A Brief Overview
Hispanic Heritage Month has the distinction of not being a traditional month from the Gregorian Calendar. Rather, it is a thirty-day period drawn across September and October, starting in commemoration of revolution, enacted initially as Hispanic Heritage Week under President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 – proposed by Edward Roybal of Los Angeles in 1967 – and expanded into Hispanic Heritage Month under Ronald Reagan in 1988, after Esteban Torres of Pico Rivera, CA’s proposal. September 15 was chosen because it represents the date of independence from Spain for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua in 1821; Mexico’s independence from Spain was declared on September 16, 1810 and Chile’s on September 18, 1810. Toward the end of the month is October 12, known to some as Columbus Day, and by others as Indigenous American Day, and Día de la Raza.
The Spanish and Hispanic influence on the United States is evident not just in the ethnic makeup of the modern population, but in the history of the nation-state’s expansion over the last five centuries. The oldest European city which still exists in the United States is Saint Augustine, Florida, founded in 1565 by Spanish Admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. While the middle third of the United States was largely a result of the questionably-constitutional Louisiana Purchase between Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon Bonaparte, a great deal of the west coast and far west, became part of the country in the 19th century either as a result of the U.S. war with Mexico (California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado), or in the time preceding it (Texas). But expansionist wars, imbalanced treaties, and violations of the sovereignty of neighboring states are only part of the story. And, at some point soon, we will discuss this violent interventionist history that has been ongoing for three centuries.
The mark of Hispanic communities can be found in the food, dance, and language across the country – from those states formerly belonging to Mexico to midwestern and northeastern cities like Chicago and New York. Pete Rodriguez is among the Hispanic musicians to come out of New York, with his Latin Boogaloo sound a mainstay of the American zeitgeist for fifty-plus years. Cuban immigrant Desi Arnaz helped revolutionize television with his onetime wife Lucille Ball. Comedians and actors such as Cheech Marin and Freddie Prinze helped move Hispanic Americans from the periphery into the cultural spotlight in the mid-20th century. But aside from myriad cultural contributions, Hispanic citizens of the United States have been involved in the countries governance for nearly two centuries. The meaningful gains of popular media are solidified and amplified when the ethnographic makeup of the conventional powerbreakers reflects the diversity of wider demographics. While we have not yet had a Hispanic or Latino U.S. President (excepting, of course, Puerto Rican-Surinamese American Jimmy Smits as Matthew Santos on the West Wing), men and women with ancestry across Latin America have served in the most important national political bodies of this country.
The Senate and the Congress
The first Hispanic U.S. Senator was Octaviano Ambrosio Larrazolo, born in Chihuahua, Mexico on December 7, 1859, and elected in 1928. He helped secure recognition for the Spanish language in public business at the 1910 New Mexico constitutional convention, broke with the Democratic Party in 1911 due to his commitment to equal citizenship for Hispanics, and was also elected as the Republican governor of New Mexico in 1918. The first American-born Hispanic Senator was Dennis Chavez, who represented New Mexico from 1925 to 1962. A graduate of Georgetown Law, he helped pioneer free textbooks in public school as a state representative and, as a member of the U.S. Senate, his contributions to civil rights included the Fair Employment Practices Commission Bill, a workplace anti-discrimination law. In 1950, he was among the first to denounce Senator Joseph McCarthy’s revival of the Red Scare. He now has a statue at the U.S. Capitol.
The first Hispanic Delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives was Joseph Marion Hernández. Hernández was born in Florida while it was still a Spanish colony and became an American citizen when it transferred to the control of the U.S. government. He served for less than a year advocating for the rights of Floridians, and eventually settled in Cuba.
The first full Representative to Congress was José Antonio Romualdo Pacheco, Jr. of California, who served the 45th district from 1877-79, the 46th from 1879-81, and the 47th from 1881-1883. He was born in 1831 to the daughter of a prominent Mexican family and a captain in the Mexican army; his father died five weeks after his birth, and his mother married Scottish sea captain John Wilson. He attended Oahu Charity School in Honolulu from 1838 to 1843, becoming fluent in English and French and having to relearn Spanish on his return home. He was captured near San Francisco in 1846 during the Mexican-American War, and accepted U.S. citizenship in 1848 after the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. He and his brother, Mariano, entered local politics at mid-century; Mariano was elected to the state legislature in 1850 and Pacheco served as superior court judge for San Luis Obispo County from 1853 to 1857 and then in the state senate until 1862. He initially worked as a Democrat, but became a Union Party politician in 1861 because he hated slavery and was opposed to Southern secession.
Today there are Americans of Hispanic descent serving in the U.S. Congress in record numbers. There are forty-six total: forty-one in the House, including one Delegate and the Resident Commissioner of Puerto Rico, Jennifer González-Cólon. The five Hispanic members of the U.S. Senate are Marco Rubio of Florida; Robert Menendez of New Jersey; Catherine Marie Cortez Masto of Nevada; Ted Cruz of Texas. Cruz and Rubio’s parents were immigrants from Cuba, and they are both Republican; Democrat Menendez’s parents also came from Cuba. Cortez Masto is also a Democrat, who formerly served under Republican governors Jim Gibbons and Brian Sandoval as Nevada’s Attorney General. Her paternal grandfather immigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico.
Things to come
Why wait until the end of the month to publish this? There is a genuine utility to discussing National Hispanic Heritage Month at the end rather than the beginning. While this should be a time of the year where we think more deeply about the forgotten contributions of Hispanics and Latinos to the United States, October 15 should not be the end of discussion. It should be an inspiration to consider these contributions on a regular basis; to continue studying the history of Hispanic Americans beyond this Autumn. This history, within and beyond institutional politics, could never be covered in a single blog post, and so it is our duty to continue to research and report the work of our Hispanic brothers and sisters.
In a time when some of the elected leaders in the U.S. government are using the differences between us to foster political antagonism, it is important to realize that different experiences and perspectives create a more complete picture. Our diversity is a strength, not a weakness. The United States was conquered and compiled by dubious means, but the intended oppressed, ethnic minorities among them, have subverted expectations to help lead this country and create meaningful, positive impact. The least we can do is remember them.
 José E. Serrano, Chairman Congressional Hispanic Caucus, 1993-94, “Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822-1995,” Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/rr/hispanic/congress/introduction.html
 “Octaviano Larrazolo: A Featured Biography,” The U.S. Senate, https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/Featured_Bio_Larrazolo.htm
 “Dennis Chavez: A Featured Biography,” The U.S. Senate, https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/Featured_Bio_Chavez.htm
 “The first Hispanic American to serve in Congress, September 30, 1822,” U.S. House, http://history.house.gov/Historical-Highlights/1800-1850/The-first-Hispanic-American-to-serve-in-Congress/
 “Pacheco, Romualdo,” U.S. House of Representatives, http://history.house.gov/People/Listing/P/PACHECO,-Romualdo-(P000003)/
 “Pacheco, Romualdo,” U.S. House of Representatives.
 Manning, “Membership of the 115th Congress;” “Hispanic-American Representatives, Senators, Delegates, and Resident Commissioners by State and Territory, 1822-Present,” U.S. House of Representatives, https://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/HAIC/Historical-Data/Hispanic-American-Representatives-and-Senators-by-State-and-Territory/
 “Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month,” The U.S. Senate, https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/generic/Hispanic_Heritage_Month.htm
 Shailagh Murray and Karen DeYoung, “Momentum Grows for Relaxing U.S. Policy on Cuba; Bill Would Lift Travel Ban,” The Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/29/AR2009032902460.html?noredirect=on