Celebrating Cultural Heritage Months

55th Hispanic Heritage Day Parade : NYC
MANHATTAN, NY - OCTOBER 13: Marchers hold a banner that spans across 5th Avenue reading "Hablamos Espanol", "We Speak Spanish" during the 55th Annual Hispanic Heritage Day Parade. The parade walked down 5th Avenue in the Manhattan borough of New York on October 13, 2019.

Corbis / Getty Images

For far too long the achievements and history of minority groups in the United States have been overlooked in textbooks, the media, and society as a whole. Cultural heritage months seek to help remediate that oversight and give communities of color more recognition. The history of these cultural observances sheds light on the achievements minority groups have made in a country where they often face discrimination. Learn about the roots of these celebrations and when they take place, as well as the various holidays and traditions honored through cultural heritage months.

Hispanic Heritage Month

Performers in traditional costumes from Mexican group dancing on street
valentinrussanov / Getty Images

Latinos have a long history in the United States, but the first weeklong cultural observance in their honor didn’t take place until 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation to formally recognize the achievements of Hispanic Americans. It would take another 20 years before the 7-day event expanded to a month-long observance.

Unlike other cultural heritage months Hispanic Heritage Month takes place over the span of two months—September 15 to October 15—, as the time period includes important events in Hispanic history. Latin American countries including Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica all won their independence on September 15. In addition, Mexican Independence Day takes place on September 16, and Chilean Independence Day occurs on September 18. Moreover, el Día de la Raza takes place on October 12, a celebration of the region's indigenous roots.

Native American Heritage Month

Native American woman in traditional dress standing among grass on prairie
Getty Images/Christian Heeb

Cultural observances in honor of Native Americans have taken place in the United States since the early 1900s. During this period, three men —Red Fox James, Dr. Arthur C. Parker, and the Rev. Sherman Coolidge— worked tirelessly for the government to recognize Native Americans ​with a holiday. New York and Illinois were among the first states to recognize American Indian Day. Then in 1976, President Gerald Ford signed legislation to make part of October “Native American Awareness Week.” In 1990, President George H.W. Bush proclaimed November “National American Indian Heritage Month.”

How Black History Month Began

Mural illustrating the black leaders of the civil rights (Malcom X, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglas), located in Philadelphia
Mural illustrating the Black leaders of the civil rights (Malcom X, Ella Baker, Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglas), located in Philadelphia. Getty Images/Soltan Frédéric

Without the efforts of historian Carter G. Woodson, Black History Month may have never come to be. The Harvard-educated Woodson desired to make the achievements of the Black community in America known to the world. To accomplish this, he founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History and announced in a 1926 press release his intention to launch Negro History Week. Woodson decided to celebrate the week in February because that month included the birthdays of President Abraham Lincoln, who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and Frederick Douglass, the famed Black activist. In 1976, the U.S. government expanded the weeklong celebration to Black History Month.

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Chinese New Year Parade
matejphoto / Getty Images

The creation of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month owes its thanks to several lawmakers. New York Congressman Frank Horton and California Congressman Norman Mineta sponsored a bill in the U.S. House mandating that part of May be recognized as “Asian Pacific Heritage Week.” In the Senate, lawmakers Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga entered a similar bill in July 1977. When the bills passed the Senate and the House, President Jimmy Carter declared the beginning of May “Asian Pacific Heritage Week.” Twelve years later, President George H.W. Bush turned the weeklong observance into a month-long event. Lawmakers chose the month of May because it marks milestones in Asian American history. For example, the first Japanese American immigrants entered the U.S. on May 7, 1843. Twenty-six years after that, on May 10, Chinese workers completed building America’s transcontinental railroad.

Irish American Heritage Month

parade for st patricks day, nyc
Getty Images/Rudi Von Briel

Irish Americans are one of the largest ethnic groups in the United States. Yet, the fact that March is Irish American Heritage Month remains unknown to much of the public. While St. Patrick’s Day, also in March, is celebrated by the masses, month-long celebrations of the Irish remain few and far between. The American Foundation for Irish Heritage has tried to raise awareness about the month, a time to reflect on the progress Irish Americans have made since they first came to the U.S. in waves in the 19th century. The Irish have overcome prejudice and stereotyping and gone on to become of the most privileged groups in the country.