National Hispanic Heritage Month: Recognizing a thriving community

Running from September 15 to October 15 each year, National Hispanic Heritage Month serves to celebrate the histories, cultures and contributions of those who trace their roots to Spain, Mexico and the Spanish-speaking nations of Central America, South America and the Caribbean.

And in the Upstate, those people being recognized have one of the highest population growth rates in the nation, emphasizing the increasingly important role they play in our local communities.

Celebrating Cultures

Started as National Hispanic Heritage Week in 1968 by President Lyndon Johnson, the observance was expanded to thirty days in 1988 by President Ronald Reagan.

The day of September 15 is significant because it is the anniversary of independence for five Latin American countries - Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. In addition, Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days on September 16 and September 18, respectively; and Columbus Day, or Dia de la Raza, is on October 12, falling within the 30-day period as well.

"Learning about another culture helps us expand our horizons and allows us to better understand those around us," said Evelyn Lugo, founder and president of the Greenville-based South Carolina Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "Our increasingly diverse community shows us the importance of learning about other cultures."

One Upstate group, the Hispanic-American Women's Association (AHAM), realizes the importance of preserving culture. The nationally-recognized group was formed by women of Hispanic descent who are interested in retaining and passing on their heritage. Each year they host the Hispanic Heritage Festival - an event that features a parade of nations, regional dress, folklore dances, exhibits and food.

Also of note, AHAM works to increasing educational opportunities to Hispanic students in the Upstate, hosting the International Gala for Higher Education. Since its inception in 1989, the event has raised nearly $200,000 for scholarships for Hispanic students.

Hispanics and Latinos in the Upstate

From 2000 to 2010, the Hispanic and Latino populations in South Carolina experienced a 147.9 percent growth rate - the highest in the country - and Greenville County had one of the highest growth rates in the state.

And as the Hispanic community continues to grow, so has it become a vibrant component of the local economy.

"The emerging Hispanic population is vital to our economy and our overall future," Lugo commented. "In terms of economic impact, the Hispanic population represents an increasingly influential purchasing power in the Upstate and across the nation. Large brands recognize the value of catering specifically to this sector, and smaller firms are slowly adapting to this same method of marketing to our community."

Recently, the Hispanic Chamber - which for years had been run of Lugo's home - recognized the rapid rate of growth of Hispanic-owned businesses and saw the need to open its first official office, located in downtown Greenville.

"The Hispanic community contributes an entrepreneurial spirit that is hard to match, and we have seen this spirit manifest itself in the number of Hispanic-owned businesses in South Carolina," Lugo said, adding that there are currently over 6,000 Hispanic-owned businesses currently being operated in South Carolina, many of which call the Upstate home.

A Stronger Community

And as the Upstate continues to grow as a whole, the complex cultural fabric that makes up the region will continue to be unique, bringing us back to the importance of celebrating our heritages.

"By learning more about other cultures in our community we will find that we have more things in common with our neighbors than we previously thought," she said. "Undoubtedly, these experiences will lead to stronger bonds and a stronger Upstate community."

Resources:

SC Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

Hispanic-American Women's Association

SC Hispanic Leadership Council

Consortium for Latin Immigration Studies

SC Commission for Minority Affairs: Hispanic/Latino Affairs

(Photo credits:  Cover - 2012 Hispanic Heritage Festival, courtesy of AHAM; Top - Hispanic Heritage Month logo; Middle - 2012 Hispanic Heritage Festival, courtesy of AHAM; and Bottom - SC Hispanic Chamber of Commerce logo.)

James Richardson is a freelance writer and the publisher of the Travelers Rest Tribune. When he's not writing, James enjoys spending time outdoors with his wife and two children at any one of many places across the Upstate.