Commentary: Hispanic culture is part of the American character

Yvette Alex-Assensoh
Yvette Alex-Assensoh

Commentary by Yvette Alex-Assensoh, vice president for equity and inclusion:

What do these notable personalities have in common:  Irma Gonzalez, the former world champion of women’s wrestling, Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico, and Ellen Ocha, American astronaut? They are all Hispanics, representing the diversity of the largest minority group in the United States.

Since 1968, when President Lyndon B. Johnson established the period of one week in honor of Hispanic heritage, beginning on Sept. 15 of each year America has paid tribute to the myriad contributions that Hispanics have made in the country.

Though the celebration began in 1968 in an effort to recognize the contributions of fellow Americans who immigrated from Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean and Spain, it became a monthlong holiday in 1988, when President Ronald Reagan signed legislation that extended the celebration from its original one week to a full month. 

Sept. 15, which marks the start of National Hispanic Heritage Month, is significant because it also combines to mark the independence celebrations of many countries in Central and South America. However, as we pause we may ask about the continued significance of National Hispanic Heritage Month today, more than 26 years after it was initially established!

Hispanic Heritage Month was the name that was initially given to this celebration. Since that time, the term Latino has emerged, and, as a result, it is often used interchangeably with Hispanic. In this essay, which seeks to point out the origins of the celebration, Hispanic has been intentionally utilized, while also recognizing the important political connotation that goes along with the Latino nomenclature.

Today, Hispanics comprise the second-largest racial group in America, and almost one in five Americans is of Hispanic heritage. They are also a young, diverse and vibrant group, with ties to several countries, but over two-thirds of all Hispanics are Mexican. Not only are Hispanics shaping the demographics of our country, but they are also diversifying communities of faith, as almost half of all Catholics in the United States are also Hispanic.

The impact of Hispanic culture on America has been long and vast; indeed, many years before the English settled in Jamestown, Va., but certainly after Native Americans established their own communities, the Spanish founded St. Augustine, Fla., in 1565. Over 250,000 Hispanics served in World War II. The first Hispanic congressman dates back to 1822, when Joseph Marion Hernandez of Florida was elected to serve in Congress.

In a case brought by Hispanic parents on behalf of their daughter, the court in Menendez vs. Westminster held that segregation was unlawful, almost eight years before the celebrated Brown vs. Board of Education case in 1954. Dr. Antonia Novello, for example, was the first Hispanic to serve as America’s surgeon-general.

Not only is Hispanic Heritage Month important to us as a nation, but it is especially significant on our own University of Oregon campus, where Hispanic students, faculty and staff are enhancing our intellectual horizon and community. Like our national trend, Hispanics on our campus are diverse in language, culture, family backgrounds and race. Furthermore, our Hispanic faculty members are represented in every school and college at the UO. 

Equally as important is the way in which Hispanic culture is being woven into the fabric of the University of Oregon. The Center for Latino/a and Latin American Studies (CLLAS) has worked diligently to facilitate research on the experiences, challenges and accomplishments of people of Hispanic heritage as well as build a major archive of Latino History at the our campus, engage in community-building projects in Oregon and beyond to facilitate Hispanic empowerment and, above all, play an instrumental role in training middle and high school teachers in Latino history and culture. Our own Center for Multicultural Academic Excellence provides advisors from Hispanic backgrounds who work alongside other advisors and staff to nurture our Hispanic students.

As part of the Hispanic Heritage Month observance, our campuswide celebration of Latino History Month is set for Sunday, Oct. 12, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. As we wrap up this year’s celebration of the overall Hispanic Heritage Month, it is fitting to salute all that has been accomplished because it provides a sense of the many possibilities that are yet to come. Most importantly, it provides a point of pride not only for our Hispanic brothers and sisters, but for all of us who live on American shores.