A brief history of Hispanic Heritage Month

Every year, from September 15 to October 15, Hispanic Heritage Month is observed in the United States. It is a time to recognize the diverse cultures and histories of Hispanic peoples in the U.S., as well as how those communities have influenced and enriched the U.S. as a whole.  

Alianza, a student-led organization on campus “where Latinx students can meet to discuss and express ideas, concerns, and issues related to their culture and identity as students and Latinxs” (lawrence.edu), observed Hispanic Heritage Month with a series of events celebrating Hispanic culture, including a game night on September 29 and a Loteria night on October 6. Their Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration closed out the month of commemoration on October 13, with traditional Hispanic foods and games in the Diversity and Intercultural Center.  

Significant dates for many Latin American countries fall during this month, including the dates when many countries celebrate their independence from Spain: Central American countries Costa Rica, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador declared their independence on September 15, 1821; Mexico declared its independence on September 16, 1810; and Chile declared its independence on September 18, 1810. Belize declared its independence from Great Britain on September 21, 1981.  

Hispanic Heritage Month began as a week of recognition in June, 1968, when it was first introduced by Representative George E. Brown (D-CA). Rep. Brown represented parts of Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley that were largely populated by Latinx or Hispanic constituents, and “wanted to recognize the role played by those communities throughout American history” (history.com, 2021). Congress passed the National Hispanic Heritage Week bill (P.L. 90–498) on September 17, 1968; that same day, President Lyndon Johnson issued the first presidential proclamation recognizing Hispanic Heritage Week. 

From 1968 to 1988, Hispanic Heritage Week was acknowledged annually by presidential proclamation, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus celebrated by “citing examples of Hispanic-American contributions to the United States, drawing media attention to legislative interests for Hispanic Americans, and networking with grass roots and civil rights activists inside and outside the Hispanic-American community” (history.house.gov).  

In 1987, Representative Esteban Torres (D-CA) submitted a bill proposing that the week of recognition be expanded to the full month that we celebrate now, in order to “allow our Nation to properly observe and coordinate events and activities to celebrate Hispanic culture and achievement” (house.gov). He stated that supporters of the bill “want the American people to learn of our heritage. We 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” (house.gov).  

Though Rep. Torres’ bill died in committee, Senator Paul Simon (D-IL) submitted a similar bill which made it through Congress to be signed by President Ronald Reagan on August 17, 1988 (Senator Simon does not appear to be related to the Simon and Garfunkel singer). President George H. W. Bush was the first president to acknowledge September 15 to October 15 as National Hispanic Heritage Month, in 1989.  

This year, President Biden issued the traditional presidential proclamation recognizing Hispanic Heritage Month on September 14. His proclamation stated that “National Hispanic Heritage Month is an important reminder of how much strength we draw as a Nation from our immigrant roots and our values as a Nation of immigrants” (whitehouse.gov). Biden touched on talking points such as ensuring that Hispanic communities “benefit from investments in roads, clean water, and broadband as well as access to early education and other resources that support working families and improve educational outcomes,” as well as providing “a pathway to citizenship for undocumented Hispanics — especially Dreamers, Temporary Protected Status holders, farmworkers, and essential workers — through desperately needed immigration reform” (whitehouse.gov).  

Sadly, this proclamation rings hollow and performative — while Biden has made moves to help immigrants who have already put down roots in the U.S., his southern border policy still leans on inhumane Trump-era policies. When the Covid-19 pandemic began, Trump used a section of the Public Health Service Act called Title 42, which “allows the US government to temporarily block noncitizens from entering the US in the interest of public health”(Narea 2021). Biden has continued to use Title 42 to expel migrants from the southern border, denying them access to asylum or even a hearing before an immigration judge. Though Judge Emmet Sullivan of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia blocked Biden’s continued use of Title 42 on September 16, stating that the expulsion of asylum seekers “denies them the ‘opportunity to seek humanitarian benefits’ they are entitled to under immigration law” (Cooke and Rosenberg, 2021), the Biden administration is fighting the ruling. 

With respect to President Biden, he would do well to carefully consider his professed values as the president of a nation of immigrants. It just seems deceitful to honor Hispanic Heritage Month while deporting en masse the thousands upon thousands of Hispanic immigrants seeking asylum in the U.S.