A slew of activities are underway to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month. The observance, which runs Sept. 15 through Oct. 15, honors the cultures, histories and contributions of U.S. citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, Central and South America and the Caribbean. From entertainers to scientists and beyond, Hispanic Americans have had a significant impact on the nation.
But not everyone agrees on how to define the term. There are some who want to use the word Latino or Latina instead of Hispanic, arguing it is more inclusive and gender-neutral. Others, like the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, prefer to stick with the term Hispanic. The issue is not just semantics, but it highlights broader debates about how to understand and talk about the history of Latinos in the United States.
The foundation’s president, José Mora, says Hispanic Heritage is important because it helps to tell the story of a group of people who are often overlooked in American culture and politics. “Our goal is that every American learns more about the richness of Hispanic cultures, histories and contributions,” he says. “And as Americans, we must support the work of those who strive to make a better world.”
Hispanic Heritage Month was first proclaimed in 1968 by President Lyndon Johnson and expanded by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 into a 30-day period starting on September 15 and ending October 15. The observance is codified in the United States Code section 100-402, which can be accessed online via federal libraries.
In addition to celebrating Hispanic Heritage, educators are taking this opportunity to teach students about the many accomplishments of Hispanic people in all areas of the nation. For example, a number of prominent Hispanic leaders in medicine and science, including Dr. Carmen Novello, the first woman and first Hispanic surgeon general of the United States, made major contributions to research on AIDS and other health issues.
Hispanics also contributed much to what we think of as typical American culture: cowboy hats, the names of states such as Colorado and Florida, even barbecue originated from Hispanic traditions. They fought in the military, built cities and towns, and contributed to the economy of the country. “They are an integral part of American history,” says Mora.
For National Hispanic Heritage Month, NPR has put together a guide to resources from across the Library of Congress that highlight these contributions. The guide includes teaching materials created during NEH summer seminar and institutes, lesson plans for K-12 students, and think pieces on events that have shaped Hispanic heritage and culture in the United States.