From Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, we celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month. This is a nonpartisan commemoration first recognized by President Lyndon Johnson and expanded by President Ronald Reagan.
There is a fear among some that the increasing Hispanic social influence in the United States is a turn from traditional immigration patterns, in which the values of work, faith and family are undermined. A recent report by the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank spoke for this fear in warning that a bipartisan Senate immigration reform bill would cost us $6.3 trillion in expanded welfare payments to immigrants. Too often, influential voices allege Hispanic Americans are less than American, as seen in the uproar when Marc Anthony, a proud American, recently sang the national anthem.
This anti-immigrant sentiment is hardly new, and the immigrants of past generations, who are heralded as ideal today, were also demonized in generations past. Irish Catholic immigrants were brutalized on account of their faith and culture. Jews and other groups were accused of failure to integrate, treason, political radicalism and immorality.
What today’s Nativists, who undermine both their religious and civic faith through intolerance, miss is that Hispanic Americans are part of the American Dream and enhance our nation through their experiences.
Consider the Cuban exile in Florida who made the 90-mile journey by raft to escape communism and now joins other Cubans who made that journey in 1960 or 1980 as a free American. Or the 22-year-old Mexican American in California who was raised on tales of Cesar Chavez and farm worker strikes from his grandparents and now will be his family’s first college graduate.
Or the refugee from El Salvador or Chile, who fled nations where citizens were tortured and oppressed by tyrants, and now is an American. Or the Puerto Rican who proudly served our nation in uniform and now, as a civilian, seeks economic opportunity here at home.
These are the stories of Hispanic Americans and they all lead to a deeper appreciation of the unique greatness of this country. I know this because of my family’s story.
In 1960, my family came to the United States from Castro’s Cuba with, as my father used to like to say, “nothing but the shirt on my back.” Thanks to a compassionate United States, we became Americans, often even without the proper use of the English language. Take my maternal grandfather, Modesto Suarez, who never properly learned English but implanted in me American values through not only guidance but his lifelong love of movies with characters played by the likes of Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart and others who stood tall in making the wrong right.
Latino immigrants come here because of the basic truths of our nation. We are a nation with a heritage rooted in progress toward liberty. We are one nation of many faiths and cultures, linked by a common journey toward liberty, often in the face of oppression. And we are, contrary to what that former KGB agent Vladimir Putin may assert, an exceptional nation. Latino Americans enhance this legacy.
Luis Viera is a Tampa attorney.