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Restoring a Tradition for all San Diegans

As published in the San Diego Daily Transcript

by Vince Vasquez

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

This Tuesday marked the 15th sequential year that the City of San Diego has failed to recognize Hispanic Heritage Month. Reinstituting its remembrance at City Hall would shed light on the historical challenges and contributions of Latinos to a new generation of San Diegans.

First observed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 as a week-long event and later expanded by President Ronald Reagan to its present 30-day duration, Hispanic Heritage Month is a rare opportunity to publicly share how Latinos have shaped America. As the nation’s largest and fastest growing ethnic group, Latinos have been alongside citizens in times of prosperity and war; the U.S. Census counts more than 79,000 Hispanic CEOS and 1.1 million military veterans today. Our unique languages, lifestyles, and cuisines have influenced popular culture in ways that have broken social barriers and fostered greater inclusion, a remarkable achievement in a nation where segregation is only a generation behind us.

The indignity of discrimination is found in too many American stories, and Latinos are no exception. The desperate years of the Great Depression saw Americans turn on each other to secure their economic safety, and Hispanics - regardless of citizenship and nationality - became the victims of a systematic campaign of racial removal. Though invited to work during the economic boom of the 1910s and 1920s, between 1930 and 1935 at least 345,000 Latinos were swept up in public raids and shipped by train to Mexico. Hundreds of thousands were denied jobs and endured intense pressure to leave communities they had long called home.

The first recorded instance of a successful desegregation court case was not Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka but rather one originating in San Diego County. In 1931, Mexican immigrants refused to send their U.S.-born children to a segregated, inferior school in the Lemon Grove School District, and won their reinstatement into integrated classrooms under a court order by the San Diego Superior Court. This court case (Roberto Alvarez vs. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District) may not be as famous as Brown but should be remembered by every student who walks the halls of our local schools.

According to records at the City Clerk’s Office, Hispanic Heritage Month was last officially recognized by the City Council in 1994. This 15 year gap is an egregious oversight. Since the early 1990’s, San Diego’s Latino population has increased by more than 141,000 residents, and today nearly half of all students enrolled in the San Diego Unified School District are Latino. Passing an official proclamation for Hispanic Heritage Month at the next Council meeting is a small step toward fully appreciating the role that Latinos have played and continue to play in creating a better San Diego.

The Hispanic journey is measured in more than miles and minutes. It is a collective memory shaped by vivid moments of defiance in the face of adversity, hope for family and the future, and a yearning for justice that continues to this day. Having a few hours each year to share this in a classroom is both our honor as Latinos, and our contribution to the great American experience.

History books may mark the contributions of Latinos to the United States, but only community leaders can lift the script from the pages for all to see. Responsible city officials should not let 2009 slip away as another missed opportunity to mark this historic occasion and bring San Diegans closer as a benevolent community.