Many of us are becoming aware that Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated from September 15 to October 15. But few understand how it was birthed in America. It was established by Ronald Reagan with a bill signing in the Whitehouse Rose Garden and a strong speech about the essential value of the family. 

Celebrating our nation’s Hispanic heritage started merely as a week-long event, signed into law in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. In his Proclamation, Johnson explained that American citizens “of Hispanic descent are the heirs of missionaries, captains, soldiers, and farmers who were motivated by a young spirit of adventure, and a desire to settle freely in a free land. This heritage is ours.”

This celebration occupies the Fall season because, as President Johnson explained in his proclamation, “our five Central American neighbors celebrate their Independence Day on the fifteenth of September and the Republic of Mexico on the sixteenth.” Those five countries – Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua – gained their independence from Spain in 1821 with Mexico doing so in 1810.

It is a common misunderstanding that Cinco de Mayo is Mexico’s Independence Day. It is September 16. The “Father of Mexican Independence” was a Catholic parish priest named Don Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla who taught his parishioners how to cultivate grapes, keep bees, raise silkworms, fire bricks, pottery, and the art of leathercraft. Father Hidalgo promoted the political independence of his people through economic emancipation.

Hispanic Heritage Week became Hispanic Heritage Month in 1988, ceremoniously signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in the Whitehouse Rose Garden. In fact, President Reagan’s speech announcing Hispanic Heritage Month was a strong policy statement on the centrality of family to the well-being of our nation. In his remarks, President Reagan quoted the Nobel Prize winning Mexican poet Octavio Paz who wrote, “In Hispanic morals, the true protagonist is the family” and added “I fear that too often, in the mad rush of modern American life, some people have not learned the great lesson of our Hispanic heritage: the lesson of family and home and church and community.”

You can watch President Reagan’s short speech here.

As we celebrate National Hispanic Month, let us be reminded that it was founded in honor of two of those cultures’ strongest qualities: their love of family and their commitment to their Christian faith.

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