5 Key Moments in Modern History for Latinos

Latinos have played a major role in the development of the United States.

This diverse demographic, today the nation’s largest racial/ethnic minority, has helped make the country the great melting pot it is.

And despite an ongoing battle against discrimination and health disparities, Latino leaders continue to push their community to keep up hope and fight for what Cesar Chavez called La Causa, a term used to describe the struggle for equity.

“In the end, the American dream is not a sprint, or even a marathon, but a relay,” said Julian Castro, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. “Our families don’t always cross the finish line in the span of one generation. But each generation passes on to the next the fruits of their labor.”

For Hispanic Heritage Month, Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, we at Salud America! wanted to reflect on a few key moments that helped Latinos get where they are today.

1. Hernandez v. State of Texas

Before 1954, Latinos were not considered “equal under the law.”

That all changed when Pete Hernandez, a farmworker in Jackson County, Texas was tried for murder by an all-white jury. No Latino person had sat on a jury there in the prior 25 years.

Considering the 14th amendment, his lawyers fought for Hernandez’s civil liberties by bringing the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. They found that Latinos must be considered equal under the law.

The Court unanimously approved the amendment that protects of Latino ancestry.

“The exclusion of otherwise eligible persons from jury service solely because of their ancestry or national origin is discrimination prohibited by the Fourteenth Amendment,” Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote at the time.

The case served as a win for “the ‘other White’ concept, the legal strategy of Mexican-American civil-rights activists from 1930 to 1970, according to the Texas State Historical Association.

“Faced with the separate but equal doctrine they argued that segregation of Mexican-origin persons was illegal in the absence of state law. Hernández was the logical extension of that argument,” according to their website. “The case was a valuable precedent until it was replaced in 1971 by Cisneros v. Corpus Christi ISD, which recognized Hispanics as an identifiable minority group and utilized the Brown decision of 1954 to prohibit segregation.”

2. The Civil Rights Movement of the1960s

For years, Latino farmworkers suffered at the hands of corrupt businesses who underpaid laborers and took advantage of such workers.

In response to these intolerant and harmful practices, one Latino stood up for the rights of his community — Cesar Chavez. He created organizations and led strikes focused on La Causa, “a movement to organize Mexican American farmworkers.”

Chavez went on to found the National Farm Workers Association.

Most notably, the group led the Grape Strike of 1965.

The strike lasted five years and expanded into a nationwide boycott of California grapes. Due to a leading a 340-mile march from Delano to Sacramento in 1966 and 25-day hunger strike in 1968, Chavez’s cause gained national attention.

Civil Rights Leader Latino Cesar Chavez

“Chavez knew firsthand the struggles of the nation’s poorest and most powerless workers, who labored to put food on the nation’s tables while often going hungry themselves,” biographers from History write. “Not covered by minimum wage laws, many made as little as 40 cents an hour, and did not qualify for unemployment insurance.”

Whereas previous attempts to unionize farm workers had failed, Chavez’s effort succeeded.

“The grape strike and boycott ended in 1970, with the farm workers reaching a collective bargaining agreement with major grape growers that increased the workers’ pay and gave them the right to unionize,” biographers from History write. “The NWFA and AWOC had merged in 1966 to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee, which in 1971 became the United Farm Workers of America (UFW).

3. Advancements in Civil Service and a Latina on the U.S. Supreme Court

As time moved forward, Latinos gained a more significant voice as well as a greater standing in American leadership.

In 1988, Vice President George H.W. Bush swore in Dr. Lauro Cavazos as the secretary of education. It was the first time a Latino served in the presidential cabinet.

This step marked a new era for Latinos, who only went on to further their position in local, state, and federal government. For Dr. Lauro Cavazos, this was a critical moment, one that could make a huge difference for people of color.

“We must do better or perish as the nation we know today,” he once said.

The next year, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Cuban immigrant, was the first Latino voted into Congress.

Federico Pena, who previously served as Denver’s first Hispanic mayor, was confirmed by the Senate as U.S. Secretary of Transportation under the nomination of President Bill Clinton, making him the first Hispanic to hold the position.

Later, in 2009, Chief Justice John Roberts swore in Sonia Sotomayor as the first Latina to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

To Sotomayor, these progressive steps help move forward Latinos as a people.

“It is important for all of us to appreciate where we come from and how that history has really shaped us in ways that we might not understand,” she said. “The Latina in me is an ember that blazes forever.”

4. DACA and Immigration Rulings

For years, Latinos have suffered at the hands of bigotry and misinformation — especially when it comes to immigrants and asylum-seekers.

President Barack Obama’s administration implemented the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to help the children of immigrants find safety and a home in the US.

Still, it was a contentious topic — one that was tried in the highest court in the land.

Modern History Latinos Key Moments

The U.S. Supreme Court originally granted “deportation relief to 4 million-plus undocumented people living in the U.S. providing they pay taxes, pass background checks and reside in the country for more than five years.”

Moreover, in 2020, a 5-4 ruling blocked attempts to end the DACA program protecting immigrants who came to the country as children from being deported.

“What makes us American is not a question of what we look like, or where our names come from, or the way we pray,” president Obama wrote in 2017. What makes us American is our fidelity to a set of ideals – that all of us are created equal; that all of us deserve the chance to make of our lives what we will; that all of us share an obligation to stand up, speak out, and secure our most cherished values for the next generation.

“That’s how America has traveled this far. That’s how, if we keep at it, we will ultimately reach that more perfect union.”

Yet DACA remains in jeopardy.

A federal court found the program unlawful and blocked new applicants in July 2021.

“Yesterday’s Federal court ruling is deeply disappointing. While the court’s order does not now affect current DACA recipients, this decision nonetheless relegates hundreds of thousands of young immigrants to an uncertain future. The Department of Justice intends to appeal this decision in order to preserve and fortify DACA. And, as the court recognized, the Department of Homeland Security plans to issue a proposed rule concerning DACA in the near future,” according to a statement by President Joe Biden after the federal court’s ruling.

5. Becoming the Nation’s Largest Minority

In 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau released data that declared Latinos the largest minority group in the US. At the time, 37 million Latinos lived in the country.

The population has grown since then.

In fact, the U.S. Latino population grew to 60.6 million in 2019, a record 18.5% of the total population, according to new Census Bureau data.

Latinos will continue to play a huge role in the future of the nation, said former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Julian Castro.

“As my family story shows, Latinos have been a blessing for USA for many generations,” Castro said. The future of America depends in part on the success of the Latino community, and this opportunity is just one more signifier of that.”

Still, many health inequities impacting this demographic today.

Modern History Moments Latinos Key

Latino families face inequities in access to mental and physical health care across all stages of the healthcare spectrum-prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and hospice.

Latino communities vary in their access to quality child care and education, affordable housing, transportation options, green space, healthy food options, and healthcare — all of which are necessary to stay healthy and thrive. These differences in opportunity result in health disparities that are evident between different populations and geographic areas.

Latinos are disproportionately burdened by auto-dependent transportation networks and face unsafe streets, sidewalks, and bike lanes, lack of access to public transit, and significant disparity in time spent commuting and motor vehicle fatalities and serious injuries.

U.S Latino kids face unhealthy neighborhood food environments with fewer grocery stores and more fast food.

These issues demand our attention and action!

Start by downloading a Salud America! Health Equity Report Card for your area.

The report card, first launched in 2017, auto-generates Latino-focused and local data with interactive maps and comparative gauges. This can help you visualize and explore inequities in housing, transit, poverty, health care, food, and education.

You will see how your county stacks up in these health equity issues — now including social vulnerability and COVID-19 — compared to your state and the nation.

Then you can share the Report Card with your local leaders to advocate for healthy change!


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