SAN ANTONIO, Texas – On August 17, 1988, Public Law 100-402 was passed to establish Hispanic Heritage Month recognizing Hispanic immigrants’ contributions that make our great U.S.A. greater still.
The honor can be considered a truly bi-partisan tribute. Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson first created the idea of a week-long celebration. Republican President Ronald Reagan then expanded it to a month (September 15 – October 15) and helped ratify the salute into law.
However, respect for our culture hasn’t always been valued by mainstream society. Once, they treated our heritage with disdain. How bad was it? Below, author David J. Weber bluntly answers the question in his book, “The Spanish Frontier in North America” as he observes:
“The inconvenient fact that Mexicanos had joined Anglo-American rebels in the 1836 Texas rebellion was forgotten, and a repudiation of the Spanish past became an essential part of Anglo Texans’ self-identity. Hispanophobia, with its particular vitriolic anti-Mexican variant also served as a convenient rationale to keep Mexicans “in their place.” Hispanophobia lasted in Texas longer than in any of Spain’s other North American provinces. Well into the 20th Century, it retarded the serious study of the state’s lengthy Spanish heritage, leaving the field open to distortion and caricature.”
If, as historian Weber describes, Anglo Texans developed their exclusive self-identity, then Mexican-descent Texans lost theirs. After 1848, southwest local residents were downcast quickly to sub-class status and ruled in colonial style fashion. adly, that regrettable attitude continues.
In truth, many of us were born and raised in communities established in the 1700s, well before Anglo immigrants from the U.S. arrived. For example, in Tucson, Arizona, the source of recent anti-Mexican culture rage, Spanish language masses have been said at St. Xavier del Bac since its founding in 1699. Roman Catholic masses have been said in Spanish at San Fernando Cathedral since 1750 and Laredo’s San Agustín Cathedral for nearly as long. New Mexico, California and surrounding area boast of their share of similarly significant history. Thus, the facts speak for themselves. As seen through the fresh lens of historical analysis, our Spanish Mexican lineage is not a liability, but rather a prized asset. Diversity strengthens, as both Presidents Johnson and Reagan recognized.
Yet, many Mexican-descent youth today are confused as to how to engage during Hispanic Heritage Month. Some feel trapped between two worlds. One side pulls them toward the comforting Mexican/Native American ambience and distinctive food aromas that permeate the entire region. The other persecutes them should they speak Spanish or display any sign of their heritage in public this side of the U.S. Mexico border. That troublesome mind-set often brings great discomfort to Mexican-descent youth. To cope, some just avoid the stress altogether.
Mexican-descent U.S. children originating in Texas and the Southwest are indeed perplexed. On the one hand, there’s nothing they can do about their DNA bronze skin and black hair. On the other hand, were they to exhibit any sign of their heritage, they would be harshly set upon and/or ridiculed by mainstream conservative society. That’s what you call a real vicious cycle.
Nowhere is their dilemma more evident than in Texas and the Southwest. To illustrate, recently my wife and I were shopping at a local store and my wife was approached by one of the sales clerks. “Do you speak Spanish”, she asked? “Yes, I do”, my wife quickly replied. “What can I do for you?” The clerk responded, “No, it’s not for me. I just need help with a customer in the next aisle who speaks only Spanish. Can you come and tell me what she wants?”
Of course, my wife complied and was able to answer the customer’s question and helped in selling the lady a product. Afterwards, we both lamented the fact that the clerk was Hispanic herself (judging from her ID tag), but had opted not to speak Spanish, either on her own or through company policy. Therein lays the dilemma. How can this young lady realize that it’s OK to be herself and not deny her long heritage in Texas?
Sadly, the unforgiving society Mr. Weber speaks of is still very much alive today. One has to only recall the mean-spirited, repulsive bigotry aimed at singer Sebastien de la Cruz when he sang our national anthem at a San Antonio Spurs game dressed in formal traditional Mexican cowboy attire. While young Sebastian was demonstrating his early Texas history heritage, the Hispanophobia that Historian Weber warns us about reared its ugly head yet again. This Hispanic Heritage Month, let’s all try to set the record straight once and for all. How?
Mexican-descent citizens must learn to accept and willingly display their Texas-bred heritage. Pay no attention to those who say that pride in our Mexican heritage is unpatriotic. Many times over, Mexican-descent military men and women have risen to the call and served gallantly fighting for our country. Albeit, they did so while being denied at home the very rights they were fighting for overseas. Whatever we do, we must never let anyone equate illegal immigration with our centuries-old Mexican heritage on this side of the U.S. Mexico border.
Finally, our children are descendants of the first cowboys in what is now the U.S. Just like young Sebastien, our children must re-discover their identity. They must reclaim their inheritance — the dress and character of their Texas and Southwest ancestors. Truly, they own the cowboy/cowgirl persona. As such, join a Hispanic genealogy group in your community to learn about pre-1836 Texas people, places, and events. Our beautiful, bright, and fearless Mexican-descent children must learn to speak English well, but also be proud to be bi-lingual, because in the U.S. it isn’t necessary to give up one’s heritage to make it. Indeed, that was the point behind LBJ’s and Ronald Reagan’s idea of a national Hispanic Heritage Month.
José “Joe” Antonio López was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and is a USAF Veteran. He now lives in Universal City, Texas. He is the author of three books: “The Last Knight (Don Bernardo Gutierrez de Lara Uribe, A Texas Hero),” “Nights of Wailing, Days of Pain (Life in 1920s South Texas).” and, “The First Texas Independence, 1813.” Lopez is also the founder of the Tejano Learning Center, LLC, and www.tejanosunidos.org, a Web site dedicated to Spanish Mexican people and events in U.S. history that are mostly overlooked in mainstream history books.