In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson created National Hispanic Heritage Week to recognize people of Hispanic descent who share America’s thirst for freedom.
“The people of Hispanic descent are the heirs of missionaries, captains, soldiers, and farmers who were motivated by a young spirit of adventure, and a desire to settle freely in a free land,” Johnson wrote.
Twenty years later, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation marking September 15 through October 15 as National Hispanic Heritage Month. It was President George H.W. Bush who proclaimed the first such month under that law, and noted in 1989:
“Hispanic Americans have enriched our Nation beyond measure with the quiet strength of closely knit families and proud communities. Many have come to the United States in search of the freedom and opportunity denied to them by Marxist-Leninist regimes in their ancestral homelands.”
Here at the Department of Veterans Affairs, we take time during this 31-day period to praise those men and women of Hispanic descent who didn’t just enjoy America’s freedoms, they chose to take up arms to defend those freedoms.
Hispanic-Americans have fought for our shared cause of liberty in every conflict since this country’s founding. They knew the value of freedom when the first shots rang out on Lexington Green in 1775, and their continued willingness to stand and defend this land shows they know the value of freedom today.
Each one of them who stands with us makes this nation stronger.
Of those who emigrate to America, many are so grateful for the chance to follow their dreams that they remind each of us never to take our blessings for granted. And some help America expand those blessings.
Maj. Marisol Chalas was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to America in 1982. Her dream was to be a military pilot, and she excelled – she became America’s first Latina National Guard Black Hawk helicopter pilot after graduating aviation school at the top of her class. She went on to earn an MBA and serve as an Army Congressional Fellow.
“This continues to prove that hard work, perseverance and determination gives you the ability to achieve the impossible,” she said.
Veterans like Marisol would say they enlisted to support freedom, but the freedom to do what?
Ronald Reagan put his finger on it when he signed his last proclamation of Hispanic American Heritage Week in 1988. He said that what binds Hispanic Americans together is the home – “the almost mystical center of daily life, where grandparents and parents and children and grandchildren all come together in the familia.”
Reagan said he regretted that, “some people have not learned the great lesson of our Hispanic heritage: the lesson of family and home and church and community.”
That is what we defend as Americans – the right to be at home with our loved ones, living the way we want to live. That is what Hispanic Americans have helped us defend. And that is why we thank them for all they have contributed.