By Dr. María Alma González Pérez
President Lyndon B. Johnson was the first president of the United States who proposed the idea for a National Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968. It began the 15th and 16th of September when several Hispanic countries celebrate their independence. Years later President Gerald R. Ford encouraged schools and human rights organizations to participate more actively in the celebration.
In 1988 it was President Ronald Reagan who extended the celebration from one week to one month which became known as Hispanic Heritage Month. Since then, it is celebrated from September 15 to October 15.
Nevertheless, I feel that we should celebrate our Hispanic heritage all year long! We are not Hispanics only one month of the year. With the use of the word “celebrate,” I mean: Let us be proud, value, and promote all that embodies what we consider as our Hispanic heritage.
The term “heritage” encompasses a way of life or culture that as a people, a race, or ethnic group we have inherited from our ancestors. Therefore, culture consists of identity, religious and moral values, language, history, literature, beliefs, customs and traditions, music, art, and handicrafts.
Therefore, we must first enable our children to develop their own identity; for example, they need to learn and know who their ancestors were, what was their place of origin, their names, their last names, their stories, their achievements. When one knows family history, it enables us to better understand who we are, where we come from, and what is our direction in life.
We must also help our children to develop religious and moral values, such as respect for the elderly, the value of family unity, respect for the rights of others as well as personal and professional ethics. Values form the basis of character which will define the type of person that they will become.
Most of all, we must ensure that our children learn Spanish which is our native language. It will not only enable the development of bilingualism, but most importantly, it will help them better understand their own identity and history through literature and communication in their own language.
We must also give them the opportunity to learn about the history of our people. They can learn it through the oral histories that their parents, grandparents, or teachers can share with them. Of still greater importance is our own effort to demand that schools offer courses, so that they can acquire a more comprehensive and accurate knowledge.
To complement that history background, we must promote biliteracy to provide their development of Spanish as well as English. Biliteracy and cultural literacy validate the culture of the student and establish an effective communication between the school and the home of the student. Sandra Cisneros and Alma Flor Ada have made great strides in making our voices heard through their literary works of wide acclaim. Nonetheless, students should also be exposed to local authors from their own towns and neighborhoods, so that they can make even greater connections to their lives and their people.
When topics are discussed in school that are also familiar in the home, then the student not only can apply his prior knowledge to understand new ideas and concepts, but he realizes their importance and value.
However, to maintain that identity, those values, and that language, we must put into practice that history and literature in our daily life through our customs and traditions.
We must make them aware of our Hispanic foods of indigenous origin by teaching them their names, their ingredients and, most importantly, their preparation.
We must give our children an understanding of holidays – their origin and their traditions. We must also involve them in the community, so that they can observe and learn about customs, such as la merienda, la serenata, and dichos, for example.
We must give our children the opportunity to listen to our mariachi and norteña/tejana music for a greater appreciation of who we are as a people and as a culture. In addition, we must also give them the opportunity to participate in folkloric and regional dances, so that they can become familiar with the great variety of dances, their origin, and their place in the world of dance.
We must give them the opportunity to know and appreciate our works of art, not only from famous artists like Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, but also from local artists, such as Amado Peña and Carmen Lomas Garza whose work focuses on the beauty and the splendor of our Hispanic culture.
We must enable them to know about our beautiful handicrafts and use them for the decoration of our homes, classrooms, and offices, especially to remind us of the talent of our people, as they are real works of art.
Let us celebrate our Hispanic culture with consistency one day at a time. Let us make that love and pride shine for all that we are and for all that our Hispanic heritage represents because the reality is that we have a rich and beautiful culture to pass on to our future generations. ¡Viva nuestra herencia hispana!