As politicians across the nation mark Hispanic Heritage Month, several lawmakers are stressing that it is now more important than ever to honor Hispanic Americans.
"We are at a critical time in this country where Latinos and Latinas are under attack," Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.) told Cheddar. "[Hispanic Heritage Month] is a great time to look back at our history, look back at our culture, and to celebrate it."
Hispanic Heritage Month was first designated as a celebratory week in 1968 by President Lyndon B. Johnson. It was later amended, through annual presidential proclamations, to become a month-long celebration, running from September 15 to October 15. The month is spent recognizing Hispanic contributions to U.S. society and honoring prominent figures, ranging from the late labor rights activist Cesar Chavez to Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
In his presidential proclamation this year, President Trump lauded today's historically low Hispanic unemployment rate, saying that the "thriving economy is enabling more Hispanic Americans to achieve the American Dream."
Yet critics note that Trump has repeatedly disparaged Latinos and that his administration has pursued divisive immigration policies. The White House's agenda, several lawmakers say, has given Hispanic Heritage Month a renewed sense of importance.
"We are facing challenging times in this politically charged environment, but our Hispanic American community stands stronger and more proud than ever," Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said in a statement marking the month. "As we face adversity, nothing can diminish the deep, enduring perseverance that defines us as Latinos."
Since the election in 2016, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has fought numerous White House proposals and policies, including the child separation policy at the U.S. southern border and the administration's "zero tolerance" approach to immigration. Just last week, Castro submitted a bipartisan amicus brief to the Supreme Court in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — better known as DACA — which Trump abolished in September 2017. The program had provided hundreds of thousands of undocumented young people in the U.S. with work permits and safety from deportation.
Barragán, who was elected in 2016 to represent southern Los Angeles, told Cheddar that while numerous Hispanic Americans today are "paving the way," greater representation is needed.
"It is time we add more Latinos and Latinas to the table — to look like this country — and to be a voice on the issues that matter to our communities," she said. "And, in today's day and age, to be a voice against a lot of the rhetoric against immigrants."
Barragán also said it is important to note during Hispanic Heritage Month that issues affecting Latinos extend far beyond immigration and border security. Challenges like climate change and access to health care, she said, are vital to Hispanic communities, especially since "often times they disproportionately impact them."