Hispanic Heritage Month

    Celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month September 15 to October 15

    Washington — Hispanic Heritage Month honors the diverse people of Spanish-speaking backgrounds in the United States. From September 15 to October 15, a multitude of special programs, events, exhibits and Web sites celebrate the heritage, culture, spirit and extraordinary contributions of Hispanic Americans.

    The designated week was selected to coincide with Independence Day celebrations on September 15 in Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua and on September 16 in Mexico.

    What is a Hispanic?
    Let's start by saying what it is not. It is not a racial identification. Hispanic is more of a regional identification like saying "North American." What is a Hispanic? Hispanics come in all sizes and shapes. There are Jewish, Arab, Asian, Indian, Black and White Hispanics as well as brown. What most Americans perceive as brown is actually a mix of Indian and White. When Spanish explorers settled the Americas, they did not bring families with them like the English settlers did when they arrived in the U.S. The Spanish explorers were mostly soldiers and priests, etc. As a result, the soldiers intermarried with the Indian women they found in the countries they explored. The result was a new racial identity known as mestizos. In time, mestizos became the middle class and the largest population.

    The U.S. Census Bureau defines Hispanic Origin as:

    Persons of Hispanic origin were identified by a question that asked for self-identification of the person's origin or descent. Respondents were asked to select their origin (and the origin of other household members) from a "flash card" listing ethnic origins. Persons of Hispanic origin, in particular, were those who indicated that their origin was Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, or some other Hispanic origin. It should be noted that persons of Hispanic origin may be of any race.

    The 1968 proclamation called on the people of the United States, especially the educational community, to observe the week with appropriate ceremonies and activities. To encourage participation, in his 1974 proclamation President Gerald R. Ford called for schools and human rights organizations to participate more fully in the week. And in 1988 President Ronald Reagan repeated Ford’s call for more recognition of Hispanic Americans by approving Public Law 100-402, which expanded the celebration to Hispanic Heritage Month running from September 15 to October 15.

    Hispanics are the fastest-growing minority group in the United States, according to the Census Bureau. The Hispanic population is projected to nearly triple, from almost 47 million to 133 million, from 2008 to 2050, and will jump from 15 percent to 30 percent of the population.

    Hispanic Heritage Month also celebrates the long and important presence of Hispanic Americans in North America. A map of late 18th century North America shows this presence, from the small outpost of San Francisco founded in the desolate wilderness of Alta California in 1776, through the Spanish province of Texas with its vaqueros (cowboys), to the fortress of St. Augustine, Florida -- the first continuous European settlement in North America founded in 1565, decades before Jamestown, Virginia.

    Spanish explorers traveled further north along the Pacific Coast to Canada in 1774 and by the late 18th century had established a military post on Vancouver Island, 350 miles north of Seattle. The Spanish sailed up the Atlantic Coast through the Chesapeake Bay in 1526, then called the Bahía de Santa María, about 80 years before the romanticized English encounter with Pocahontas. In the 1520s Spanish navigators also explored as far north as Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and the present site of Bangor, Maine. The Spanish settled the southwest of North America in the 16th century and officially founded Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1610.

    As part of the Treaty of Paris (1763) peace settlement of the French and Indian War, the territories west of the Mississippi River, including Louisiana and New Orleans, were ceded to the Spanish. Nearly all of the surviving 18th century architecture of the Vieux Carré French Quarter dates from this Spanish period.

    Spanish Place Names

    Hispanic Heritage from Coast to Coast

    The Spanish were among the first Europeans to explore what is now the United States, and the first to found a permanent settlement here (St. Augustine, Florida, in 1565). From Alaska's Madre de Dios Island to Mexico, Maine, the United States is dotted with Spanish place names. Here are a few.


    : "poplar." This tall softwood tree gave its name to a number of U.S. places, including the memorable chapel-fort in Texas and the town of Los Alamos in New Mexico, where atomic bombs were produced.

    Alcatraz Island

    (California): from alcatraces, pelican. A sizable pelican population once lived on this rocky island in the San Francisco Bay.

    Boca Raton

    (Florida): from boca de ratones, a Spanish term applied to nearby inlets. It translates as "mouth of the mouse" (not "rat," which is rata) and may refer to the jagged rocks at these inlets. It has also been suggested that ratones was a term used for the pirates who might hide in such a place.


    : The state was named for a mythical land described in a popular Spanish novel from around 1500, Las sergas de Esplandian (The exploits of Esplandian) by Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo.

    Cape Canaveral

    (Florida): from canaveral, canebrake. The promontory NASA made famous takes its name from the thickets of cane that grow in sandy areas.


    : "reddish." The state is named for the reddish color of mud found in the Colorado River.

    El Paso

    (Texas): "passage." The border city of El Paso lies at a small gap between the Rockies and the Juarez Mountains of Mexico. This narrow passage has made the city a hub for both north-south and east-west travel.


    : "flowery." Some say that Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon named the land for the Spanish term for Easter, Pascua de Florida (Flowery Feast), because he first saw the land during the Easter season. Others believe he named it for the area's lush flowers.


    (California): "ash tree." The central Californian city and county are named for their abundant ash trees.

    La Brea

    (California): "tar." The tar pits in this famous part of Los Angeles have yielded amazing fossils for more than 100 years.

    Las Cruces

    (New Mexico): "crosses." The city is named for the burial ground of some 40 travelers who were killed by Apaches in 1830.

    Las Vegas

    (Nevada): "meadows." Before casinos and neon lights defined Las Vegas, the area was noteworthy as a desert oasis with artesian springs.

    Los Angeles

    (California): "angels." In 1781 Spanish settlers founded El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula (The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of Porciuncula). It became known as La Ciudad de los Angeles (City of Angels), and then just as Los Angeles.

    Los Gatos

    (California): "cats." At the time this western California city was founded, many wildcats roamed the area.


    : from montana, mountain. Representative James M. Ashley of Ohio suggested using the Spanish word in honor of the territory's mountainous western part.


    : "snow-covered." The mountains in this western state are often capped with snow.

    San Antonio

    (Texas): "Saint Anthony" (of Padua). On the feast day of St. Anthony in 1691, Spanish explorers found and named the eponymous river. Later the name was given to the city, which was founded in 1718.

    San Francisco

    (California): "Saint Francis" (of Assisi). The city by the bay was once a Mexican village named Yerba Buena (Good Grass). In 1846, during the Mexican War, Commodore John Sloat captured and renamed the settlement for its San Francisco de Asis mission (better known as Mission Dolores), which was founded in 1776.

    Sangre de Cristo Mountains

    (Colorado and New Mexico): "blood of Christ." This mountain range was named for the red glow cast on it by the setting sun.

    Santa Fe

    (New Mexico): "holy faith." Spanish settlers founded this oldest U.S. capital nearly 400 years ago, as La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asis (The Royal City of the Holy Faith of Saint Francis).


Last Modified on September 20, 2016