By Congressman Ciro D. Rodriguez
Chair, Congressional Hispanic Caucus
Over five hundred years ago Christopher Columbus, under the auspices of the Spanish crown, landed in the Americas triggering the beginning of Hispanic influence in the western hemisphere. Since then, Hispanics have had cultural, social, and familial ties with the people and nations of this continent.
There is no better testament to Hispanic influence than the story of Hispanics in the United States. St. Augustine, Florida is the oldest European city in the United States. Juan Menendez de Aviles established the settlement forty-two years before the English colony at Jamestown, Virginia, and fifty-five years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts.
And now, annually, we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15th to October 15th to pay tribute to a people who have contributed to the development of the Americas.
Throughout our history and today, Hispanics have died bravely for our country, served with pride, and defended our great nation with valor. Almost 10,000 Mexican Americans served during the Civil War, some 200,000 Hispanics were mobilized for World War I, about 50,000 Hispanics served during World War II, 148,000 Hispanics served in the Korean War, 80,000 Hispanics served in Vietnam, and 20,000 Hispanics served in the first gulf war.
Currently, there are more than 100,000 Hispanics enlisted in active duty. More than 122 Hispanic solders have died in Iraq. The first casualty in Operation Iraqi Freedom was Lance Corporal Jose Gutierrez. He came to the United States at the age of fourteen from Guatemala in search of the American dream. At the age of eighteen, he decided that despite the fact that he was not a citizen, he would enlist in the military in order to serve his new home country.
Hispanic influence can also be seen all across the United States. From the old missions and churches in the Southwest to contemporary Mexican and Cuban restaurants nationwide. From Jennifer Lopez on the big screen to George Lopez on television. Prominent Hispanic government officials, doctors, lawyers and other professionals abound. We also have a proud workforce that farms our lands, tends to our hospitality needs and takes care of our children.
Today, at forty million, Hispanics are the largest and fastest growing minority community. The Census Bureau projects that Hispanics will constitute twenty four percent of the nation’s total population in the year 2050. That translates to more than one hundred million Hispanics.
With this emergence comes the serious responsibility of our community to begin taking a more active role in our society. Now more than ever, it will fall upon us to lead this nation into a prosperous future and to address the needs of our community.
The Congressional Hispanic Caucus was established twenty-eight years ago as a congressional organization composed of members of Congress of Hispanic descent to fill this leadership role in Washington D.C. The Caucus is dedicated to voicing and advancing, through the legislative process, issues affecting Hispanic Americans in the United States and the insular areas.
In the area of health, the Caucus has worked on eliminating health disparities, covering the uninsured, increasing Hispanics in health professions and strengthening Medicare and Medicaid. On the education front, the CHC has fought to preserve our nation’s Head Start system. We have expressed our deep concern over funding the “No Child Left Behind” initiative. These issues, as well as many others, have been at the forefront of the CHC and our community’s agenda.
For over half a millennium, we have contributed to every facet of our nation’s society. We are a vibrant and exciting community and we are up to the challenges that await us. As we celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month and with an eye towards our nation’s future, we begin yet again on another journey full of hope.