Origins of National Hispanic Heritage Month

It’s National Hispanic Heritage Month! Visit our web page for resources on related records and how we are commemorating the month. Today’s post comes from Kate Mollan, an archivist in the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives in Washington, DC. 

It is in the tradition of our country to recognize, cherish and conserve the many cultural contributions of the people who have helped achieve the greatness of our Nation. It is high time that our immigrants and their descendants from Latin nations, as well as those citizens whose Spanish heritage and lineage within the current boundaries of the United States dates back to prepilgrim days, were honored in the same manner.

—Representative Robert D. Price (Republican–Texas) on H. J. Res. 1299, 90th Congress (1968)

On June 11, 1968, California Congressman George E. Brown, together with 19 cosponsors, introduced House Joint Resolution 1299, authorizing the President to proclaim annually the week including September 15 and 16 as “National Hispanic Heritage Week.”

H.J. Res. 1299, 90th Congress, as introduced. (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives)

The purpose of the resolution was to give recognition to the Hispanic influence and the role of Hispanic people in American history. It called on the people of the United States to observe the week with appropriate ceremonies and activities.

Congressman Brown’s original resolution mentions the states, cities, and towns with Hispanic names; the roles of Hispanic people in developing cities, towns, and regions; and the considerable population bearing Spanish surnames.

The legislation asserts the United States’ wish to attain mutual understanding, respect, and appreciation of the cultures, heritage, and arts of our neighbor nations. President Richard Nixon later emphasized this point in his proclamation of September 12, 1969, stressing the importance of ties with the United States’ Latin American neighbors.

The resolution further states that the “Spanish surnamed population has contributed the highest proportion of Medal of Honor winners through acts of bravery and determination in the defense of our land.”

The proposed week included the dates of September 15 and 16. September 15 is the day when five Central American nations, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, celebrate their independence from Spain in 1821. September 16 is Mexican Independence Day, commemorating that country’s independence from Spain in 1810.

Congressman Brown’s district included a large portion of East Los Angeles and other parts of Los Angeles with heavy concentrations of Hispanic or Latino residents. He was joined in the sponsorship by two Hispanic Congressmen, Edward R. Roybal (Democrat–California) and Henry B. Gonzales (Democrat–Texas).

Altogether the sponsors included 13 Democrats and 6 Republicans from the five southwestern states:—California, Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona—plus one New York Democrat. Representative George H. W. Bush (Republican–Texas), later 41st President of the United States, was one of the cosponsors.

Brown’s wasn’t the only resolution introduced in 1968 to authorize the President to proclaim annually National Hispanic Heritage Week. Two similar joint resolutions, S.J. Res. 184 and 196, as well as another House Joint Resolution, H.J. Res. 1301, were also introduced and show the momentum toward celebrating Hispanic or Latino contributions in an officially designated way.

H.J. Res. 1299 made an easy passage through the House, with one amendment to delete the supporting clauses in the resolution in favor of a short and concise text. It was sent to the Senate, where it was referred to the Judiciary Committee and reported out without amendment.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed it into law on September 17, 1968 (Public Law 90-498).

Proclamation 3869 (LBJ)
President Johnson’s Proclamation 3869, National Hispanic Heritage Week, 1968. (Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives)

Johnson issued his first proclamation on National Hispanic Heritage Week the very same day as he signed the legislation. Proclamation 3869 calls “the attention of my fellow citizens to the great contribution to our national heritage made by our people of Hispanic descent—not only in the fields of culture, business, and science, but also through their valor in battle.”

Twenty years later, in 1988, S. 2200 was introduced by Senator Paul Simon (Democrat–Illinois) to extend the week-long celebration into a month-long celebration.

Dear Colleague Letter from Senators Hatch and Simon, April 15, 1988. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

Simon’s bill was the companion bill to an earlier attempt by Representative Esteban Torres (Democrat–California), H.R. 3182, which amended P.L. 90-498 by deleting “week” and inserting “month.”

Torres remarked that a month was more suitable for proper observation and coordination of events and activities to celebrate Hispanic culture and achievement.  While his bill died in committee, Simon’s bill passed Congress and was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, on August 17, 1988 (P.L. 100-402).

Since 1988, we have celebrated the rich and vibrant Hispanic culture and history with National Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15.

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