Hispanic Heritage Month: The History, Importance and Ways to Celebrate
By Manuel Betancourt
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For over three decades, the United States has celebrated Hispanic Heritage Month. The nationally-recognized celebration, which kicks off Sept. 15, grew out of a desire to educate people all over the country about the many contributions the Hispanic community has made to U.S. culture.
Here at ET, we'll be taking this year’s Hispanic Heritage Month to spotlight members of the Latinx community who are using their platforms to make their voices heard about the issues they’re most passionate about. From Kali Uchis and Emily Estefan to Rachel Zegler, Sasha Calle and Lee Rodriguez, ET will be celebrating those who are making a difference.
Unlike other celebratory months — think Black History Month in February or LGBT Pride in June — Hispanic Heritage Month takes place from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. This speaks to its own history. Back in 1968, California Congressman George E. Brown put forth a House resolution that authorized the president to proclaim what was then known as National Hispanic Heritage Week, which was to always fall on the week that included Sept. 15 and 16. Those two dates were significant as they commemorated independence days in six Central American countries: Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Costa Rica celebrate their independence from Spain on the 15th while the 16th is Mexican Independence Day.
Two decades later, and following a failed attempt put forth by Rep. Esteban Torres, a bill introduced by Sen. Paul Simon in 1988 extended the week-long celebration into a month-long one. "It is important that the Nation be educated and made aware of the richness and the significance of the contributions of Hispanics to our society" it read. "Hispanics are not just a significant part of our Nation's origin; they are essential to America's future."
Over the last few years, the name and purpose of Hispanic Heritage Month has been called into question. “Hispanic” remains a contentious identity category with a fraught history. Calling forth a colonial lineage tied to Spanish rule, the term places undue importance on Spanish language as a demographic marker, all the while feeling exclusionary, particularly toward Afro-Latinos and indigenous populations.
Even without taking into consideration how such a panethnic identity erases racial and cultural differences, the term can feel ill-fitting in its capaciousness. “Why does a relatively well-off, third-generation Cuban American fall into the same category as a working-class immigrant from Mexico? Why is a Mexican American who does not speak Spanish categories similarly to an island-born Puerto Rican who does not speak English?” asks Cristina Mora, assistant professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, in the preface to her book, Making Hispanics: How Activists, Bureaucrats, and Media Constructed a New American.
Similarly, while its focus is ostensibly on the ways the Hispanic community has “helped achieve the greatness of our Nation,” as the 1968 resolution put it, such a mission deserves to be challenged — especially in 2021. Who gets counted as “Hispanic” (or, even as “Latino” or “Latinx,” other terms that are oftentimes used interchangeably with it, though they, in turn, refer to quite different identity categories), as Mora puts it, was and remains a strategic choice. And so, while discussions about how and whether the term “Hispanic” should be used will continue, the goal of uplifting the contributions of a vibrant Hispanic/Latino/Latinx community and making sure they’re widely recognized in schools, in history books, and in popular culture need not go away.
HOW TO SUPPORT
If these past few months have made you want to be even more politically involved, look no further than the following organizations. You may want to support them year-round but the weeks leading into the election are as great a time to find ways of further making your voice heard.
For the past 15 years, this grassroots political organization has focused on educating and empowering a new generation of Latinx voters, all the while creating a more robust and inclusive democracy. They’re committed to getting 500,000 new voter registrations before the election.
National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ)
This Washington, D.C.-based group was established in 1984 and has dedicated itself to the recognition and professional advancement of Hispanics in the news industry. Any budding journalist should be keeping an eye on NAHJ’s work year-round.
The National Association of Latino Independent Producers (NALIP)
This national organization is committed to addressing the professional needs of Latinx content creators. With an annual conference that brings creators and producers as well as plenty of incubators and media markets that help broaden their network, NALIP's mission is to promote, advance and advocate for Latino content creators across media.
United We Dream
Self-described as the largest immigrant youth-led community in the country, United We Dream's mission is to empower undocumented immigrants. Through campaigns at the local, state, and federal level, the group fights for justice and dignity for immigrants and all people.
Movement for Black Lives (M4BL)
This summer’s protests were a stark reminder that we all need to be fighting anti-Blackness. Formed in December of 2014, M4BL was created as a space for Black organizations across the country to co-create a shared movement-wide strategy. A brief look over their goals — which call for the end of the war on drugs, the end of the death penalty, and an end to all jails, prisons and immigration detention (among many others) — is a reminder that the M4BL speaks to concerns that are front and center for Afro-Latinxs, yes, but that should be at the core of what the entire Latinx community should be rallying behind.
WHAT TO WATCH
From Academy Award-winning films to thrilling contemporary TV shows, there is no shortage of Latino fare for you to choose from during this upcoming Hispanic Heritage Month. But if you’re in need of guidance, there are several streaming options to get you started below — and plenty more recommendations in our past streaming guides, for both film and TV.
On My Block
This lovingly soundtracked coming-of-age comedy set in a rough inner city Los Angeles neighborhood has emerged, over its past three seasons, as a celebration of ride-or-die friendships that puts diverse characters like Sierra Capri's Monsé, Jason Genao's Ruby and Diego Tinoco’s Cesar at its center.
This Steven Canals-created FX drama centers on the ballroom scene in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s in New York City. Set against the growing AIDS crisis and anchored by the luminous performances of Mj Rodriguez and Indya Moore, this is a period series that puts queer and trans joy front and center.
John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons
The famed comedian puts his own spin on a Ted Talk with a rather unorthodox look back at “Latin History” that has him diving into 3,000 years worth of history in order to help out his bullied son find the strength to be proud of his roots.
East Los High
The pioneering all-Latino web series that ran for four seasons put Latinx stories at its center. Set in a fictional high school in East L.A., the Hulu series incorporated real-life issues (drug abuse, teen pregnancies, immigration) as it focused on a group of teens facing everyday challenges.
PBS’s landmark six-hour 2013 documentary, Latino Americans, is an exhaustive look at the history and experiences of Latinos. Giving both a historical overview of Latinos in the U.S. from the 16th century to present day, the documentary series includes interviews with the likes of Rita Moreno, Gloria Estefan, and Dolores Huerta.
Hamilton Lin-Manuel Miranda brings his dazzling Broadway smash hit to the small screen in this live-taped performance. Featuring dazzling turns not just by Daveed Diggs and Renée Elise Goldsberry but by Miranda and In the Heights leading man Anthony Ramos as well, the musical brings that famed founding father into the 21st century.
Tanya Saracho’s ode to Boyle Heights took pride in being unapologetically queer. Centered on two grown-up sisters (played by Mishel Prada and Melissa Barrera) who need to put their differences aside if they hope to rehaul the bar their mother left them, the Starz drama tackled everything from gentrification to queerceañeras.
The Infiltrators & Living Undocumented
If you want to learn more about the draconian immigration policies currently targeting those coming from Mexico and Central America — as well as the many undocumented individuals living in the U.S. — look no further than Cristina Ibarra and Alex Rivera’s docu-fiction hybrid project that follows a group of young activists going undercover at an ICE detention center and the Selena Gomez-produced Netflix series Living Undocumented, which tells the story of eight undocumented immigrant families living in the United States.