Hola mis amigos and welcome back to another exciting deep dive into the wonderful world of history. In honor of Latinx Heritage Month, This Week in History will take a look at three events that significantly impacted the development of the Latinx community in the United States. Before we begin, let’s talk a little bit about how Latinx Heritage Month came to be.
The U.S. formally observes the 30 days between Sept. 15 and Oct. 15 as National Hispanic Heritage Month. This idea was first enacted by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968, lasting one week long. The week of Sept. 15 was chosen to observe the anniversary of the day in which five Latin American countries (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua) declared independence from Spain. Mexico, Chile and Belize also celebrate their independence this week, though their independence was won in different years. The week was expanded to a month in 1988 under President Ronald Reagan to include Columbus Day on Oct. 12. Though the explorer’s fateful expedition is marred with controversy in the U.S., it is celebrated as “Dia de La Raza,” or “Day of the Race,” in several Latin American countries who chose to celebrate the cultural blending of Indigenous and European ways of life.
Throughout the country, National Hispanic Heritage Month goes by different names, with some choosing to observe Latino Heritage Month to include non-Spanish-speaking Latin Americans such as Brazilians, with the UConn community included, observing Latinx Heritage Month to include Latin Americans of all gender identities. At the end of the day, no matter what you call it, it is important to celebrate and acknowledge the tremendous impact Latin Americans of all backgrounds have had on the U.S. and its culture. So let’s dive in!
On Sept. 30, 1822, 199 years ago, Joseph Marion Hernández was elected the first Hispanic member of Congress.
While many people regard the immigration of Hispanics and Latinos to the U.S. as a fairly recent phenomenon, it should be noted that English settlers were not the only Europeans to claim land in the modern borders of the continental U.S. In fact, St. Augustine, Florida, a Spanish settlement, was the first European-founded city in the U.S., established 42 years before Jamestown, Virginia.
Hernández’s ancestors moved from Spain to the fledgling city of St. Augustine and accumulated enough wealth to become prominent property owners of Floridian society. During the 1810s, the American government led a series of military occupations throughout Florida, now known as the First Seminole War. The Spanish eventually ceded the territory of the Sunshine State to the Americans in 1819 and Hernández fared very well. Swearing allegiance to both sides, Hernández was awarded large treks of land by the Spanish government and was allowed by the U.S. government to keep them after he changed his name from José Mariano to Joseph Marion.
He represented the Florida Territory in Congress for a brief period of time, later retiring to Cuba where he would spend the rest of his life. Though Hernández’s political tenure is not marked by any particular achievements or innovations, by reaching such a rank, Hernández paved the way for future Hispanic and Latino politicians and leaders that are commonplace in U.S. government today.
On Sept. 28, 1965, 56 years ago, Fidel Castro announced that any Cubans wishing to leave the island were free to do so.
At the time of the Cuban Revolution, the Castro regime halted emigration from Cuba despite the fact that a sizable percentage of the Cuban population did not want to live under the communist government. After the revolution, the Cuban economy went into a tailspin due in large part to the American trade embargo on the island. Poverty and political dissent plagued the Castro government, pushing Castro to allow Cubans to leave.
The next decade saw thousands of Cubans flee the island on “Freedom Flights” which flew migrants from Cuba to the U.S., particularly from Havana to Miami, Florida. Miami developed a burgeoning Cuban community called Little Havana. Today, approximately 1.8 million Cuban-Americans live in the U.S. with almost all of them tracing their roots to this very decision.
56 years ago, on Oct. 3, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, commonly known as the Hart-Celler Act, into law.
While the U.S. paints itself a nation of immigrants, the U.S. government has rarely adopted a pro-immigration platform, and in no era was this more clear than in the 1920s. Almost all the politicians saw the millions of immigrants coming from Italy, Hungary, Poland and the Russian Empire as a threat to the “American culture.” In 1924, the U.S. government adopted a quota system that severely restricted immigration from Southern and Eastern European and encouraged immigration from the U.K. and the rest of Northwestern Europe. It would not be until the progressive reforms of the Civil Rights Era that these xenophobic quotas would be removed.
However, when Johnson signed the bill at the foot of the Statue of Liberty, the immigration from Europe that many expected to occur instead came from Latin America and Asia. Since 1965, an average of 500,000 immigrants enter the U.S. annually, with Latino immigrants making up approximately half of this number.
While these moments were small at the time of their enactment, the long term effects of these events can be seen in the development of the Latino community in the U.S. and the greater American culture.