Siento que desde nuestro lugar de origen hemos estado juntos,” the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo wrote in a 1947 letter to her fellow countryman, the poet Carlos Pellicer. “Que somos de la misma materia, de las mismas ondas, que llevamos dentro el mismo sentido.”
“I feel that from our place of origin, we have been together,” Kahlo’s words translate. “That we are of the same matter, of the same waves, that we carry within the same sense.”
Kahlo, a bold and uncompromising artist, became a prominent figure in Mexican culture in the early to mid-20th century. She caused a sensation at a Manhattan art exhibit in 1938 simply because she wore a traditional Mexican dress. American critics labeled her “exotic,” and wrote condescending reviews that de-emphasized her talent while remarking on her use of vibrant colors, in keeping with Mexican tradition. Today, Kahlo, who died in 1954, remains an emblem of a rich Mexican artistic culture that has influenced generations of painters, poets, writers and musicians around the world.
From Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, we celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month. But in order to appreciate these immigrants’ colorful, flavorful contributions to virtually every realm of American life, we must understand their centuries-long history, their upheavals, triumphs and hardships.
Hispanic or Latino-Americans come from Spanish-speaking parts of the world, including Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. According to www.HispanicHeritageMonth.gov, Sept. 15 is significant because it is the anniversary of independence for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Mexico, Chile, and Belize celebrate their independence on Sept. 16, 18 and 21, respectively. The United States began observing Hispanic Heritage Week on Sept. 15, 1968. The celebration was expanded to a month in 1988.
Hispanics in all walks of life have long clawed their way to success in America, despite facing the same kind of racism, stereotyping and dearth of opportunities that African-Americans are all too familiar with. “I’ll get a terrace apartment,” the character Anita, played by the dazzlingly talented, Puerto Rican-born Rita Moreno, sings on her Manhattan tenement rooftop in the 1961 film adaptation of “West Side Story,” as her Puerto Rican friends and relatives loudly voice their attraction, and aversion, to life in America while they dance.
“Better get rid of your accent,” her boyfriend, Bernardo, responds.
“Free to be anything you choose,” Anita sings of her adopted country.
“Free to wait tables and shine shoes!” the boys shout back.
In 1960, the Pew Research Center estimated that there were 6.3 million Hispanics in the U.S. That number grew to more than 56 million in 2015, and is projected to grow to 107 million by 2065. About 48 percent of Hispanic adults were born in another country in 2015, down from a peak of 55 percent in 2007.
Despite their hardships, Hispanics have thrived in America — and done their part to help the nation thrive. The U.S. Census estimates that 3.3 of the 27.6 million businesses in America are Hispanic-owned. Our farming and agriculture industry is forever indebted to the labor of Hispanics — and to the Mexican-American labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez, born in America of immigrant parents, who raised those laborers’ struggle for humane working conditions to the national consciousness. And steadily, with many successes in government, the sciences, music, television, film and professional sports, Latinos have become a part of the fabric of mainstream American culture.
The now 85-year-old Moreno won an Academy Award in 1962 for her performance as Anita. Afterward, however, she abandoned Hollywood for several years, angry that she continued to be offered only parts that perpetuated stereotypes of Hispanics. Much has changed in the decades since, but the continued success of these immigrants and their descendants, especially in today’s heated political climate, depends on America’s unwavering focus on remaining a beacon of freedom and inclusion.
The next few weeks are a great time to learn more about the Hispanic influences on our country. Ask your local Colombian or Salvadoran restaurant owners about their ancestors and their culture, learn about the work of the Spanish artist Salvador Dali or the Cuban Wifredo Lam, or read the Mexican-American Sandra Cisneros’s “The House on Mango Street.” You will discover that Hispanics have shaped our nation, our communities and our lives.