Hispanic Heritage Month: How Hispanics Are Defining and Redefining America

Recent debates surround the "Browning of America" -- the continuous reshaping of America and its Hispanic influence. Yet many of us fail to grapple that America has always been Hispanic. In fact, according to the 2011 Census Bureau, one out of every six people in the United States is Hispanic. In 2010, the New York Times reported for the first time in our country's rich history that we had more brown and black children being born than white, yet despite this astonishing information, many Americans are confused as to who Hispanics really are.

For many of us, Hispanics are envisioned as migrant workers, cheap laborers with leaf blowers, non-English-speaking individuals or any number of media driven portrayals (and of course there are Cesar Chavez, Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin). The blending of various Hispanics' identities, cultures, traditions and lifestyles makes America culturally Hispanic without many of us even realizing it.

What mainstream Americans have failed to realize is that Hispanics have played and will continue to play a crucial role in our nation. Hispanics have contributed to every avenue of American life since the inception of this country. Hispanics' origins have played a key role in our country's socio-economic, political, and cultural development that many argue: What would America would be like without the presence of Hispanics and their influence?

Hispanic culture can be traced in the United States for over 500 years when California, Mexican states, Florida and the Southwest were discovered by Spanish explorers. Many of us are unaware that Hispanic culture had firm roots in St. Augustine, Florida and what is now New Mexico before the English arrived at Jamestown in 1607 or before the Pilgrims dropped anchor in Massachusetts Bay in 1621. Hispanic culture and political development flourished well before the Founding Fathers envisioned the idea of securing their independence from Britain in 1776. Not only did Hispanic culture help shape and define America's early political development, but they have also played an important role in helping to secure the birth of the new republic: AMERICA.

During the American Revolutionary War, Bernardo de Galvez, governor of the Louisiana Territory, sent gunpowder, rifles, bullets, blankets, medicine and other supplies to the armies of General George Washington in support of America's cause. Once the war began, Galvez, along with support and reinforcements from Spain's Cuba, Mexico and Puerto Rico.

What would our country's political history be without Hispanics? What would Manifest Destiny and America's expansion be without the role of Hispanics and the carving of America's great Western frontier? The Hispanic presence in the election of President James Polk in 1844 and his future policy of annexation of Texas, the stolen land, the creation of the artificial border, the Alamo, the great Southwest, and the Compromise of 1850 all help define our American history. What would America be like without the importance of The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican War, where the United States gained not only Texas, New Mexico and Upper California, making way for the vast expansion of American land, but also a cultural history like no other? Our Civil War would not be the same without the presence of Hispanics, often removed from our history books. Some 20,000 Hispanics fought in the Civil War, some serving in the 1st Florida Cavalry, others serving in the Union forces in Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts. From the first battle in Fort Sumter to the last battle in Palmito Ranch, Texas, their allegiance served in America's defining war over the issue of slavery. Hispanics have always met the challenge of serving America with commitment and admiration in the midst of the great American Split.

The Spanish-American war not only changed America, but announced America as a world power. Our influence in Latin America and our political games with the region not only created an illusion of a fake and misleading democracy, but more so created more enemies. "Imperialism" became the new name for "colonialism." Our political foreign policy during pre- and post-Fidel Castro's Cuba helped define our Cold War foreign policy with Latin America and the rest of the world. It also played an important role in defining what it meant to be an "American." The Viva Kennedy Movement helped elect one of America's promising leaders, John F. Kennedy, as well as the election and recent re-election of America's first African American president. Without the Hispanic vote, this feat would not have been possible.

What would our history be without the struggle for Civil Rights, equality, and guaranteed rights under the constitution of the United States? Very few understand the importance of Mendez v. Westminster in 1947, which the US Courts of Appeals ruled that segregation of Mexican American children from the public schools system in California was unconstitutional and violated the 14th Amendment, it paved the way for the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.

Dr. Hector P. Garcia, the civil rights leader of the Hispanic movement, his achievements remains silent but of great importance as he fought peacefully for the dismantling of segregation signs, racism and discrimination in many Mexican American communities in the great Southwest in the 1940s and 1950s. From his creation of the Mexican American GI Forum in 1948, to his appointment as United States Ambassador to the United Nations, to the first Mexican American to be given the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. His ideology and commitment towards justice for all later became the cornerstone for Dr. Martin L. King and the African American Struggle for Civil Rights in the 1960s.

What would our first African American president campaign slogan "Yes We Can" be like without the Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta who coined the term "Sí, se puede" in the 1972 during the farm workers strike? Without the Hispanic struggle for economic equality, the term may not have had any importance.

From the Cuban rhythms in South Florida to the Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Peruvians, Central Americans, Bolivians, Colombians and other cultural influences in New York City, Chicago and Boston to the Mexican culture found in the great Southwest, Texas and California, America's cultural history would not be the same. What would happen to the major philosophical question "what happen to the dinosaurs?" Without Hispanic physicist Luis Alvarez's theory on the asteroid that destroyed the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago, that frequently asked question would still be unanswered. What would America's past time, baseball, be without the Hispanic influence helping change and define the game? From Roberto Clemente to the greatest hitter of all time, Ted Williams and his Hispanic background? Yes, his mother was Mexican, and though he shied away from the fact of his Hispanic heritage, many argue that it would affect his status and playing career.

Our Goya food brand which has now become an integral part of American food culture, from its humble beginnings in lower Manhattan, New York, to every major city in the world. It announced the Hispanic presence in our homes and communities despite our ethnic background. What would the ever changing American music be without the influence of Hispanics? From Jose Feliciano reminding us of "Feliz Navidad" to Celia Cruz, Carlos Santana defining much of the '60s and '70s to ever present Hispanic musical trend that embraces the great Southwest, West Coast, Midwest to the East Coast that continues to define who we are as Americans.

America must make the first move to acknowledge and respect the contributions of Hispanics in every aspect of our society. Hispanics are fast becoming the new foundation of our country's economic, political and social-cultural power and based on their promise, no other immigrant group in the history of our great nation has this potential.

Stephen Balkaran is an Instructor in the Department of Philosophy & Political Science at Quinnipiac University.