Taking Hispanic Heritage Celebrations to a Higher Level

By  - 

President Lyndon Johnson first established Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968 as a time of commemoration. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan expanded it to a 30-day period, from September 15 through October 15.

The choice of this commencement period was a nod to the anniversary of the independence of five Latin American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, which all declared independence during this time period in 1821. In addition, Mexico, Chile, and Belize celebrate their independence days on September 16, 18, and 21, respectively.

The term Hispanic is generally applied to countries or territories once under Spanish rule. These include all countries in Latin America, many Caribbean nations and territories, the Spanish Philippines, and the Spanish Sahara. In some of these places, Spanish may or may not be the predominant or official language; there are parts of Mexico where some people only speak their native languages, which predate Spanish rule. However, their cultures are heavily derived from Spain, in some cases with a strong local indigenous or other foreign influence. 

The purpose of Hispanic Heritage Month, according to most recent records, is to recognize and celebrate the achievements and contributions of Hispanic and Latino Americans to U.S. communities. So how do many organizations recognize, celebrate, and commemorate this month?

Most of the events I’ve attended or heard about focus on the food, music, art, and history of these groups. For example, one company hosts a potluck lunch where Hispanic employees bring a dish from a particular country and explain its history. Another organization showcases an exhibit of paintings and photographs by Hispanic artists. Additionally, some invite entertainers who perform Hispanic music and dances. 

All of this is good, but is that all there is to celebrate and recognize relative to Hispanic culture? Of course not.

Here are just a few other things we can note:

Contributions to the U.S. economy – Hispanics are, according to one recent report, helping “make America rich again.” In a December 2016 study conducted by National Economics Research Associates (NERA), titled Making America Rich Again: The Latino Effect on Economic Growth, NERA Managing Director Jeffrey A. Eisenach presents a comprehensive analysis based on data from a wide variety of government and private sources of the contributions Latino Americans have made to the U.S. economy. 

Here are a few highlights from the study: Hispanics currently wield over $1.3 trillion in buying power, and the number of affluent households is growing at a faster rate than that of the overall population. They are creating new businesses faster than other Americans, and hiring at these companies is up 22 percent. Hispanics were responsible for over 29 percent of real income growth in the U.S. between 2005 and 2015. Additionally, this population is nine years younger than the median age for the overall U.S. population, so these contributions are expected to continue to grow. 

Contributions to U.S. innovation Take, for example, Victor Leaton Ochoa, a prolific inventor from the late 1800s to the early 1900s whose creations include the Ochoaplane, which introduced foldable wings that made it easier to store a plane; a reversible motor; and a number of different wrenches. Or there is Ellen Ochoa: An astronaut and the co-inventor of three optics-related U.S. patents, she has six schools named after her. 

Another is Mario Molina, who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work in atmospheric chemistry and the formation and decomposition of ozone. There is also Manuel Villafana, who invented a heart valve and went on to found St. Jude Medical as well as ATS Medical. His work continues to focus on developing artificial blood vessels that are safer and less invasive than coronary artery bypass graft surgery.

Contributions to education – One man that comes to mind here is Jaime Escalante. The immigrant son of two teachers, he taught himself English, worked odd jobs to earn a degree, and later became famous for teaching math to troubled high school students. Many of his pupils, who were from a school riddled by violence and drugs, passed the advanced placement test in calculus. Escalante’s successes with his students despite the challenges of their environment were the subject of the book Jaime Escalante: The Best Teacher in America and the film Stand and Deliver, starring Edward James Olmos. 

There are many more categories and people I could add to this list, but I think these illustrate my point. 

So what might you do to incorporate some of these notable accomplishments that go beyond food, music, and art into your celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month? How can you personalize the month at your organization? Here are five suggestions:

● Highlight some accomplishments that fit the level and stature of those listed above, especially those that are most germane to your organization and industry.

● Invite someone to come in and speak about Hispanic contributions to your industry.

● Invite someone to speak about Hispanic contributions to your organization.

● Invite someone to speak about Hispanic contributions to the community where your campus or office is located.

● In some organizations, you may be able to highlight Hispanics who are part of your client market or leadership team.

Hispanic Heritage Month is a time to broaden our views and appreciation for the contributions made by this component of our American identity. We should continue to commemorate how these groups have affected food, music, and art on a national level — but let’s not stop there. Let’s also embrace and celebrate their other contributions that have woven their threads through the entire tapestry of our American heritage.

Joseph Santana is chairman of the Institute for Corporate Productivity’s (i4cp) Chief Diversity Officer Board and president of Joseph Santana, LLC. He is also a member of the INSIGHT Into Diversity Editorial Board. For more information, visit joesantana.com. This article ran in our September 2018 issue.