Latinos are the nation’s largest minority, with some estimates counting Americans of Spanish or Portuguese heritage as 20-25% of the United States population. President Lyndon Johnson created Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968 from a bill sponsored by Mexican American Democratic Representative Edward Roybal (1916-2005) of Los Angeles. September 15-22 was chosen as the commemorative week because it included the independence days of Mexico, Chile, and several Central American nations. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan expanded the observance to the entire month period between September 15 and October 15.
“Hispanic” is a cultural rather than a racial designation, and pertains to anyone who has Spanish ancestry and/or was raised in a Spanish-speaking household. This, of course, includes people of all conceivable racial backgrounds. Latino/a (or the gender neutral Latinx) broadens this ethnic base to include Portuguese, Brazilian, and other non-Hispanic Latin American heritage. Chicano/a is a term coined during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s to refer specifically to Mexican Americans, many of whom are descended from families already living in the Southwest when those territories were annexed by the United States in 1848.
The incredible diversity within Hispanic/Latino culture provides innumerable learning opportunities for your students, especially in history and other social science classes. There is much to celebrate, from music, art, dance, and cuisine to the annual festivals of Cinco de Mayo (commemorating the May 5, 1862 Battle of Puebla) and Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Civil rights leaders such as Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta can be the focus of special lesson plans. So can elected federal, state, and local officials of Hispanic heritage; there are 38 members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus as of January 2019.
Landmark court decisions such as Mendez v. Westminster (1947) and Hernandez v. Texas (1954) call attention to historic civil rights struggles within the Hispanic community. I included these and others in my regular Civil Rights Movement unit in U.S. History when I taught grade 11. At the middle school level, I assigned different Latin American countries to student groups and had them construct “travel brochures” highlighting demographic, political, and economic profiles as well as the connection of those nations to cultural communities within the United States.
One of the keys to Hispanic identity is an understanding of the Spanish language. While teaching in Spanish is not a required part of social science instruction (see my blog entry on “Bilingual Education”), understanding proper pronunciation of Spanish words and names can help make some lecture topics more meaningful for your students. Individual cultures are shaped in part by their particular idiomatic expressions, including members of those communities who no longer speak the language. The three largest Hispanic communities in the United States, namely Mexican American, Cuban American, and Puerto Rican, each have their own dialects of Spanish as well as distinctive food, family traditions, and historical narratives.
A sensitivity to these varieties of Hispanic culture and identity is important in constructing lesson plans and dealing with your students and their families. There are Hispanic and Latino families, for example, of exclusively European, African, Asian, or Native American ancestry, as well as many that are a mixture of one or more of the above. Some speak Spanish as their primary language and others do not. Many speak “Spanglish,” a colloquial mixture of English and Spanish that has its own slang and idiomatic cadences. Mexican culture is very different from Salvadoran, Guatemalan, Venezuelan, or Chilean cultures. The Spanish-speaking cultures of the Caribbean have their own unique characteristics.
Historical topics to highlight in National Hispanic Heritage Month can include the United Farm Workers union, the building of the Panama Canal, debates over bilingual ballots and education, legal battles over immigration and desegregation, and the contribution of Hispanic veterans in the nation’s wars. The Chicano Movement that swept across the nation’s schools and university campuses in the 1960s, particularly in southern California, helped to define a generation and call attention to long-neglected political and economic inequities. The struggle for equality in the Latina community can be a fascinating study within the broader modern feminist movement. Latinx LGBT issues are a significant part of civil rights discussions today.
Your goal as a history teacher is to paint the national story with the broadest strokes and in the largest variety of colors as you can muster. In government and economics, focusing on diversity in campaigning and business will help your students better understand the complexities of today’s society. The story of Hispanic America is a microcosm of the American story as a whole. The mixture of native culture and successive waves of immigrants from all across the world is at the heart of the Hispanic story. Celebrate this story in fun ways this month. Your students will appreciate your efforts.
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