Hispanic Heritage Month

Have you ever stopped to think about noteworthy Hispanic Americans? How about impactful moments in their history? Unless you studied Spanish in school, it’s likely your education stops at Cesar Chavez and The Zoot Suit Riots. Many schools don’t put as much emphasis on Hispanic Americans and their influence on American society as they undoubtedly deserve.

Hispanic Americans trace their roots back to Spain, Mexico, the Spanish-speaking countries of the Caribbean, and Central and South America. With a population of almost 60 million, people of Hispanic origin make up our nation’s largest ethnic or racial minority. National Hispanic Heritage Month helps to highlight Latino faces in the colorful fabric of our history.

But when did this observance come about? In 1968, Congress recognizes the importance of honoring the culture and achievements of Hispanic Americans in this country. Later that year, National Hispanic Heritage Week is born under President Lyndon Johnson, beginning on September 15th.

        The 15th purposefully coincides with the independence of our Latin American neighbors: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. It also includes the anniversary of independence for Mexico on September 16th.

Two decades later, Congress and President Ronald Reagan extend the celebration. They amend the law in 1988, expanding National Hispanic Heritage Week to a full month. This gives us a greater opportunity to celebrate the contributions made by Hispanic men and women to American society, as well as recall the accomplishments of the early Spanish explorers and settlers.

Imagine being born at the turn of the 20th century. If you’re a Spanish-speaker at this time, politics do not guarantee your civil rights. Politician Octaviano Larrazolo fights to overturn this oppression. Larrazolo attacks the politics exploiting Hispanic voters in New Mexico. In 1910, he helps draft the state’s Constitution, protecting and defending Hispanic civil rights.

New Mexico Republicans elect Larrazolo as governor in 1918. One decade later, he becomes the first Hispanic senator in U.S. history, advocating tirelessly for equal rights and privileges across America.

Octaviano Larrazolo

Dr. Antonia Coello Novello

Have you ever lost a family member? As a young child in Puerto Rico in the 1950s, Antonia Coello Novello losses her favorite aunt to kidney failure. Determined to learn why, Antonia plunges into the medical field. In 1990, after working in the U.S. public health sector, Dr. Novello becomes the first Hispanic and first female Surgeon General of the United States.

She champions guidelines for organ transplants, campaigns against tobacco advertisements targeting children, and raises awareness about AIDS. Novello’s passion to secure healthcare rights for women, Hispanics, and other minorities lays the foundation for the future of public health.

Can you think of a time when people judged you for your appearance? Throughout her 60- year career, Rita Moreno challenges typecasting and industry racism of Latinas in entertainment. Puerto Rican-born, Rita begins her career at 11 years old, dubbing Hollywood films into Spanish.

She gets her big break as “Anita” in West Side Story in 1962, and becomes the first Latina actress to receive an Oscar for her performance. Rita goes on to win an Emmy, Grammy, and Tony, becoming one of only a dozen individuals to receive all four major entertainment accolades.

Rita Moreno

Arturo Moreno

Could you share a room with five other people? Born in 1946, Arturo “Arte” Moreno grows up in a two-bedroom home along with ten siblings and a passion for baseball. From these humble roots, would you think that Arturo would go on to buy the Anaheim Angels?

In 2003, he is the first Latino owner of a major U.S. sports team. In a sport filled with Hispanic players, Arturo commits himself to including more Latino fans. Through bilingual signage, bilingual staff, and family-friendly policies, he spreads the love of baseball to an even broader fan- base.

Are you curious about what the universe is made of? How different particles interact? Luis Walter Alvarez sure is. In 1968, this Hispanic American physicist is awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to the field of elementary particle physics.
An inventor, Luis develops the ground-controlled radar used for aircraft landings. And in 1980, Luis and his son also publish a paper hypothesising a cause for the extinction of the dinosaurs, known as the Alvarez asteroid theory. While the paper receives criticism initially, it inspires scientific research and discoveries to this day.

Luis Walter Alvarez

Franklin Chang-Diaz

Did you ever pretend to build a rocket ship? As a child, Costa Rican-born Franklin Chang Díaz imitates the launch procedures of real life astronauts from a cardboard box in his backyard. To make his dream a reality, Franklin must learn English and apply for U.S citizenship.

Years later, in 1986, that cardboard box becomes a real space shuttle when Franklin is selected as the first Hispanic American to go to space. Throughout his 25 years with NASA, Franklin witnesses the internationalization of the space program. His current mission? Ensuring that space is home to all explorers, regardless of nationality.

Alicia Dickerson Montemayor

When you think of civil rights activists, does Alicia Dickerson Montemayor come to mind? Beginning in 1936, Alicia pushes to close the gender gap and promote the interests of middle-class Mexican Americans. Her work is primarily with the LULAC – League of United Latin American Citizens.

In 1937, they elect her to the council making her the first woman elected to a national office not specifically designated for women. Through this platform, Alicia encourages women to vote and work outside the home. She inspires women to reach their full potential, serving as a great initiator of Hispanic women’s rights.

It’s vital that every American see a recognizable face in our history books, allowing each of us to connect with our past. This motivates and inspires us to think how we can make a difference in our communities and our country. In this series, we will dive into the lives of truly exceptional Hispanic Americans – Individuals who championed equality in science, government, medicine, sports, and entertainment. Fellow Americans whose examples continue to inspire and promote unity today.