Celebrating Hispanic Heritage: Cultural Contributions

(The following is a guest post by Tracy North, reference specialist in the Library of Congress Hispanic Division.)

As Hispanic Heritage Month (Sept. 15 – Oct. 15) comes to a close, now is an excellent time to reflect on the many ways in which Hispanic Americans have contributed to our nation’s cultural and political landscape.

Joseph N. Hernandez, first delegate to Congress from the Florida Territory and brigadier general of the Militia of Florida. Between 1850 and 1857. Prints and Photographs Division.

Joseph Hernandez, first delegate to Congress from the Florida Territory and brigadier general of the Militia of Florida. Between 1850 and 1857. Prints and Photographs Division.

Hispanic Americans have served in Congress as far back as 1822. The first Hispanic American member of Congress, Joseph Marion Hernández, served as the Territorial Delegate from the Florida Territory as a Whig from 1822-1823. Then, in the second half of the 19th century, the territory of New Mexico was represented by a succession of statesmen, businessmen, veterans and intellectuals. The first Hispanic-American senator, Octaviano Larrazolo, also represented the state of New Mexico (from 1928-1929). In total, eight Hispanic Americans have represented their constituents as members of the United States Senate, including three who serve in the current 113th Congress. On the House side, 100 Hispanic Americans have served – and continue to represent our country – from 12 states and 4 territories including Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, New York and Texas.

While many Members return to their districts to serve their local communities – at the request of current and past U.S. presidents – Hispanic American members of Congress have augmented their political careers by serving the country as cabinet heads and ambassadors after their terms have ended. A publication from the Office of the Historian of the U.S. House of Representatives examines the political trajectory of Hispanic American territorial delegates, resident commissioners and congressmen and senators in our nation’s history.

Hispanic Americans have enlisted in the U.S. military in all conflicts dating back to the Civil War and including both world wars, the Korean War (most notably the 65th Infantry Borinqueneers from Puerto Rico), the Vietnam War, and more recent conflicts in the Persian Gulf. You can learn more about all of America’s veterans by visiting the Veterans History Project, an oral history project that “collects, preserves and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war.” A special presentation on Experiencing War: Hispanics in Service shares stories of men and women in all branches of the U.S. military.

 Antonio Martinez service picture with division logo. Veterans History Project.

Antonio Martinez service picture with division logo. Veterans History Project.

Featured narratives, such as that of Antonio Martinez, animate history. On Christmas Eve 1944, Martinez was one of 2,235 American servicemen aboard a Belgian transport ship, the Leopoldville, on its way from England to France. Five miles from its destination, a torpedo from a German U-boat struck the ship, and it sank within three hours. Martinez helped a man who could not swim. One of the last rescued from the water, Martinez survived, but more than 750 GIs did not. His in-depth account of this tragedy, among the worst in U.S. military history, is an important addition to the public record, as survivors were told at the time not to discuss the episode. It took 50 years before an official monument to those who went down with the ship was erected.

Some featured veterans, such as Leroy Quintana, went on to gain fame after military service. Drafted to serve in Vietnam in 1967, Quintana did at one point consider fleeing across the border into Canada. But his mother had instilled in him respect for military service, and he stayed on. Serving in the 101st Airborne at the height of U.S. involvement, he kept a notebook of his experiences on five-man reconnaissance teams. “There was no reward for people returning from Vietnam,” recalls Quintana, “especially in the Army.” Quintana became a published, award-winning poet who sometimes uses his days in the service as inspiration for his work.

Other stories, such as that of Joseph Medina, give personal perspective to current events. Following in the military tradition of his family dating to the 15th century in Spain and later in Mexico, Medina entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1972. In 2003, Medina was promoted to brigadier general, one of the first Hispanics to hold the rank in the U.S. Marine Corps. More recently, he commanded the Expeditionary Strike Group Three during Operation Iraqi Freedom, during which he was responsible for developing the Iraqi Coastal Defense Force. “If something goes bad in Iraq,” says Medina, “the press focuses on it and everybody sees it. But sometimes they don’t see all the good things that are getting better.”

Cuban-owned bakery, "La Borinquena Bakery," in Paterson, N.J. Photograph by Thomas D. Carroll, 1994. American Folklife Center.

Cuban-owned bakery, “La Borinquena Bakery,” in Paterson, N.J. Photograph by Thomas D. Carroll, 1994. American Folklife Center.

The Library’s collections are also rife with examples of personal stories about Hispanic Americans finding a place in and contributing to the economic development of U.S. society. One rich collection of interviews and documentary photographs depicts the types of jobs held by people of Paterson, N. J., a working-class city a short drive – or train ride – northwest of Manhattan. Within these tremendous oral histories, stories of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and other Hispanic Americans come to life. In one gem of an audio recording with attorney Beatriz Meza, she recalls the generosity of a mentor who guided her through the rigors of becoming a practicing attorney. Her confidence is admirable: she “feel(s) that being a Latina gives me an advantage” because she is bilingual and possesses multicultural knowledge and skills to work with diverse clients.

In addition to the useful items in our collections such as maps, manuscripts, sound recordings, photographs, posters and of course books detailing the activities of Hispanic Americans, Library staff members have developed helpful tips for researchers, such as the Science Reference Guide that highlights resources on the important topic of Hispanic American Health and the incredibly valuable tools for teachers and educators who are looking for guidance in celebrating the achievements of Hispanic Americans that are described in a past blog post.

The Hispanic Reading Room is available as a starting point for research on Hispanic Americans, Latinos in the U.S. and in Latin America, both historical and current, Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. Patrons and researchers can contact us on the web in English or Spanish.

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