What it means to be Tejano during Hispanic Heritage Month

Every year, Sept. 15 marks the start of Hispanic Heritage Month. For 30 days, the nation comes alive with the sounds of Latin music, cultural murals, and events that celebrate the contributions and accomplishments of Hispanic people throughout history. When the observance began in 1968, it only lasted for one week. It wasn’t until 1988 that the celebration expanded to 30 days.

Personally, I like knowing that from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 the public is learning about my culture. We are not only recognizing the food and celebrities tied to the Hispanic community, but we are learning about the contributions that Hispanics have made to America. Most importantly, I like knowing that people are gaining a new awareness that Hispanics come from many countries and unique cultures. While a majority of Hispanics in Texas are of Mexican descent, others hail from Colombia, Venezuela, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras and beyond.

We’ve long made major contributions to the history of the United States and the Lone Star State. Entrepreneur Rosa Hinojosa de Ballí is known as the first “cattle queen” of Texas. She was a Tejana, a term given to female Texans of Hispanic descent, inherited 55,000 acres from her father and late husband in 1790. She ranched the land and by the time she died, this smart businessperson had more than 1 million acres to call her own. That land sits in what is now South Texas.

We’ve also been at the forefront of politics in Texas. Some notables include San Antonio’s first Hispanic mayor, Juan Seguín, first elected in 1840, to U.S. Secretaries of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros and later Julián Castro. Castro’s mother, Rosie, volunteers with various community organizations including AARP in San Antonio.

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The pride of San Benio, Baldemar “Freddy Fender” Huerta, proved that anyone can reach their dream. He first sang publically on KGBT Radio in Harlingen. He was a musical chameleon, singing Tejano, country and rock and roll. This three-time Grammy award winner was known for his work as a solo artist and in the groups Los Super Seven and the Texas Tornadoes. Fender was also a film and TV actor, having appeared in the movies Milagro Beanfield War, Short Eyes, She Came to the Valley and the TV series The Dukes of Hazard.

Famed artist and former longhorn, Luis Jimenez, showcased his heritage in his works of art. Of Mexican descent and hailing from El Paso, this artist studied art and architecture at the University of Texas in Austin and El Paso. His post-graduate work landed him at Ciudad Universitaria in Mexico City. Later in his career, he taught art at the University of Arizona and the University of Houston. Jimenez’ sculptures, depicting Southwestern and Hispanic themes, were mostly large and made of polychrome fiberglass.

From art you can see to art you can taste, Houston’s Executive Chef Hugo Ortega is among the best. This four-time Best Chef: Southwest finalist for the James Beard Foundation Awards is known for his traditional Mexican dishes that his mother and grandmother taught him to make. Ortega was born in Mexico City. He moved to Houston where he worked as a dishwasher and busboy before becoming a line cook. He graduated from culinary school at Houston Community College. Today, Ortega continues to let his creative juices roam free on the plate, his canvas.

From culinary recipes to eye-satisfying art and community service, the contributions Hispanics have made and continue to make to our country and their communities is endless. The desire to contribute to a country that has given so much to us is real and a motivator for us to continue pushing ourselves to the limit to help make our communities better places to live, work and play.

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Juanita Jiménez-Soto is an associate state director for AARP Texas, based in Houston.