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Hispanic Heritage Month is primarily a U.S.-based holiday observed from September 15 to October 15 to celebrate history, cultures, and contributions of Americans with origins from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America.

Hispanic Heritage Month began as a weeklong celebration in 1968 under President Lyndon B. Johnson; President Ronald Reagan expanded it to a month on August 17, 1988.

2023’s theme is “Building Prosperous and Healthy Communities,” according to the U.S. Department of Education. “Since the beginning, our country has drawn strength and insights from Hispanic writers, scientists, soldiers, doctors, entrepreneurs, academics, and leaders in labor and government,” President Joseph R. Biden shared. “Our culture has been enriched by the rhythms, art, literature, and creativity of Hispanic peoples. And our deepest values have been informed by the love of family and faith that is at the core of so many Hispanic communities. All of these contributions help us realize the promise of America for all Americans.”

There are a variety of ways for educators to highlight Hispanic Heritage Month. In this blog, we'll dive into the history of this historical holiday and ways that educators can recognize its importance, including aspects of Hispanic and Latin American culture and history that might be overlooked.

Why is September 15-October 15 Hispanic Heritage Month?

Hispanic Heritage Month is unique in that it straddles two calendar months. But there is significance to this duration span; September 15 also happens to be the anniversary of independence for Latin American countries Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Mexico and Chile’s independence days are September 16 and 18, respectively. Finally, Día de la Raza (Columbus Day—the day Columbus made landfall in what is now known as the United States—more recently called Indigenous Peoples’ Day) is on October 12 and included in this 30-day period.

Why isn’t it Latino Heritage Month?

Some have decried the use of the word “Hispanic” in Hispanic Heritage Month, even though Hispanic is objectively a more inclusive term. Latinos have struggled with how they are seen in the U.S. for over one hundred years. According to an NPR report, “The Pew Research Center reports that in the 1930s Latinos living in the U.S., regardless of their place of birth or family origin, were all noted as ‘Mexican’ by door-to-door U.S. Census Bureau counters. It wasn't until 1970 that the agency began asking Latinos living in the U.S. to self-identify as either ‘Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Central or South American, Other Spanish’ or ‘No, none of these.’” 

What is the difference between Hispanic and Latino?

The words “Hispanic” and “Latino” are often used interchangeably, but each have different meanings. According to a post on Courageous Conversation, “Hispanic refers to people who speak Spanish or are descended from Spanish-speaking populations, while Latino refers to people who are from or descended from people from Latin America” (Cole, 2019).

For example, a person from Spain is Hispanic but not Latino, as Spain is a Spanish-speaking country but not a Latin American country. And someone from Honduras is both Hispanic and Latino.

Why is Hispanic a controversial term for Latin Americans?

Cultural context embattles the term “Hispanic” as it pertains to Latin America and Latin Americans. Hispanic is anyone with origins from Spain or Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America. As a result, many see Hispanic as promoting Spanish heritage, which is seen as problematic because of Spain’s history of empire and colonization. Latin American countries, for example, became Spanish-speaking due to colonization and erasure of its Indigenous people (Simón, 2018). 

According to Professor Paul Ortiz, “The origins of the word Hispanic, which is the English translation of the Spanish ‘Hispano,’ meaning a person whose cultural traditions originate from Spain,” has ramifications. “When that is the starting point, that immediately erases all of the centuries [author’s note: cultures like Olmecs and Chavin date back to 1,200 B.C.] of pre-Columbian history, culture and civilizations that existed before the European conquest and colonization of the Americas ... and that's understandably upsetting to people who are not white” (Romo, 2021).

While many believe that Hispanic is a more accurate and inclusive term for Latin Americans, Latino is for others, a de-colonized term. Understanding the importance of these words and their cultural significance is an important part of commemorating this holiday. For now, Hispanic Heritage Month remains the official name for this month of recognition. 

How is Hispanic Heritage Month celebrated around the world?

Hispanic Heritage Month is a U.S.-based, month-long commemoration framed around historical moments in Spain and Latin America. So accordingly, Hispanic Heritage Month coincides with many Spanish and Latin American celebrations and holidays, including the independence days of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Chile.

Outside the U.S., Spain marks Christopher Columbus’s voyage with the National Day of Spain on October 12. October 12 is also Discovery Day in the Bahamas, Day of the Cultures in Costa Rica, and Day of the Races in Argentina. On the other hand, Mexico, Chile, and Venezuela celebrate the Day of Indigenous Resistance on October 12. Both parades and protests take place (History.com). 

In the U.S., Columbus Day falls on the same day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, per President Biden’s proclamation in 2021

How to commemorate Hispanic Heritage Month in your classroom

For many educational environments, Hispanic Heritage Month may be the only opportunity to acknowledge Hispanic and Latino heritage and history. Whatever the context, there are many lessons to take into the classroom when it comes to celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month.

Enact windows and mirrors

Patti West-Smith discussed active empathy and alliance in a prior blog post. She addresses Black History Month and states, “As overwhelmed and stretched as teachers are feeling right now, Black History Month speaks to something bigger than all the challenges, bigger even than ourselves; the weight of it lies in the greater teacher mission—impacting lives and advancing humanity.” 

She then offers the concept of windows and mirrors, which “helps reveal why the stakes are so high. The simplest way to understand the idea is to think about what we see when we look in a mirror and what we see when we look through a window. When we look in the mirror, we see ourselves—our experiences and how they’ve shaped us. Mirrors in stories and other content are about representation, knowing we each have a place in the world, that we are not alone.”

Her message translates just as well to Hispanic Heritage Month.

Provide a balanced perspective

The types of lessons and stories we tell during Hispanic Heritage Month are important. Students learn from educators in myriad ways, including what it is we choose to address and what we choose to ignore. According to Mario T. Garcia, Professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, "Too often the focus is on the musical contributions or dancing or other happy artforms” (Romo, 2021). 

While it may be appropriate to filter stories for primary education, it is important to bring a balanced perspective in the lessons we teach students, especially throughout secondary and higher education.

It can feel challenging for educators not of Hispanic origin to talk about difficult stories like those of oppression, prejudice, and injustice but they shouldn’t be ignored. Garcia continues, “We also need programming that reflects historical problems… because you can't assume that Latinos already know about the lynchings in South Texas in the 1910s, the Zoot Suit Riots, the segregation of Mexican kids in schools, or the Chicano-led high school walkouts of the 1960s that permanently changed higher education enrollment for Latino students” (Romo, 2021). 

Bring in authentic sources and gather resources

Educators may feel wary of cultural appropriation in all its forms. To that end, consider bringing in readings addressing these narratives into the classroom. Or engage a visiting speaker who is a subject-area expert into your classroom. There is very little that can top someone’s lived experience when it comes to learning and understanding another culture. 

(In a meta-moment, I too, am not of Hispanic or Latino descent, but doing my best to cite authoritative and reliable sources to bring awareness to Hispanic Heritage Month).

Other resources for authentic voices include “interviews and stories to further round out the student learning. StoryCorps interviews are powerful and digestible bites of knowledge that can be particularly moving,” according to a post on PBS Teachers Lounge (Yang, 2019). 

Some StoryCorps interviews specific to Hispanic Heritage Month can be found here. The National Education Association offers lesson plans on Hispanic Heritage Month, delineated by age group, from grades K-12. The Library of Congress also provides resources relevant to Hispanic Heritage Month for educators as does the Smithsonian

Conclusion: Hispanic Heritage Month lessons to take into the classroom

According to the Pew Research Center’s facts about U.S. Latinos for Hispanic Heritage Month, the U.S. Hispanic population reached 62.5 million in 2021, up from 50.5 million in 2010 and reflecting 19% growth. This is a sizable part of the community in which Americans live; by proxy, Hispanic and Latin American culture is increasingly interwoven with the fabric of American culture. Understanding the diverse cultures within America enrichens educators and students alike. 

Hispanic Heritage Month’s lessons are many; from the first step of acknowledging the complex semantics of its name, to the cultural interactions between Spain and Latin America, to arts and music and literature to issues of discrimination in the U.S., opportunities to learn and advance humanity abound. 

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