The Unexpected Roots of National Hispanic Heritage Month: Part One

Each year from September 15 to October 15, Americans celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. Begun in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week, this celebration of the histories, cultures, and contributions of Americans of Hispanic ancestry was expanded in 1988. The unusual mid-month start has great significance, as Latin American countries including Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua date their independence from Spain to September 15, 1821, with Mexico and Chile following shortly thereafter on September 16 and 18, respectively. What many Americans do not realize, however, is the fascinating way that the very ideals that fueled our own war for independence lit the fires that culminated that day almost 200 years ago.

Within the New World holdings of the Spanish Empire, the term Spanish Main refers to the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico coastline controlled by the Spanish. This included the northern coast of South America; the eastern coast of Central America, Mexico, and Texas; and the coast of present-day Florida. Private Collection/Peter Newark American Pictures/The Bridgeman Art Library
Map of the Spanish Main, a term referring to the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico coastline controlled by the Spanish.
Private Collection/Peter Newark American Pictures/The Bridgeman Art Library

American schoolchildren have always been taught about the classical liberal ideals of our founders, but often remain ignorant about the profound impact those concepts had on the rest of the world. Principles such as limited, representative government, individual rights, and life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness lit fires in the minds of men and women across the globe. Soon the status quo was called into question, and with it things like the ossified social order, the divine right of kings, and the privileges of the traditional aristocracy.

By the end of the eighteenth century, colonial America increasingly objected to Spanish rule. Awareness of the American Revolution and, among the educated, of liberal democratic political ideas of the Enlightenment, spurred questions about the colonies’ future.


Gale World Scholar: Latin America & the Caribbean

The place where the American Revolution had its most famous impact was wartime ally France, where Enlightenment thinkers, homegrown classical liberals, and veterans of the American experience helped to create a rising tide of feeling that, combined with economic hardship, culminated in the French Revolution. Sadly, warfare and the excesses of the Guillotine temporarily drowned liberty in France and eventuated in the revolutionary dictatorship of Napoleon. The ideals of freedom remained in the hearts of the people, however, as signified by the gift of the statue Liberty Enlightening the World by sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi generations later.

StatueofLibertyIn her left hand, the statue clutches a tablet, on which is inscribed “1776”… the year in which the U.S. Declaration of Independence was signed, declaring that Britain’s colonies in North America intended to become an independent nation, based on the belief that “all men are created equal” and that when governments fail to uphold mankind’s natural rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” citizens have a natural right to overthrow that government and establish a new one.


In her other hand, Lady Liberty holds a torch, symbolizing the light that the United States holds up for the world, showing the ideal path to follow in politics… Finally, at her feet, lay broken shackles, representing the political repression of Europe from which the United States had broken free.


In 1871, Bartholdi wrote in a letter to Laboulaye: “I will try to glorify the Republic and Liberty over there, in the hope that someday I will find it again here [in France].”


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As Napoleon was building an empire from the remains of the French Republic, the ideals of the American Revolution were spreading throughout Mexico, the Caribbean, Latin America, and South America. In Mexico, discontent with Spanish rule was replaced by hatred of the French when Napoleon invaded Spain and claimed the Spanish throne, and with it sovereignty over its colonies

“Grito de Dolores” (cry of Dolores) was the battle cry issued by Miguel Hidalgo during the war for Mexican independence. Museo Nacional de Historia, Castillo de Chapultepec, Mexico/Jean-Pierre Courau/The Bridgeman Art Library
“Grito de Dolores” (cry of Dolores) was the battle cry issued by Miguel Hidalgo during the war for Mexican independence.
Museo Nacional de Historia, Castillo de Chapultepec, Mexico/Jean-Pierre Courau/The Bridgeman Art Library

This rebellious mood was heightened in 1808, when Napoleon invaded Spain and replaced its ruling monarch, King Ferdinand VII (1784-1833), with his own brother, Joseph Bonaparte (1768-1844). Mexicans cheered when the Spanish revolted. Ferdinand would be returned to his throne six years later, but in the meantime, the spark of revolution had been lit in Mexico. Soon an on-again, off-again war for independence had begun there.


This rebellion started with an 1810 revolt led by a Catholic priest, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla (1753-1811), who managed to gather an army of sixty thousand mestizos before he was captured and executed by the Spanish. Despite his fate, Hidalgo became a popular folk hero, and the first day of his revolt, September 16, is still celebrated as Mexico’s independence day, even though independence had not yet been achieved.


Gale World History in Context

While the first leaders had been captured and put to death, the Mexican people had embarked on the same road that the Americans had at Lexington and Concord. The ideals of 1776 had launched revolutions on different continents, and the very forces that extinguished the torch of liberty in France had set it blazing in Mexico.


Check back next Friday, October 3 for Part 2, where we will examine the fight against the Spanish Empire and the independence of the rest of the nations recognized in National Hispanic Heritage Month.





About the AuthorGeoff Schwartz

Geoff is a Renaissance man, who can often be found reading about obscure historical topics, working on cars, or debating world affairs. He comes from a family of teachers and has a BA in communications.



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