What Hispanic Heritage Month means and how anyone can celebrate it

by 24USATVSept. 15, 2020, 7 p.m. 17
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In 2019 the U.S. Hispanic population reached a record high of 60.6 million, up by nearly a million from the previous year according to U.S. Census Bureau population estimates. In fact, in the last decade, the Latinx share of the country’s total population increased 2 percent from 16 percent to 18 percent, accounting for more than 50 percent of all U.S. population growth. They’re now the country’s second largest racial or ethnic group, following white non-Hispanics.

It’s surprising, then, that the annual observance of National Hispanic Heritage month is still relatively unknown. Traditionally, the monthlong celebration is meant to honor the cultures and contributions of both Hispanic and Latino Americans.

"Each year, Americans observe National Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15, by celebrating the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America," it reads on the official government website.

Why does Hispanic Heritage Month start halfway through September?

President Johnson first signed the National Hispanic Heritage Week bill into law in 1968, writing that he wished “to pay special tribute to the Hispanic tradition,” with the knowledge that “our five Central American neighbors celebrate their Independence Day on the fifteenth of September and the Republic of Mexico on the sixteenth.” Those five countries include Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, which all gained their independence from Spain in 1821.

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Each Hispanic Heritage Week that followed, presidents issued public statements and hosted receptions. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus celebrated the week by drawing media attention to Hispanic American contributions to the U.S., and to the legislative interests for the community, according to a government website dedicated to chronicling American history.

Nearly two decades later, Representative Esteban Torres of California submitted a bill to expand Hispanic Heritage Week into an entire monthlong observance. Torres remarked that he and other supporters of the legislation wanted “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.”

Torres’s bill was unsuccessful, but the intent of it lived on in a similar Senate bill that ultimately passed Congress, getting signed into law by President Reagan on Aug. 17, 1988.

What is the difference between the terms Hispanic and Latinx?

While the terms are often used by many interchangeably, they actually mean two different things. The term Hispanic was first introduced by the Nixon administration on the 1970 census and refers to a person who is from, or a descendant of someone who is from, a Spanish-speaking country. The U.S. Census still uses the term "Hispanic,” defined as the “heritage, nationality, lineage, or country of birth of the person or the person’s parents or ancestors before arriving in the United States.” It also emphasizes that people who identify as Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish may be any race.

The terms Latino, Latina and Latinx on the other hand refer to geographical origin. Someone who considers themselves to be Latinx might be from, or a descendant of someone who is from, a country in Latin America. But, just like the term Hispanic, Latinx does not refer to race.

Start by visiting the official government website, which keeps an annual calendar of activities and events, from performances to exhibitions and presentations. While local festivities are typically held in person, this year they will mostly be found online due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

From the comfort of your own home, you can make a plan to order regularly from local Latinx owned restaurants and businesses — learning about Hispanic culture through your taste buds by watching documentary series such as Netflix’s “Taco Chronicles” or “Pati’s Mexican Table” on PBS. Airbnb and actress Eva Longoria have also teamed up to plan a variety of “culturally rich Online Experiences from across the United States and Latin America that honor Hispanic and Latinx traditions.” The monthlong celebration will also culminate in an online cooking class taught by Longoria.

Try ending your days this month by cozying up in bed with a good book by a Latinx author, like the semi-autobiographical “Drown” by Dominican American author Junot Díaz, the magical realism novel “The House of the Spirits” by Isabel Allende, or “La paloma y la ley”—a harrowing photojournalist account of two Cuban migrants making the dangerous voyage to the U.S. border. Those with kids (or not!) will love re-reading classic books from their childhood, such as “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros.

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