About Hispanic Heritage Month


By Dolores Delgado-Campbell and Duane Campbell

Hispanic Heritage Month begins in the U.S. on Sept. 15 of each year and celebrates several of the independence struggles in Latin America from 1810- through the 1820s. 

Spain ruled most of Latin America from 1521 until 1820. The movements of independence from Spanish rule began most notably on Sept. 15, 1810 in Dolores, Mexico with the Grito de Dolores when Fr, Miguel Hidalgo declared Mexico’s independence from Spain.

There is more about the history further down in this post, but what about this complex and at times confusing  term Hispanic?

Hispanic or Latino refers to people in the U.S. from Puerto Rico, Mexico, South or Central America, as well as the  indigenous people of the once dominant Spanish empire in the Americas. The majority of these people do not call themselves Hispanic. 

The divisions and contentions over the terms Hispanic, Latino, Mexican Americans, Chicanos and others have complex historical antecedents. We are not going to resolve them here -- although we will suggest an operational “solution.”


On the 2010 Census form, people of Spanish, Hispanic and/or Latino origin could identify themselves as Mexican, Mexican American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Cuban, or "another Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish origin."

 According to this census, 50.5 million people, or 16% of the population, are of Hispanic or Latino origin.  The 2010 Census listed 33 million Mexican-origin residents (64.9 % of all Latinos); Puerto Ricans within the U.S .numbered 4.7 million (9.2 %); Cuban Americans 1.9 million ( 3.7  %); Salvadorans 1.8 million (3.6 %); Dominicans 1.5 million (3 %); Guatemalans  1.1 million  (2.2 %); Colombians 972,000 (1.9 %); Hondurans 731,000 (1.4%); Ecuadorans 665,000 (1.3 %); and Peruvians 609,000 (1.2%).  Each of these groups has its own identity and historical experiences.

The development of the term “Hispanic” was promoted by the Nixon administration to describe the collective of the variety of people descended from Latin America. Choosing this term, however, had significant political connotations and results.  In general, the use of Hispanic promotes the idea of a broad, inclusive Spanish influence.  At the same time it tends to ignore the very vast ethnic and cultural influences of the millions of indigenous people in the Americas. 

Some people prefer Hispanic; some would rather use other terms including Latino (which has its own problems).  In general Hispanic is freely used east of the Mississippi and less so west (except East Texas uses the term).  West of the Mississippi, terms such as Mexican and Mexican American are more often used.  From the 1960s to the 1990s, Chicano was used to indicate a particularly politically conscious person of Mexican-American heritage.   And, by the way, northern New Mexico and southern Colorado have their own histories and usages not described here.

In the East, the descendants of Latin Americans were predominantly Puerto Rican, then Cuban, and later Dominican- each with their own histories.  In the 1970s, refugees from Chile came in significant numbers, and in the ‘80s came Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and others.

Currently Florida has a major new population of Venezuelans and Columbians -- as does the New York region.  And since the 1990’s, Mexican immigrants have spread far beyond the Southwest to Chicago, Atlanta, the Midwest, New York, and much of the nation.

In addition to geographic differences, there are tentative class differences important to those of us on the left.   You will find Hispanic Republican clubs, but seldom Latino Republican clubs. You will find Hispanic Chambers of Commerce -- we have  never heard of  a Chicano Chamber of Commerce.  In the East you will have Hispanic legislative caucuses, and Hispanic Republican caucuses; in California you will find a Latino Democratic Caucus, the largest caucus in the legislature.  

On Sept.10, 2014 one major organization, the National Council de la Raza issued a statement saying this:

"Today, Latino leaders from the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda stood together at NCLR Headquarters to express disappointment in President Obama's immigration delay. His decision has certainly made our job of mobilizing Latino voters harder, but as our President and CEO, Janet Murguía said today, "We are discouraged, but we are not defeated and we must go to the polls to vote in November!"

You can see in this statement how Hispanic and Latino are used interchangeably by persons advocating before the government.

For many on the Left and in progressive movements the term Latino came to be used to substitute for the Nixonian-preferred “Hispanic” in the 1980s and 1990s to describe the collection of diverse groups.  Millions of El Salvadorans and thousands  of Nicaraguans, as well as Hondurans and Guatemalans, poured into the U.S. as a result of  U.S.-affiliated wars in the region.  Thus, it was no longer accurate to describe the population of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle or Chicago  as Mexican; they were in fact diverse -- Latinos. The above is but a brief introduction to the issues. 

So, what is a person seeking to interact with these communities to do?  Relax.  Listen to what people say about themselves.  You will hear a diversity of terms. First-generation immigrants tend to name their native country -- ie. “I am Bolivian, or Argentinian,” while second- and third-generation people use the more universal terms Hispanic or Latino.  People who speak only English tend to use Hispanic more, while bilinguals tend to use Latino or other terms.  Note: not all Latinos are immigrants, some come from families that were here long before the U.S. claimed the west – such as co author Delgado-Campbell.

Identities are constructed by individuals defining and interpreting their own experiences and their interactions with others.  A person becomes Hispanic, Chicano or Latino, or White, or Asian American.  We learn and accept an identity.  And, for some people their identity is potentially changing.  A Pew Hispanic Center study released  in April 2012, argues that most members of this  ethnic group don’t care which you call them. But, of those that do care, “Hispanic” is preferred over “Latino” by more than a two-to-one margin—33 percent versus 14 percent.

The same study revealed significant regional differences as described above and it did not explore class nor political differences.

Pew also  concludes “When it comes to describing their identity, most Hispanics prefer their family’s country of origin over pan-ethnic terms.”

We hope that this detail assists readers to go out and talk with your neighbors.

One caution   Please don’t tell people how to define themselves. They can do that for themselves.  It is particularly not our role to define other peoples’ identities.  Listen and learn.

In a book Duane wrote in 2004 and 2010, he chose to use Latino rather than Hispanic, except when a person called himself Hispanic.  New York author and newsman Juan Gonzalez in Harvest of Empire says, “I believe needless time has been spent by Latino intellectuals in this country debating whether the term ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino’ best describes us.  Neither is totally accurate but both are acceptable, and I use the terms interchangeably in this book.”

Oh.  And about the history we started with.

The war of independence in Mexico  lasted until 1821.  This  challenge to  Spanish power in Mexico led to the collapse of Spanish power in the Americas  with independence struggles winning in Chile, Columbia, Venezuela , Ecuador and Peru among others.  Five Latin American countries; Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua celebrate the anniversaries of their independence on Sept. 15.

After  1810 the independence movements went through several stages. Many of the leaders were imprisoned or executed by forces loyal to Spain including  Fr, Hildalgo.

 A notable leader in South America was Simon Bolivar who organized and fought for over a decade to liberate the area now part of Chile, Columbia, Venezuela and Peru. By  1820, many of the leaders went beyond a demand for independence and took more radical positions, including the abolition of slavery.

So, let’s go out and celebrate Latino Heritage Month.


Dolores Delgado Campbell is a DSA member and professor of women’s history and Mexican American history at American River College in Sacramento, California. She is a Chicana, and was the Co-Chair of DSA’s Latino Commission from 1982-2004.

Do not call her Hispanic

DuaneCampbellAID.png Duane Campbell is a professor emeritus of bilingual multicultural education at California State University Sacramento, a union activist, and past chair of Sacramento DSA.

Together they are Directors of the Chicano/Mexican American Digital History Project for Northern California.  https://sites.google.com/site/chicanodigital/


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