Hispanic Heritage Month: The Foundation of America's Civil Rights Movement

Hispanic Heritage month, an annual celebration that acknowledges and respects the contributions of one of America's greatest ethnic groups, dawns upon us. Never in our history has an ethnic group redefined America as Hispanics have done, yet despite this astonishing contribution many are often confused as to who they really are and their presence in America. The Hispanic presence in America dates back prior to the founding of this great nation. Many are unaware that Hispanic culture had firm roots in St Augustine, Florida and what is now New Mexico before the English arrived at Jamestown and before the Pilgrims dropped anchor in Massachusetts Bay. The Browning of America and the continuous reshaping of America's social, cultural and economic impact have defined and will continue to shape our country's socio-economic, political and cultural history. Despite their ever present contributions their impact on society is more far-reaching than the average American realizes. Hispanics have contributed in every avenue of American life since the inception of this great country, they have always challenged America to uphold its basic rights of a true democracy and what it is to be an American.

As anti-Hispanic rhetoric continues; it has taken away the best of who we are and what we can become as a nation and Americans. The immigration debate has now generated so many divisions in our society that it has become the "civil rights debate of 21st Century." Never in American history has an issue divided a nation of immigrants but more so left us scrambling for our true national identity. Civil Rights remain the pinnacle of debates, the protection of rights for all Americans, regardless of color, race, gender, age, sexual orientation and defending these rights against discrimination have long been important issue for all Americans. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, arguably one of the most important pieces of legislation in our country's history which ensured that legal barriers be torn down; which theoretically, should have eliminated barriers of discrimination against all Americans in our society. Despite this important legislation very few understand the historical foundations of the modern-day civil rights movement and the Hispanic influence.

The struggle for civil rights, equality and guaranteed rights under the constitution of the United States would not have been possible without the dedication of Dr. Hector P. Garcia. His leadership on the civil rights movement in the Hispanic communities 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 1940's and 50's. His non-violence philosophy remains an important tool in dismantling racism and segregation years before Gandhi and Dr. King took up their cause for human rights and dignity. His ideology and commitment towards justice for all later became the cornerstone for the African American struggle for civil rights in the 1960's.

The landmark Supreme Court case of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 which brought an end to any laws that established school segregation, by deeming those laws unconstitutional thus ending racial segregation in public schools. The court established that the state laws that had created separate public schools for African American, Hispanics and white students were unconstitutional and will no longer be part of American society. Despite this historic ruling very few understand the backbone of this landmark decision. The importance of Mendez v. Westminster in 1947, in 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 Thurgood Marshall and the birth of the modern day civil rights movement. Without Mendez v. Westminster, the US Supreme Court would not have any precedent case to trump Plessy v. Ferguson and the decision in Brown v. Board of Education may have been different.

We are often reminded that Harriet Becher Stowe and Susan B. Anthony paved the way for women's voting rights and civil rights and the 18 & 19th century. Yet, history has failed to remind us that Mexican born Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz in the 17th century was defending and advocating for women's rights in a time when women were still regulated to home-makers. She challenged the basic norm of women education and rights both in her native Mexico and former southwest Mexican territories i.e. modern day California. Her vision still remains an important icon but often lost in women's history, without her vision the women civil rights movement may have not started.

In spite of the unquestioned greatness of American history, it is often told from another ethnic group perspective. In other words, had there been no Hispanics, it would be impossible to conceive of what our nation would have become without their cultural, historical and racial contributions -- that have made our nation and civil rights what it is today.

Stephen Balkaran, is a Lecturer in the Department of Politics at Fairfield University.