Hispanic Heritage Month: Celebrating Achievements, Art and Literature

Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated from September 15th to October 16th, allowing the United States an occasion to appreciate and celebrate the rich culture, contributions, and heritage of American people whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, and South America. This recognition began in 1968 when President Lyndon B. Johnson issued a proclamation annually designating the week including September 15th and 16th as National Hispanic Heritage Week. President Ronald Reagan expanded the honor, proclaiming the first Hispanic Heritage Month in 1988.

Important Hispanic Figures in American History

People of Hispanic origin are part of the fabric of American culture. Here are just a few Hispanic figures in American History who have helped shape our great nation.

 

 

Sonia Sotomayor

A Bronx native of Puerto Rican descent, Sonia Sotomayor became the first Hispanic American to serve as a member of the Supreme Court.

Sotomayor was born in 1954 in the New York City borough, where she grew up in a predominantly Catholic and Puerto Rican community. She quickly made education a priority through her mother’s insistence after her dad died when she was 9 years old.

The future judge went on to graduate valedictorian from high school and earned a full scholarship to Princeton University. She graduated in 1976 after establishing herself as a student advocate, working hard to ensure Princeton began hiring Latin American faculty. She went on to Yale Law School and graduated in 1979, earning her acceptance to the New York Bar the next year.

After working for over four years as an assistant district attorney in New York and stepping away to work in private practice, Sotomayor was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by President George H. W. Bush in 1991 and to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit by President Bill Clinton in 1997. Twelve years later, Sotomayor made history when President Barack Obama picked her as his first nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009. 

 

 

Julia Alvarez

Dominican American writer Julia Alvarez has been enchanting readers with her words since the early 1990s. Alvarez was born in New York City in 1950 before her family moved to the Dominican Republic when she was a baby. They stayed there throughout Alvarez’s childhood until her father’s involvement in a failed attempt to overthrow the militant dictator forced the family to flee to the United States in 1960.

The traumatic event has since made its way into several of Alvarez’s works, including the poem “Exile” in which she recounts the night her family fled. She went on to become one of the most critically revered Latina writers and has published poems, novels and essays throughout her career. 

 

 

Lin-Manuel Miranda

Few Hispanic Americans have made a bigger impact on pop culture than Lin-Manuel Miranda.Miranda was born in 1980 in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City to Puerto Rican parents, who immigrated to New York to pursue academics. Miranda’s mother Dr. Luz Towns-Miranda is a clinical psychologist and his father Luis A. Miranda, Jr. is a Democratic Party consultant and immigrant advocate.

Miranda was raised around musicals and started writing his first title at Wesleyan University in 1999 during his sophomore year. In the Heights, loosely based on his own experiences growing up, would go on to open on Broadway in March 2008. Miranda won his first Tony Award that summer after the show received 13 nominations, earning four wins including Best Musical.

But Miranda’s largest mark on culture came when his musical Hamilton opened on Broadway in 2015. Following the life of Alexander Hamilton, Miranda reimagined the beginnings of America told by all actors of color, whose ancestors didn’t have a say in how the country was built. The hip-hop musical quickly became one of the most profitable shows to ever hit Broadway.

Miranda once again won several Tony Awards for the show, including Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Book of a Musical.

 

 

Ellen Ochoa 

Ellen Ochoa made her mark by becoming the first Hispanic American woman to go to space with a nine-day mission in 1993.

Ochoa was born in 1958 in Los Angeles, California, years after her paternal grandparents immigrated from Mexico. She first obtained her physics degree from San Diego State University and later her masters and doctorate from Stanford University’s department of electrical engineering by 1985.

Through her impressive research work, NASA selected Ochoa in 1991 and she became an astronaut in July of that year. Two years later, Ochoa made history on board the Space Shuttle Discovery on a mission to study the Earth’s ozone layer. She later completed three more missions.

Ochoa became the first Hispanic American director of the Johnson Space Center in 2013, only the second woman to take the helm. After retiring with 30 years of service, Ochoa continues to advocate for women in STEM. 

Investigate Hispanic art and literature

Reading the works of Latinx authors is one of the most meaningful ways to observe Hispanic Heritage Month. Themed book club meetings can shine a light directly on the voices of the Hispanic community and help attendees empathize with authentic experiences.

Some book suggestions:

  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
  • Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  • How The Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez
  • The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez
  • The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luis Alberto Urrea
  • The Poetry of Pablo Neruda

Also, we recommend checking out these virtual Smithsonian events happening through October 15:

  • Wednesday, September 22nd, 2021, 11-11:30 am: Young Portrait Explorers: Marisol Escobar
  • Wednesday, September 29th, 2021, 11-11:30 am: Young Portrait Explorers: Pedro Martinez
  • Wednesday, September 29th, 2021, 11 am: Introducing… Juan Marichal
    • Sponsored by Portrait Gallery, Introducing… a new kind of story time! Each week we shine a light on some of this country’s lesser-known history makers and their portraits. Join us on YouTube every Wednesday at 11 a.m. for Introducing… with a Portrait Gallery educator. Children will learn more about art, hear the stories behind the portraits, and even learn some new vocabulary. Select story times will be in Spanish. For children ages 3 and up and their families. The event is free, and you can access the YouTube link here: https://www.youtube.com/smithsoniannpg/
  • Wednesday, October 6th, 2021, 11-11:30 am: Young Portrait Explorers: Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez
  • Wednesday, October 13th, 2021, 11-11:30 am: Young Portrait Explorers: Carmen Herrera
  • Wednesday, October 13, 11 am: Introducing… Carmen Herrera
    • Sponsored by Portrait Gallery, Introducing… a new kind of story time! Each week we shine a light on some of this country’s lesser-known history makers and their portraits. Join us on YouTube every Wednesday at 11 a.m. for Introducing… with a Portrait Gallery educator. Children will learn more about art, hear the stories behind the portraits, and even learn some new vocabulary. Select story times will be in Spanish. For children ages 3 and up and their families. The event is free, and you can access the YouTube link here:  https://www.youtube.com/smithsoniannpg/