Between September and October of each year, coinciding with Mexican Independence Day (Sept. 16) and ending with the celebration of the “Encounter of Two Worlds” (Oct. 15), in the United States we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, a nationally recognized observance that has been enacted into law.
Today to speak of the significant Hispanic presence in this country is to speak of something obvious. The National Census Bureau reports that in 2012 there were 53 million Hispanics residing in the United States in addition to the three million people on the island of Puerto Rico.
The Hispanic presence in the United States is not a recent phenomenon. Hispanics were here even before the arrival of the pilgrims. Since 1550, men like Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, together with other explorers, travelled and explored the width and length of the territories that today constitute the United States. Hispanics had established themselves in what today is called Florida many years before the British founded Jamestown. Hispanics have made a deep mark on the history of this nation. We have participated in many of the heroic deeds that led to its formation and have greatly contributed to the overall development of the United States.
There are three U.S. Senator and 30 House representatives of Hispanic origin in Congress. Because of our substantial and growing numbers, subjects such as immigration or the legalization of undocumented immigrants are today on the front pages of the media and rank among the country’s principal preoccupations.
But it is not enough that we are many—big numbers do not bestow true rights. What is needed and urgent is for us to shape the quality of our contributions. The mere existence of a large population does not give authority to its presence. Authority comes from the authorship of our own destiny; we must be protagonists and not simply spectators of our historical and social fate within this nation. Only then can we gain respect and recognition from others.
We must define our existence as Hispanics in the United States in a meaningful way by integrating the Hispanic community into the greater American life. That will deliver the social, religious, political, economic, cultural and academic influence that our numbers warrant.
Protagonists of Our Own Future
Hispanic Heritage Month offers an opportunity to reflect on our present situation and its challenges and to be on the alert to the best ways to build our future as a Hispanic community.
Some of the questions we must ask ourselves are:
- Why can’t the United States seem to have an organized, reasonable and respectful debate on immigration?
- What recognition is there of the enormous purchasing power of Hispanics ($900 billion a year) and our competent and competitive presence in the economy and the commercial life of the United States?
- What can be done about the high percentage of dropouts among youth of Hispanic origin? And what can be done to address the many Hispanic youth who plunge into the world of gangs, the use of drugs and alcohol and other forms of vices and violence?
- While academic preparedness among Hispanics born and raised in our country is on the increase, great numbers of us still live in poverty. How can this be addressed?
- How do we integrate the massive influx of Hispanic youth who possess little formal education in Spanish, let alone English, into the U.S. working world? These youths have escaped extreme poverty in their home countries but become easy prey to America’s culture of consumerism and materialism. They can too easily cast aside the altruistic or transcendent values of their Hispanic cultures. How do we keep our youth from becoming perfect targets for those who traffic in human misery?
- What has become of the Christian values that Hispanics have inherited? Values such as humanism, integral development, solidarity and spirituality.
The work required is difficult and demands the conscious, responsible and generous participation of all Hispanics. We need to develop the required leadership to assert ourselves as a voice in the building of the present and future of this nation.
We must encourage our youth to obtain a higher degree of education, to develop skills in organization, improve communication with the dominant culture and develop respect for one another so that together we can make this society more viable and humane. In a nation that proclaims freedom, there are still many situations of slavery and licentiousness. In a nation that claims to be the epitome of respect for individual rights and rule of law, there are still many instances of injustice and abuse to the most elemental rights.
We Hispanics must take the lead in the rebirth of a new American society, one truly tolerant and fraternal. We should be proactive protagonists in the emergence of a new society that will finally discover the integrated and harmonious values of the whole American continent. A society that discovers the true value of American union—that is “Pan-Americanisn”—will become a society that is richer as a result of diversity, with its different ethnicities, histories, languages and cultures united in one territory. We seek to become a society united in the pursuit of happiness and prosperity, but one more humane and humanized, with fewer borders and divisions and more solidarity.
For the Hispanic community to be able to reach adulthood in this society, it needs to engage in a deep reflection of its history. The celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month should not pass as a simple “fiesta”; it should be a call for a serious commitment from all Hispanics with the aim of constructing a true, great and noble “hispanicity” in the life and development of this nation. If we do this, we will no longer be drifting at the mercy of those who do not accept us, who exploit us, who want us to be without identity or completely assimilated to the culture of this great nation. We can help the United States discover the beauty of Hispanic culture and history, a task that sadly remains incomplete.
How great it is that Hispanic Heritage Month exists to help us do that! But while there is much we have accomplished, there is still much more left to be done.