Discovering Your Hispanic Roots: A Journey Into Your Heritage

Family History
5 September 2023
by Ancestry® Team

Hispanic heritage stretches back more than five centuries, bringing together millions of people with their own unique stories. Hispanic individuals have used their experiences to make scientific breakthroughs, develop new technology, negotiate peace treaties, and improve working conditions for people all over the world. They’ve also made important contributions to literature and the arts, giving everyone an opportunity to broaden their horizons and enjoy the beauty around them.

As time passes, it’s easy to forget how hard your ancestors worked to preserve their cultural traditions and improve the world. That’s why it’s so important to explore your family history. In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, take some time to learn about the many achievements of Hispanic individuals through the centuries.

Hispanic and Latino Heritage and History

Despite its name, Hispanic Heritage Month celebrates the histories and achievements of two distinct groups: Hispanic individuals and Latino individuals. The term “Hispanic” relates to the people and cultural practices of Spain and its former colonies in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Latino relates to the people and cultural practices of Latin America, which includes 33 countries in Central America, South America, and parts of the Caribbean. Hispanic and Latino individuals are often combined into one group and referred to as “Hispanic,” but they have different origins and cultural traditions.

About Hispanic Heritage Month

National Hispanic Heritage Month, often shortened to Hispanic Heritage Month, is an opportunity for Americans to celebrate the cultures of ancestors who lived in Mexico, Spain, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean. These are just a few of the Hispanic heritage countries that celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month:

  • Cuba
  • Puerto Rico
  • Dominican Republic
  • El Salvador
  • Honduras
  • Guatemala
  • Chile
  • Nicaragua

During Hispanic Heritage Month, people have an opportunity to learn more about their ancestors, including where they lived and what they achieved. One helpful resource is the educational material published by the federal government, which explores the histories of Hispanic and Latino cultures. One reason National Hispanic Heritage Month is so significant is that it starts on the anniversary of independence for these countries: Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Guatemala.

How Hispanic Heritage Month Has Evolved

If you’ve never heard of Hispanic Heritage Month, you may be surprised to find that its roots stretch all the way back to 1968. President Lyndon Johnson’s administration created Hispanic Heritage Week to recognize the contributions of Hispanic Americans. In 1988, the Reagan administration expanded it from one week into one month, scheduling it to start on September 15 and end on October 15 each year.

American politicians typically mark the occasion by drawing attention to the contributions of Hispanic Americans. For example, the President of the United States typically hosts several receptions highlighting the importance of Hispanic heritage history. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute also sponsors several events each year, such as a leadership conference featuring keynote speakers and workshops.

Key Facts About Hispanics/Latinos in the U.S.

Portrait of a Mexican-American child ca. 1935 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Portrait of a Mexican-American child ca. 1935, Wikimedia Commons

As of 2020, the United States had 62.1 million Hispanics residents, accounting for just under 19% of the total population. Individuals of Mexican descent make up the largest portion of this group, followed by people with Puerto Rican and Central American heritage. In all, members of 19 distinct descent groups have made their home in the United States, contributing to its rich cultural landscape. 

Although many Hispanic individuals settle in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California, other states outside of the American southwest have seen rapid growth in their Hispanic populations. For example, a recent UCLA study noted that the Latino population living in Kentucky increased by 233% between 2000 and 2020. South Carolina and Alabama also have growth rates of over 200%. Surprisingly, North Dakota and South Dakota have experienced the fastest growth—333% for the former and 265% for the latter.

The Cultural and Economic Impact of Latinos in the United States

Latinos have had a major impact on popular  culture in  the United States. For example, Latin jazz combined American and Caribbean music traditions to create an entirely new genre. Many artists, writers, and musicians have contributed to American culture by sharing songs, paintings, sculptures, photographs, books, short stories, and poems.

From an economic perspective, the importance of the Hispanic and Latino communities can’t be overstated. According to the Senate Joint Economic Committee, Hispanic-owned businesses contribute approximately $800 million to the economy each year. Many Hispanic and Latino individuals start their own companies, hire workers, and make their communities better by offering high-quality products and services. 

Notable Hispanic Figures

Thousands of Hispanic Americans made important contributions to U.S. history, but these are some of the most prominent individuals.

Dolores Huerta

Dolores Huerta was a co-founder of the United Farm Workers(UFW) union, making her an important figure in the labor movement. She helped establish the Agricultural Workers Association, negotiated contracts with major employers, and helped women fight back against gender discrimination in farming.

Sandra Cisneros

As a writer, Sandra Cisneros draws attention to the problems of working-class families, educating readers about the challenges Mexican Americans face. She also founded Los MacArturos, a group of MacArthur fellows who are also involved in community activism.

Romualdo Pacheco

Pacheco, Hon. Romualdo of Cal. (Source: Library of Congress)
Pacheco, Hon. Romualdo of Cal. Library of Congress

Romualdo Pacheco achieved many firsts in his life, such as becoming the first Hispanic-American governor of California and the first Hispanic-American member of the U.S. Senate with full voting rights. He also spoke out against slavery, using his position to advocate for the rights of others.

Joan Baez

Many people know Joan Baez as a singer, but she was also one of the most important activists in the 1960s. She was firmly against U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, prompting her to write many songs about civil rights and social justice. Baez also performed at the 1963 March on Washington, singing “We Shall Overcome.”

Cesar Chavez

Cesar Chavez fought against the injustices faced by agricultural workers, including poor work conditions and a lack of respect from employers. After working as a community organizer, he helped start United Farm Workers, a union that helped agricultural workers fight for higher pay and a safer work environment. 

Lin-Manuel Miranda

Lin-Manuel Miranda has African, Mexican, and Puerto Rican heritage. He’s best known for creating Hamilton, a rap musical focusing on Alexander Hamilton’s rise to prominence.  Hamilton is one of the most successful musicals ever to appear on Broadway. It has also made more people aware of Alexander Hamilton’s roots in the Caribbean, where he lived in poverty before moving to the United States and becoming a notable political figure.

 The Term Latinx

Once Columbus established a settlement at Hispaniola, more people from Spain traveled to the island in search of gold. They conquered the native Taino people and forced them to work under extremely harsh conditions. Spain also colonized Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Peru. Some people object to the use of Hispanic to describe individuals from Latin America because the term places too much importance on Spanish colonization and not enough on the achievements of Latin Americans.

The term “Latino” originates from “Latinoamericano,” the Spanish word for Latin American. Although using the word Latino focuses on the achievements of Latin Americans (who are racially diverse) instead of their Spanish colonizers, it’s a gendered word. Latino was then changed to Latino/a to be more gender inclusive. Recently,  members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer community started using the word Latinx as a gender-neutral alternative. 

Importance of Hispanic/Latino Heritage 

Hispanics/Latinos  have made many valuable contributions to society, from fighting for the rights of marginalized people to starting businesses that help the economy grow. It’s important to preserve the Hispanic heritage to ensure that no one ever forgets their achievements and sacrifices. Researching your culture is also a great way to learn more about your family’s place in history.

Uncover your own Hispanic heritage by reviewing church records, immigration records, and government documents on Ancestry®. Start a free trial today to discover your roots and learn more about your heritage.