Everything You've Wondered About Hispanic Heritage Month, Answered

Jonathan Borge
Photo credit: Getty
Photo credit: Getty

From Oprah Magazine

While you never have to wait for an annual event to take pride in your ethnic background, National Hispanic Heritage Month is a time for Americans with roots in the countries involved (or in Puerto Rico's case, the territory involved), to honor their respective cultures and the history behind them. In 2020, it kicks off on Tuesday, September 15, and ends on October 15.

Hispanic Heritage Month is a period meant for recognition, education, and celebration, similar to Black History Month in February, or LGBTQ Pride in June. And you can expect to see Latino celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez, Alex Rodriguez, Bad Bunny, Shakira, Maluma, Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony, Eva Longoria, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor pay tribute to those who came before them. But how do we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, and why is it recognized in the first place? Here's some essential facts to know.

What does Hispanic Heritage Month mean?

The celebration was created to recognize the positive impact that Hispanic Americans have left on the country. "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," according to the official government website. It takes place from September 15-October 15 every year.

As of 2017, the Hispanic population in the U.S. is 58.9 million—the largest minority group in the country—and is projected to reach 111 million by 2060, according to the 2018 Census report.

Who started Hispanic Heritage Month?

President Lyndon B. Johnson first introduced National Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968. Congress expanded it from a week to a month long beginning in 1989, after it was amended into public law in 1988 during Ronald Reagan's presidency.

In Presidential Proclamation 3869, available via the Library of Congress, President Johnson wrote, “Wishing to pay special tribute to the Hispanic tradition, and having in mind the fact that our five Central American neighbors celebrate their Independence Day on the fifteenth of September and the Republic of Mexico on the sixteenth, the Congress by House Joint Resolution 1299, has requested the President to issue annually a proclamation designating the week including September 15 and 16 as National Hispanic Heritage Week.”

In addition, the following government institutions honor Hispanic Heritage Month: The Library of Congress, National Gallery of Art, Smithsonian Institution, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the National Park Service.

Why is it first celebrated on September 15?

That’s the date when five Latin American countries—Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua—earned their independence from Spain in 1821.

Mexico, Chile, and Belize became independent on the 16th, 18th, and 21st from Spain and the United Kingdom, respectively.

What countries are involved?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the month honors “the culture and traditions of those who trace their roots to Spain, Mexico and the Spanish-speaking nations of Central America, South America, and the Caribbean.”

So while Hispanic and Latino are used interchangeably by many—Hispanic is a term used to describe someone of Spanish-speaking origin, while Latino, Latina, and Latinx are used to describe a person of Latin American origin—the celebration, according to the official description, recognizes those whose roots are from a country that speaks Spanish as the primary language. A person the Latin American country of Brazil may consider themselves Latino but not Hispanic, since Brazilians speak Portuguese and not Spanish.

How do people celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month?

The official government website typically keeps a calendar of highlighted activities hosted throughout the United States, from concerts to book and art festivals and parades. A majority of the festivities held throughout the United States are family-friendly and occur at the local level—and many are free. In October 2019, for instance, the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., hosted a screening and Q&A for the documentary Exiled, America’s Deported Veterans. Official tourism sites for cities such as Miami and Miami Beach have also offer neatly-curated lists for how to celebrate.

In 2020, however, most of those events will likely be virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic. If you're staying close to home, you might consider getting festive with a menu full of Latin American dishes. You can also make it a point to support Latina-owned businesses. And there's never been a better time to relax with a good book by a Spanish-language author that takes you into someone else's experience—such as these immigration stories largely by Latinx authors.

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