The history of Hispanics in America is long and rich, one that began with Spanish explorers invading the continent in the 1500s and has continued with the movement of people from Latin America and the Caribbean. In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, here are five little-known facts of Hispanic American history.
1. Hispanics Have Served in Congress Since the 1800s
Some 300 years after Spanish explorers became the first non-Native Americans to view the Mississippi River and, later, the Grand Canyon, Joseph Marion Hernández helped smooth the transfer of the territory of Florida into U.S. rule. Florida was still part of Spain when Hernández was born in St. Augustine in 1784, but that changed when was selected to serve in the House of Representatives and was sworn into duty in 1823 as the first Hispanic to serve in Congress.
In historical context, the slave-owning Hernández is somewhat controversial. Still, he remains the first of 128 Hispanics to serve in the Congress of the U.S. Maybe of more relevance today is the first senator elected to a full term in Congress, New Mexico's Dennis Chávez, in 1935.
"In addition to being the first [American-born Hispanic senator], he's critical for the time we live in because he fought on behalf of all working class, equally," Ortiz says. "He fought for higher wages legislation. He fought for people to have the right to organize a union. He fought for more progress in U.S. foreign policy for Latin America. He organized with NAACP leaders against Jim Crow segregation. Dennis Chávez is one of those people we can use Hispanic Heritage Month to talk about our connection to other people's democratic struggles."
Today's Congress, the 116th (2019-2021), has 47 members of Hispanic heritage.
2. Hispanics Fought in the Civil War
The American Civil War was not only a struggle between the Union and Confederacy. It was not just whites fighting over slavery. The conflict involved at least 20,000 Hispanics, too. Many in the Southeast portion of the country sided with the Confederacy. From the National Park Service:
Many of Spanish ancestry lived in the Gulf Coast region of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana — lands that had once been Spanish West Florida and Louisiana ... These "Creoles" were often well-to-do planters with plantations or established merchants with homes in the bustling ports of New Orleans and Mobile. Many held slaves. Others made their money through the cotton trade that relied on the "peculiar institution" of slavery. Part of the aristocracy of the region, these citizens joined their like-minded southern neighbors and actively fought to preserve their way of life.
But more Hispanics supported the Union. "A lot of Mexican American soldiers fought on the side of the Union Army in the Southwest and actually helped defeat the Confederacy in the Southwest," Ortiz says. Hispanics in the West backed the Mexican government, too, and celebrated that country's defeat of the French at the Battle of Puebla May 5, 1862, — Cinco de Mayo — in a victory that may have helped prevent the French from siding with the Confederacy.
3. The Zoot Suit Riots
In late May and early June 1943, Los Angeles was rocked by what came to be known as the Zoot Suit Riots, a series of racist attacks on Mexican American youths by white U.S. servicemen and largely allowed by a racist police presence.
The riots were the culmination of years of animosity in the area, fueled by:
When the dapperly dressed zoot-suited young men mixed with soldiers on their way to the war in the Pacific, violence finally erupted.
During the height of the riots, in a week in June, soldiers used makeshift weapons and marched into neighborhoods looking for anyone wearing a zoot suit. No one was killed, but the pictures of beaten young men in the streets, stripped of their clothing, and the like violence that spilled into other cities forced the nation to face the reality of racism at home.
4. Mendez v. Westminster Desegregated Schools in California
Almost eight years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (in Brown v. Board of Education) segregation in public schools unconstitutional, a Hispanic schoolgirl showed the way.
Sylvia Mendez, of Puerto Rican and Mexican heritage, was just 8 years old when she and her brothers were denied enrollment into the white-only Westminster School District in Orange County in 1943. At the time, about 80 percent of California school districts were segregated. Her parents, Gonzalo and Felicita Mendez, enlisted other parents to fight the decision, and they took the school board to court, Mendez v. Westminster was launched. After appeals that were abandoned short of the U.S. Supreme Court, Mendez v. Westminster became the first successful federal school desegregation case in the nation. That was in 1947.
The case was important in arguing that segregation itself, even if schools were "separate but equal," was harmful and unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment (specifically, the clause that calls for "equal protection of the laws" for all citizens). In appeals, Sylvia's case was argued (in an amicus curiae brief) by Thurgood Marshall, who was to argue for the plaintiff in the Brown v. Board of Education case, too, and later would become a Supreme Court justice.
Felicitas died in 1998, but Sylvia has continued to tell her family's story. In 2007, a U.S. Postage stamp marked the 60th anniversary of the case and on Feb. 15, 2011, President Barack Obama presented Sylvia with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
5. The Chicano Blowouts
Even after Mendez v. Westminster helped desegregate schools in Orange County, things were not great in the schools. Students in Los Angeles in the '60s were tired of soaring number of dropouts, low graduation rates and a counselor-to-student ratio of 1:4,000. So they planned a mass walkout in March 1968 — about 22,000 high school students in Los Angeles left their classrooms and took to the streets. The incident was dubbed The Chicano Blowouts and the leaders made 26 demands of a school system that was badly failing them, including more studies of Mexican American history and more Mexican Americans in the administration.
The Blowouts were not entirely peaceful. Teachers blocked exits. Police clashed with the students in often brutal showdowns. Arrests were made. But the protests became "a crucial flashpoint in the movement to achieve equality for Chicano students in the L.A. Unified School District," according to the United Way of Greater Los Angeles. And they paved the way for more, better education for Hispanics in California.
"Those high school students who graduated from, say Garfield High School in Los Angeles, they go to college three, four, five years later, they're at San Francisco State University, they're at UC Berkeley," Ortiz says, "and now they demand the implementation of Chicano history on the college level."
Those kinds of protests, Ortiz says, are what slowly bend the arc of history toward justice and equality for Hispanics and Latinos, in education and elsewhere. Hispanic Heritage Month celebrates those moments, and helps to demonstrate how much has been achieved, and how much remains.
"I want us to be proud of our parents and our grandparents. I want us to be proud of where we came from," says Ortiz. "And I want us to remember that all the privileges and benefits, and all the advances that we've enjoyed in this country, we have fought for. Or our parents and grandparents have fought for and, in some cases, lived and died for. My gosh, we have so many things to be proud of as people in terms of contributions that we've made to the society."