What is Hispanic Heritage Month and why is it important?
Describing it as a celebration of culture and history doesn't really explain the entirety of the event or its significance. So to paint a better, more colorful picture, let's take a look at the origins of the month, how it changed with time, and how it's celebrated today.
The Origin of Hispanic Heritage Month
Before the was an official Hispanic Heritage Month, there was a shorter, week-long celebration. The idea for the event came in June of 1968 when it was put forward by California Congressman George E. Brown.
The week-long commemoration was part of a push to recognize the contributions of Hispanic and Latinx communities. This push had gained momentum earlier in the 1960s alongside the broader civil rights movement. It was a time when the national culture became less homogenized and started to reflect its true, multicultural nature.
Hence Congressman Brown's idea to celebrate his constituents. He was the representative for East Los Angeles and a large share of the San Gabriel Valley. Many of those he represented belonged to Hispanic and Latinx communities.
On September 17, 1968, Congress passed Public Law 90-48. The statute constituted an official request that the president issue annual proclamations declaring September 15 and 16 to mark the beginning of National Hispanic Heritage Week. The statute further calls for "people of the United States, especially the educational community, to observe such week with appropriate ceremonies and activities."
President Lyndon B. Johnson would answer the request. He issued the first Hispanic Heritage Week presidential proclamation the same day.
The Importance of the Dates Chosen
The timing of the celebration was not chosen at random. Rather, it coincides with the Independence Day celebrations of several Latin American nations.
September 15 in particular was chosen because it happens to coincide with the Independence Day celebrations of five “Central American neighbors,” as Johnson called them. Those nations are Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. All five declared their independence from Spain on September 15, 1821
Johnson's first proclamation also recognized Mexico by name. The nation declared independence on September 16, 1810.
Chile's Independence Day also takes place during that week. They declared independence from Spain on September 18, 1810.
And on September 21, 1981, Belize declared its independence from Great Britain. They would join the list of celebrated nations in every subsequent proclamation.
The Celebration Expands From a Week to a Month
From 1968 until 1988, presidents continued issuing yearly proclamations, setting aside a week to celebrate Hispanic and Latinx Americans. But in 1987, U.S. Representative Esteban E. Torres of California proposed expanding the event to a full month.
He argued that because the event seeks to honor so many distinct peoples, those communities should have sufficient time to plan and coordinate events.
A year later, Senator Paul Simon of Illinois submitted a similar bill. President Reagan signed the bill into law on August 17, 1988. The following year, George H.W. Bush became the first President to announce the 31 days we now celebrate as Hispanic Heritage Month. Appropriately enough, Bush was a sponsor of the original Hispanic Heritage Week resolution while serving he still served in the House.
Every President would go on to declare September 15 to October 15 as National Hispanic Heritage Month.
What Is Hispanic Heritage Month and Why Is It Important in 2022?
When Congressman George E. Brown proposed the original week-long commemoration all those years ago, it was a reflection of the changing times in the United States. The conception of who is an American — how they can look, the languages they can speak, the food that they can eat — was evolving.
Americans have always been diverse, of course. But the version of America that we recognize and depict in our culture has not always reflected that. Events like Hispanic Heritage Month were steps toward celebrating a more authentic, diverse reality.
And many people continue to use the month to show their pride in themselves, their families, and their communities. Every major city in the United States will have some form of activity recognizing the month.
Educational lectures, cultural dances and demonstrations, and even parades have all been popular celebrations over the years. And though the lingering pandemic is sure to put a damper on some of the revelries, you can expect plenty of activity throughout the country.
But it's important to know that the event continues to evolve alongside shifting perspectives. And some critics feel that the idea needs an update.
Evolving Perspectives on "Hispanic Culture"
To understand why someone might object to Hispanic Heritage Month, you need to understand the origins of the term "Hispanic" itself.
If you look at the most recent U.S. Census, you'll see that people were counted as Hispanic or Latino or Spanish if they could identify as having Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban, or "another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin."
And over the years, critics started to challenge that term and definition. It's a contentious identity with a complicated history.
The term derives from people who speak some variation of Spanish, as the name implies. While it's true that many people who would meet the Census definition do speak Spanish as their primary or secondary language, that's not always true.
The peoples from the region speak over a dozen major languages, and hundreds of dialects. Indigenous people object strongly in particular.
For them, the term Hispanic ties their identity to the legacy of Spanish Colonialism. Many still speak languages that the Spaniards tried to eradicate as part of their colonial policy. To them, being called Hispanic can feel like an insult.
The term similarly excludes Afro-Latino individuals and the descendants of Asian immigrants. And changing the name to Latin Heritage Month would not necessarily be an improvement. That has a similarly complicated history, and the term Latinx is similarly contentious.
Looking Toward the Future
The takeaway here is not to say that Hispanic Heritage Month needs to be abolished. Few of its fiercest critics would go that far.
But it does need to evolve.
The spirit of the original celebration was one of inclusion. So growing the concept to allow for more diverse voices and viewpoints can only make us all that much richer.
And as the celebration continues to develop with time, we can all agree on one thing. Cultural exchange is best enjoyed over a good meal.
Celebrating Cultural Influence With Latin Food
There are few better ways to observe cultural exchange in action than by looking at how cuisines in the same region develop.
The biomes of the Western United States, Central America, and South America are as diverse as the people who live there. And as people migrated over thousands of years, they brought new ingredients and techniques with them.
Here are only a few ideas for how you can use food to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month.
Classic Mexican Cuisine
Traditional Mexican food is very different from what most Americans will find at their local chain restaurants. Most believe its traditions originated with the Mayans, who used corn tortillas, fish, and chili peppers in their dishes.
Mexican cuisines would then evolve to make use of the influx of new ingredients arriving from Europe and beyond. The result is a selection of full-flavored dishes with an emphasis on fresh ingredients.
Here are only a few classic recipes that you can try.
Try a Vegetarian Mole
Mole is one of the more interesting cultural dishes. Some say that it was invented by a nun in Puebla around the 17th century. Others trace its roots back to the Aztecs, whose empire covered much of modern Mexican and into the Southwestern United States.
It incorporates ingredients from around the region to produce a dark, creamy sauce. Often served on pork dishes, vegetarians can delight in a vegetarian alternative using lentils instead.
Make a Sumptuous Pozole Stew
Pozole is a hearty stew traditionally made from hominy, a byproduct of maize. It can then be seasoned and garnished with a mix of shredded lettuce or cabbage, chile peppers, onion, garlic, radishes, avocado, salsa, or limes.
Most traditional servings call for pork as the protein of choice. However, a red bean pozole is just as delicious, and sure to delight vegetarians and carnivores alike.
Celebrating Those Who Influence American Culture
So at the end of the day, what is Hispanic Heritage Month and why is it important? The answer is that it's a growing, evolving celebration. And that's important because the ways that we celebrate our communities need to continue to develop and change alongside the people that they're meant to honor.
And conversations around people, food, and culture will continue changing too. To learn more about how we strive to be a part of that conversation, talk to us about how we're working to make good food and rich culture accessible to everyone.