and Hispanic community organizers, and individuals should be at the center of defining the praxis and meaning of Hispanic Heritage Month. While the participation of politicians who are non-latinx is valuable to some extent, Latinx citizens and communities ultimately need to be the center defining how Hispanic Heritage Month will be celebrated.

 

REFERENCES

  1. Meg Weaver. (September 18, 2010). "20 Ways to Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month". National Geographic. National Geographic.
  2. Library of Congress. (September 6, 2019). "National Hispanic Heritage Month".
  3. Lyndon B. Johnson. (September 17, 1968). "Proclamation 3869-National Hispanic Heritage Week".
  4. Pub. L. No. 90-498. (1968). "National Hispanic Heritage Week".
  5. Pub. L. No. 100-40, 102 Stat. 1012. (1998). "National Hispanic Heritage Month".
  6. George H. W. Bush. (September 14, 1989). "Proclamation 6021—National Hispanic Heritage Month".
  7. Isabelia Herrera. (September 14, 2019). "Does Hispanic Heritage Month Need a Rebrand?".

About Author(s)

anp176's picture
Antonio Ponce-Meza
Hi! My name is Antonio Ponce Meza, and I’m a 1st generation Mexican-American from Beaumont, Texas. I’m pursuing a B.S. in Information Science with a Certificate in Latin American Studies and minors in Computer Science and Gender, Sexuality & Women Studies. Currently I work as an intern for Panoramas, a scholarly platform hosted by Pitt’s Center for Latin American Studies. My hope is to one day be able to blend my interests in cloud computing and tech with Latin America and provide sustainable access to technology for those who need it.