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Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month

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Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month

Dancers perform during a Hispanic Heritage Month festival.

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Labor Day. Back-to-School. 9/11. Americans commonly link September to these events, but the ninth month of the year also kicks off observance of National Hispanic Heritage Month. Understanding the celebration’s history and mission will make the cultural observance month all the more meaningful. With this overview of Hispanic Heritage Month, learn how the month got started, those it honors and the events held to commemorate it.

How Hispanic Heritage Month Started

How did Hispanic Heritage Month get its start? Under the Lyndon Johnson administration, the nation first recognized Hispanic heritage as a week in 1968. This wasn’t unusual. Other cultural heritage months, including Black History Month and Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, began as weeks as well. With the passage of Public Law 100-402 on Aug. 17, 1988, Hispanic Heritage Month was observed for the first time by the nation. More than two decades later, Hispanic Heritage Month is featured on children’s programming such as “Sesame Street,” recognized by corporations and celebrated by entertainers such as Eva Longoria and George Lopez.

Why Sept. 15?

National Hispanic Heritage Month stands out from other cultural observances in that it spans two different months: September and October. Why is Hispanic Heritage recognized from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15? The U.S. government points out that the celebration kicks off in mid-September because a variety of Latin American countries—from Guatemala to Nicaragua to Costa Rica—achieved independence on Sept. 15. Moreover, the following day marks Mexican Independence Day, while Sept. 18 marks Chilean Independence Day. Hispanic Heritage Month’s extension into October is noteworthy because Día de la Raza, also known as Columbus Day, is celebrated on Oct. 12.

Who Does Hispanic Heritage Month Honor?

Hispanic Heritage Month recognizes the achievements, customs and legacies of U.S. citizens with roots in Latin America, South America and Spain. The people in these regions fall into different racial categories, partake in different traditions, practice different religions and even speak different languages—Spanish, English, Catalan, Nahuatl and more. Given what a diverse group of people Hispanic Heritage Month honors, it’s important not to generalize about them.

Hispanic Heritage Month Events

Hispanic Heritage Month celebrations run the gamut. Museums exhibit the work of Hispanic artists. Community groups screen films about the Latino community, and music venues host concerts with Latino performers. In addition, cuisine, crafts and other goods with Latin American origins are displayed during festivals that coincide with Hispanic Heritage Month. The cultural observance also marks a good time to partner with groups that serve the Latino community by volunteering or fundraising for them.

Tracking Hispanic Progress

Latinos have made enormous progress since 1968, when the federal government first recognized Hispanic Heritage Week and Latinos joined blacks, Asians and other groups in the fight for civil rights. With a population of 50.5 million, Latinos now constitute the largest minority group in the U.S., giving them political leverage and influence in a number of other areas. Despite these gains, the Latino community still seeks to make economic and educational advances. Just 14 percent of Hispanics age 25 and up were college graduates in 2010. Also, the U.S. economic recession has hit Latinos particularly hard. A study by the Pew Research Center found that Latinos lost more wealth during the economic downturn than any other group, with the median wealth of Hispanic households falling by 66 percent from 2005 to 2009. Furthermore, as of August 2011, Latinos had the second highest unemployment rate of all major U.S. ethnic groups at 11 percent.

The good news for Latinos is that they’re making gains in the business world and at the ballot booth. Fifty percent of Hispanics voted in the 2008 presidential election, up from 47 percent in 2004. The U.S. Census Bureau also reports that the number of Hispanic-owned businesses rose by 43.7 percent from 2002 to 2007. Hispanic-owned businesses are especially leaving a mark in wholesale trade, construction and retail trade, with nearly 51 percent of Hispanic-owned business yielding profits in these fields.

Given that the Census Bureau predicts Hispanics to make up 30 percent of the U.S. population by 2050, there’s little doubt that Latinos will make strides that leave a permanent imprint on U.S. culture and society.

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