(CNN) — National Hispanic Heritage Month begins this September 15 and runs through October 15, giving the United States an opportunity to recognize and celebrate members of our communities and their ancestors who come from Mexico, parts of the Caribbean, Central America, South America and Spain.

“The Latino community and Latino history are a critical part of American history,” said Emily Key, director of education for the Smithsonian Latino Center. “And acknowledging and understanding that are key reasons why this month is important.”

Here’s why the United States commemorates Hispanic Heritage Month and what you should know about it.

The history

Instead of starting in early September, Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated for 30 days beginning on the 15th, a nod to the national independence anniversaries of several Latin American countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua recognizes September 15 as the date of its independence, while Mexico’s independence is celebrated on September 16 and Chile’s on September 18.

The history of Hispanic Heritage Month dates back to 1968, when the celebration lasted only one week. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation designating the week of September 15 as “National Hispanic Heritage Week,” according to the Office of the Historian and the Office of Art and Archives of the United States House of Representatives.

In the opening statement, he wrote of the “great contribution to our national heritage made by our people of Hispanic descent, not only in the fields of culture, business, and science, but also through their valor in battle.”

“That was a period when, without a doubt, Chicanos from the Southwest, Mexican-Americans and Latinos across the country were demanding greater political, cultural, social, economic inclusion and representation … of everything,” said Geraldo Cadava, professor of history and Latino studies at Northwestern University and author of “The Hispanic Republican.”

“It was a demand for greater inclusion and representation and recognition that Latinos play an important role in the United States,” he said.

It wasn’t until almost 20 years later that Hispanic Heritage Week was extended to an entire month under the president’s mandate ronald reagan.

Congressman Esteban Torres of California introduced a bill to expand it, saying in his remarks at the time: “We want the public to know that we share a legacy with the rest of the country, a legacy that includes artists, writers, Olympic champions and leaders in business, government, film, and science.

Torres’s bill stalled in committee, but Senator Paul Simon of Illinois introduced a similar bill that Reagan signed into law.

The contributions of Hispanics and Latinos to the United States are extensive and steeped in history: Key noted that the earliest known colony in the US was not Jamestown, but the Spanish colony of St. Augustine in Florida.

“Hispanics or Latinos … have fought in every war since the American Revolution,” he said. “They are business owners and veterans and teachers and public servants.”

And he added: “Latinos are Americans and they are part of this fabric.”

a growing population

But Hispanic Heritage Month is an opportunity for the country to recognize not only the rich history of its diverse Hispanic communities, but who they are today, said Félix Sánchez, president of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts.

“Hispanic Heritage Month gives us the opportunity to bring the American people up to date on who Latinos are today,” he said, “to provide a contemporary context for all of our communities that are very different, that are part of the Latino ecosystem.” .

Part of that contemporary context is the fact that Hispanics and Latinos make up a growing share of the general US population.

The american census The 2020 survey showed that Hispanics and Latinos constitute a rapidly growing multiracial group: in 2020, 62.1 million people identified as Hispanic or Latino, 18% of the US population. That number had grown 23% since 2010. By comparison, the US population that is not of Hispanic or Latino origin grew by just 4.3%, according to census data.

Between 2010 and 2020, just over half of the total growth in the US population, 51.1%, was due to the growth of Hispanics or Latinos, according to the Census Bureau.

This growth is another reason Hispanic Heritage Month is important, Key said. “If you are 18% of the population, then you should also have representation, and we should celebrate and understand these communities that make up a large part of the country’s population.”

Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration

There are many ways to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, whether it’s with books, movies, documentaries — Cadava’s suggestions include PBS documentary series about Latin America or the podcast “Latino USA”— or live programming related to Hispanics and Latinos and their history in the United States.

“If that means going to a Mexican Independence parade, of which there are many across the country in your community, you should do it,” he said.

On the other hand, museums like the Smithsonian have events and resources from online learning for families to use as guided learning about Latinos and their communities, including profiles of latino patriots in military history. People can also visit local museums, she said, that have Latino content and collections.

Or they can just talk to people in their neighborhood, Key said. “Talk to a friend, a classmate, a neighbor, the grocery store manager, or the restaurant where you get your favorite tacos,” she said.

“People like to share about their culture and their communities. … Learn about who they are and why they’re in the neighborhoods they’re in, and you’ll find that we probably have more in common than we think.”

It is important to keep in mind, according to experts, that this heritage can be recognized and appreciated at any time of the year, outside the 30-day period between September 15 and October 15. Hispanic Heritage Month is an “introduction month” or “entry point,” Key said, to learn more about your neighbors, peers and colleagues and their heritage.

“Ideally, Hispanic Heritage Month would be unnecessary,” Cadava said, adding, “Is there a need for a month that is essentially American History Month, when Latino heritage, Hispanic heritage and heritage American mean the same thing?

Sánchez shares this view, telling CNN, “Hispanic Heritage Month is an opportunity for the Latino community to reinforce their accomplishments, but also to reach out beyond the Latino community, to remind them that we are all Americans.”