It gives us tremendous pleasure to share with you interesting information about how much Hispanics have contributed to the well-being of the United States, which will help us put them in a better historical perspective in this great country.

When we say "Hispanic," whom are we talking about? For sure, they are not one nationality, nor one culture. Instead, Hispanics are greatly diverse people. Their cultural and linguistic origins are Spanish and Latin American, regardless of race and color. They can be of European, Indian or African descent, or any combination of these three. They can have cultural ties to Mexico, the Caribbean countries, Central America, South America or Spain itself. Once considered a regional phenomenon in the United States, Hispanics are now found throughout the country. For example, there are more Hispanics in the Great Lakes region than in the states of Colorado and Arizona combined.

These are the people we want to talk to you about.

Prophetically, over a hundred years ago, the great American poet, Walt Whitman, said, "I have an idea that there is much of importance about the Latin contributions to American nationality that will never be put with sympathetic understanding and tact on the record." Whitman was correct.

Most Americans believe that the history of the United States began at Plymouth Rock in 1620. But our history text books fail to tell us that when the Pilgrims were struggling to maintain their tiny colony, Spanish towns were already growing and flourishing in Florida, the Southwest and Puerto Rico.

Historians have generally ignored the fact that the first European settlement in North America was San Miguel de Gualdape, founded in Georgia in 1526, 81 years before Jamestown, which was settled in 1607. San Miguel de Gualdape survived only about a year because its founder died and its inhabitants were unable to endure some tremendous hardships. One can only imagine how different the history of the U.S. might have been if this first settlement in our country had become successful and permanent.

Everyone knows that Christopher Columbus, under the auspices of the Spanish Crown, came to this continent in 1492. Some of us have heard that Ponce de Leon explored Florida in 1513. Unfortunately, that is about where our history books generally have stopped as far as the Hispanic involvement in the development of this country is concerned.

But let's put some other historical facts in perspective. We have learned a great deal about the great explorations of this continent by Lewis and Clark, Daniel Boone and Zebulum Pike. But how many of us know about the equally great explorations that Hernando de Soto led in 1539 through present-day Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana? After reaching the mouth of the Mississippi River, de Soto's expedition continued on through Arkansas and Texas until it reached Mexico. Shortly afterwards, another Spaniard, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, led an expedition through the present-day states of New Mexico, Oklahoma and Kansas.

We admire Henry Hudson and John Cabot, both of whom searched for the Northwest Passage, yet almost unrecorded in U.S. history are the exploits of the Spanish pilot, Estban Gmez, who explored the Eastern seaboard as far north as Maine in 1525, and the Spanish explorers on the West Coast who reached the site of the present-day San Francisco in 1542, Oregon in 1543, and Denver in 1600.

In 1976, we celebrated the Bicentennial of our independence. How many of us know about the role that Hispanics played in helping us win that independence? For starters, King Carlos of Spain granted a credit of one million pounds--a large sum at the time--to the American colonists. The Spanish towns of Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco and others paid a special tax, levied by the Spanish Crown, which went to the Continental Congress to support the war effort.

Later, as the morale and financial conditions of the American army fell dangerously low, the colonists sent a representative to seek funds in Cuba. The money needed was collected in five hours from the public treasury and from private citizens in Havana. It was this money that helped finance the Battle of Yorktown, the decisive battle of the Revolutionary War. A footnote to history is that the women of Havana made this collection possible by contributing their jewelry to the cause.

American history books acknowledge French contributions to the American victory over the British, but they virtually ignore the substantial Spanish military and financial contributions. For example, the books say nothing about the Spanish ports in Europe and the Caribbean that were safe havens for harassed American ships. Little has been done to commemorate the 4,000 Spanish soldiers who died as prisoners of war on English prison ships in New York Harbor after being captured while fighting for American independence.

Not until recently was anything said about the Spaniard Bernardo de Galvez, who earned a special place in the history of the United States. Long before war was declared between the Americans and the British, Galvez, who was the Spanish governor of Louisiana Territory, provided the army of General George Washington and General George Rogers Clarke with gunpowder, rifles, bullets, blankets, medicine and supplies. Once Spain entered the war on the side of the Americans in 1779, this dashing young officer raised an army of Spanish and Cuban soldiers, Choctaw Indians and black former slaves, which beat off the British attack in 1780 and gained control of the Mississippi River, thus, frustrating a British plan to encircle the American colonies.

Later, a multinational army of over 7,000 black and white soldiers under General Galvez's command captured Pensacola, the capital of the British colony of West Florida. An American historian called this battle "a decisive factor in the outcome of the Revolution and one of the most brilliantly executed battles of the war." Another historian said that Galvez's campaign broke the British Army's will to fight just five months before the last battle of the war at Yorktown.

After the war, because of the generous assistance that Galvez gave some Anglo Americans who wanted to settle Texas, they named their city after him, Galveston.

This early dedication to the American cause has continued as Hispanics throughout our history have participated in the defense of the United States.

David Glasgow Farragut, a Hispanic who was the first Admiral of the U.S. Navy, played a decisive role in the final outcome of our Civil War and was credited with the battle cry "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" His father, Jorge Farragut, born in Minorca, Spain, joined the American Colonies in their War of Independence, where he was outstanding, both on the land and on the sea. He also commanded a gunboat during the War of 1812. Every time Jorge filled his hands with soil on his plantation near New Orleans, where he died, he said that he was happy to have dedicated the best years of his life to the freedom of the United States of America.

David, although taken under the care of Commodore David Porter as a young boy, remained fluent in the Spanish language and proud of his Spanish heritage. He saw his first military action at the age of eleven during the War of 1812, when a ship he was on was captured by the British.

Later, during the Civil War, on the Union side, Farragut distinguished himself for his outstanding exploits. For example, a fleet under his command blockaded the South, sailed up the Mississippi River, destroyed rebel ships in New Orleans and bombarded the city until it surrendered to the Union. This accomplishment and his performance during the battles of Port Hudson and Vicksburg earned him Abraham Lincoln's praises and a promotion to rear admiral. Afterwards, he led the taking of Mobile, for which he was appointed vice admiral and given a hero's welcome in New York City. After the war, Congress created the title of admiral to honor Farragut more fully.

Several times, Admiral David Farragut visited his father's birthplace, where he was also treated as a hero. He died in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on August 14, 1870, after almost sixty years of service to the United States of America.

Writing in Hispanic Heritage Month 1996: Hispanics - Challenging the Future, Army Chaplain (Capt.) Carlos C. Huerta of the 1st Battalion, 79th Field Artillery stated that "Hispanics have always met the challenge of serving the nation with great fervor. In every war, in every battle, on every battlefield, Hispanics have put their lives on the line to protect freedom."

It should be noted that up to and including the Vietnam War, Hispanics had earned the Congressional Medal of Honor 43 times, far out of proportion to their numerical representation in the civilian population in the United States.

The Hispanic commitment to the defense of this country is undeniable.

Spanish was the first European language spoken in North America, and today, the U.S. is the fifth largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. In addition to the names of rivers and mountains, there are 2,000 or more cities and towns in the United States with Spanish names, which appear in every state in the union. The state names of California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Montana and Florida are Spanish. Geographical terms, such as arroyo, sierra, canyon and mesa are of Spanish origin, as are meteorological terms such as hurricane and tornado. Many plants in the Southwest have never had a name other than those the Spanish gave them, such as mesquite, chaparral and alamo. Also, Anglo Americans borrowed many terms related to the type of architecture they found in the Southwest, e.g., portal, adobe, ramada, cabana, hacienda, patio and presidio. Many animal and insect names, such coyote, mosquito and jaguar, originated in the Spanish language. And then there are the many words of Spanish origin that have been "naturalized": vigilante, filibuster, avocado, barbecue, corral, tobacco, vanilla, hammock, cigar, canoe, cougar and tapioca. The lingo of the cowboy, that symbol of American vitality and product of the Mexican vaquero, is directly traceable to the Hispanic original.

Perhaps more important than the potent symbolism of the cowboy is that the Mexican gave birth to the cattle industry of this country. It was the Mexican who took the cattle, sheep and horses, which the Spaniard brought to this continent, and transformed and passed on the concept and art of ranching to the Anglo American. Who can estimate the significance and value of this contribution?

America has been called the "breadbasket" of the world because our grains and produce have fed people throughout the world when they have been unable to feed themselves. But who first made this possible? Have we recognized the original leading role that Hispanics played in this essential area of food production?

Some statistics will help put this subject in perspective. About 80% of the world's food plants originated in the New World. Of the 112 species of plants found north of Mexico, all but 9 were developed, cultivated and improved in Latin America, of which the potato and corn are probably the most important.

America prides itself in having pioneered the principles of equality of all people, which we commonly trace to the works and pronouncements of Thomas Jefferson. But do we know that 200 years before Jefferson was born, Hispanics were laying the foundation for the legal and moral traditions of the new world? In the mid-1500s, Friar Bartolomeo de las Casas was energetically defending and espousing the dignity and equality of the native inhabitants of North America. Two centuries later, Father Junipero Serra, founder of the California missions, became a pioneer in the fight for human rights for the Native Americans.

While the Spanish were among the Europeans who enslaved Africans, they were different in the following ways: Spanish laws held that slavery was against the laws of nature. Slaves were never merely chattel property. They had the right to personal security and legal recourse against a cruel master. They had the right to hold and transfer property, to initiate legal suits and to buy themselves out of slavery. Although Spanish laws were sometimes ignored, the emphasis on a slave's humanity and rights made it possible for a significant free black class to exist in the Spanish world. Runaway slaves from English plantations in the Carolinas sought refuge among the Spanish. When the English retaliated by attacking St. Augustine, African Americans fought bravely in its defense. In 1821, when Spain ceded Florida to the U.S., the Spanish community left St. Augustine for Cuba. Most African Americans went with them. Those who stayed behind were relegated to the status of chattel property, losing the opportunity to be free.

The Spanish opened St. Augustine School in 1787, the same year that our Founding Fathers were drafting the U.S. Constitution. This school laid the foundation for integrated public education in the United States. Up until then, education was available only to white children from families that could afford private schools.

St. Augustine School was supported by funds from the royal treasury and was free to all children, including black children.

Hispanics have also influenced the systems of law. For example, the concept of community water rights is derived from the Court of Valencia. This legal basis established the system of water distribution, which played a key role in the economic development of California and the Southwest. The concept of community property in which the wife is considered a partner in wealth and holdings of the family, especially in income and property ownership, is derived from Mexican law. It is interesting that a society often accused of "machismo" would contain this legal precedent when neither Roman nor English common law establishes such rights for women.

In medicine, Dr. Walter Reed is generally credited with originating the theory of yellow fever transmissions by mosquitoes. The truth is that he only confirmed this theory. Carlos Juan Finlay, a modest Cuban physician, was the one who actually originated it. Up until the time that Dr. Finlay began his research into yellow fever, the medical research profession worldwide believed this disease was transmitted through the air or produced by a putrid substance from dead marine organisms. In 1879, Dr. Finlay suspected this theory was wrong and began his research, which lasted two years, after which his findings convinced him that yellow fever was transmitted by mosquitoes. For the next 22 years, American scientists, including Dr. Reed, repeatedly rebuffed Dr. Finlay's attempts to convince them that his theory was correct. During this period, yellow fever killed more American soldiers than died in the Spanish-American War and claimed the lives of 52,000 French workers constructing the Panama Canal. It wasn't until 1901 that the North American scientists, following the lead of their colleagues in Mexico, Cuba and Europe, finally confirmed Dr. Finlay's theory. One can only wonder how many lives would have been saved if more people had listened him earlier.

In 1933, in Dallas, Texas, the world paid homage to Finlay, when leaders of medicine from the Western Hemisphere named December 3, his birthday, as the "Day of American Medicine."

In the arts, Hispanics have also made lasting contributions. They have influenced Mediterranean and, of course, Spanish-style architecture so popular in the design of many houses. Also, the latest advances in earthquake design have come to us from Mexico City. North American interest in mural art has been stimulated by the Mexican muralists Rivera, Orozco and Siquieros. The works of Whistler and John Singer Sargent were influenced by the master Velasquez.

A contemporary sculptor is Marisol, a U.S. citizen of Venezuelan descent, whose works are on display in many of the world's great museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Clearly influenced by the art of the Aztecs, Maya and other Indians of Central and South America, her sculptures are a cross between popular and folk art.

American literature has also felt the Hispanic influence. We can remember the "Tales of Alhambra" by Washington Irving. The works of O. Henry have stimulated our imaginations with the stories of the Cisco Kid and Zorro. It has been said that to understand Mark Twain best, you must read Cervantes. The literary ploy of Don Quijote and Sancho Panza is recreated in the relationship between Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Ernest Hemingway was obsessed with the virtues and contradictions of Hispanic society and won world recognition in portraying them in "The Sun Also Rises, " "For Whom the Bell Tolls," and the insightful "The Old Man and the Sea."

A current writer is Pulitzer Prize-winning Oscar Hijuelos, who became a literary star with his novels "Our House is the Lost World" and "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love." His writings reflect his interest in Latin music and are inspired by his uncle, Pedro Tellerina, a member of the Xavier Cugat Orchestra. Hijuelos' second novel was so popular that it became the basis for a movie, "Mambo Kings," released in the early 1990s.

In science in 1968, Luis Alvarez won the Nobel Prize for his work with subatomic particles. As a teacher and researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, he helped develop microwave beacons, a ground-controlled landing approach for aircraft, and a new theory for why the dinosaurs became extinct. Also, in 1995, Mario Molina, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with two other scientists, won the Nobel Prize in chemistry for research that helped the world confront the threat that chlorofluorocarbons pose to the earth's protective ozone layer.

In space exploration, there have been ten Hispanic astronauts, including Franklin Chang-Daz and Ellen Ochoa.

Dr. Chang-Daz, who joined the space program in 1981, was a crewmemberon seven space flights and logged over 1,601 hours in space, including 19 hours and 31 minutes in three space walks. He was the Director of the Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center from December 1993 to July 2005. He has received many honors for his outstanding work, and is now Adjunct Professor of Physics at Rice University and the University of Houston.

Dr. Ochoa, in 1990, was the first Hispanic woman to become an astronaut. Her space flight experience has included: Operator of RMS (a key robotic arm used during a space walk) on the space shuttle Discovery in 1993; Payload Commander on the ATLAS-3 mission in 1994; and RMS operator on Discovery in 1999 and on Atlantis in 2002. Dr. Ochoa has also received numerous awards.  She is now the Deputy Director of the Flight Crew Operations Directorate.

Another woman who should be singled out for special attention is Dr. Antonia Novello. She,who was the first Hispanic and first woman to become Surgeon General, the nation's chief doctor.

In education, Jaime Escalante, born in Bolivia, may be the nation's most notable math teacher, who transformed Garfield High School in East Los Angeles, California, from a school whose students' math test scores were always in the lowest percentile in the country into a national symbol of academic achievement. His dedication and classroom triumphs, which continue to inspire students and teachers nationwide, were portrayed in the 1988 movie "Stand and Deliver."

In music, the style and substance of country and western are derived from the Mexican ranchera. What would ballroom dancing be without the mambo, rumba, tango, merengue and cha-cha-cha? Today, Plcido Domingo and Jos Carreras are giants in opera and Fernando Bujones and Faustino Diaz are stars in ballet.

An Hispanic whose singing many of us have enjoyed is Gloria Estefan, who defied the experts who believed that a Latin-oriented band would never hit the top of the U.S pop music charts. With such hits as "Conga" and "Anything for You," Estefan and the band Miami Sound Machine won several American Music Awards, including best Pop/Rock Group of 1987. Estefan is also a humanitarian, recognized for her work with hurricane relief, the United Way, and the Community Alliance Against AIDS.

Among the many Hispanics who have improved the quality of our lives through their acting talents are: Anthony Quinn, who made over 100 films and won two Oscars. Ricardo Montalban, who has made many popular movies and starred in the popular 1980s television series "Fantasy Island." Edward James Olmos, who received the Los Angeles Drama Critics Award for his performance in the play "Zoot Suit" and an Oscar nomination for best actor in the outstanding movie "Stand and Deliver." And Chita Rivera, who has acted and danced in Broadway musical productions, winning the Tony Award for her 1984 performance in "The Rink."

Hispanics have also affected sports. They have long traditions in horse racing, soccer, baseball and boxing. In tennis, former champions Pancho Gonzalez, Pancho Segura and Monica Seles have perfected this game of strategy.

Chi Chi Rodriguez and Lee Trevino have helped popularize golf, making it more accessible to the common folk. Nancy Lopez was the first Mexican-American golfer to compete in the Ladies Professional Golf Association. She has won almost every major championship title and broken almost every record set at the amateur, collegiate and professional levels. In 1987, Lopez achieved the ultimate in women's golf induction into the LPGA Hall of Fame.

In football, Hispanics have also had some outstanding figures, e.g., Joe Kapp, former quarterback for the New England Patriots and Minnesota Vikings, was voted "Most Valuable Player of the National Football League" in 1969, and Jim Plunkett, former quarterback for the New England Patriots and the Oakland Raiders, was the American Football Conference's Rookie of the Year in 1971.

One can only speculate on why historians have failed to acknowledge Hispanic contributions to the United States. What is certain is that this neglect must be corrected. Hispanic Americans, especially the youth, are entitled to know about these contributions. This knowledge can serve to increase their self-esteem and cultural pride and give them a better appreciation of their heritage. It may also increase their love for the North American institutions which their ancestors helped to create.

These facts about Hispanic contributions to the United States remind us of the inscription in the National Archives Building, where our nation's most precious documents are stored, which says, "the past is prologue." That statement was made with North America in mind, but it also applies to the Hispanic-American community, which has within it all the elements for giving even greater service to this country than it has in the past.

It is in the solving of social problems that Hispanics can be of significant service to the United Statesl. From the earliest times, they have been a blend of races, cultures and colors. One of the greatest attributes of Hispanics, therefore, is their willingness to mix, and, by doing so, they have created new human relationships, life styles, cultural forms and values. Because of this experience, they can help find solutions to the barriers, prejudices and stereotypes that have divided us as a nation along racial and ethnic lines.

The current generation of Hispanic Americans is uniquely suited to help bring about a new day in U.S.-Latin American relations. It is more bilingual and bicultural than past generations; it is more familiar with, and sensitive to, the cultures, values, aspirations and institutions of Latin America and the United States. These are important qualities in helping to mold a new and mutually satisfying relationship, a relationship based on common understanding, respect and purpose.

Hispanic Heritage Month (which is celebrated September 15 - October 15 in the United States) and its emphasis on Hispanic contributions to this country is profound and timely. It enables our society to become aware of what Hispanics have done and of their capacity to do even more. Also, it instills in the new generation of Hispanic Americans a pride in their heritage, out which a renewed spirit and confidence will emerge, as a harbinger of even greater things to come.



Thanks to:

  • Frank de Varona, for his research and books, which were rich sources of information
  • George Cuolahan, Pedro Daz, Edgar Moscoso and Clara Padilla, for their support and for helping to translate the essay
  • David Fernandez, for his technical assistance with the website.


Frank de Varona's books:

     Hispanic Presence in the United States: Historical Beginnings, National Hispanic Quincentennial Commission, 1993

     Latino Literacy: The Complete Guide to Our Hispanic History and Culture, Round Stone Press, 1996

     Standing Tall: The Stories of Ten Hispanic Americans, Argentina Palacios, Scholastic Inc., 1994


  •         Make young Latinos proud of their cultural heritage.
  •         Raise their self-esteem.
  •         Motivate them to strive for excellence.
  •         Inspire them to help make this a better world.

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