The History of Hispanic Heritage Month

FOREWORD 

         My father, Gil Coronado, is a leader by example. He raised my brothers and I on the philosophy of protecting our greatest assets, this includes our name, reputation and family. Dad drilled into us the need to care for family, often saying, “Take care of your brothers and take care of your sister”. On the occasion of disagreements between my brothers, Dad would send them into their room with orders not to exit until they made peace. As children, we quickly learned the art of negotiation. The characteristics of honor and respect were instilled by our Father at an early age. If we only said, “yes or no”, we were met with a stern voice and quickly changed our response to “yes sir or yes ma’am”. In many ways, we were little military soldiers. Military life took our family to amazing countries. We attended school on military bases in Germany, Spain, and Panama. As students, we intentionally stayed out of trouble. The secret to well behaved military brat is to avoid the call from your principal. Only, the principal wouldn’t call your parents, they would call your Dad’s commander!

     Despite his rising career as a military officer, Dad didn’t receive his college degree until right before I entered college. Again, he is a leader by example. Dad embarked on his final assignment in Washington D.C., he arrived as a novice to the political maze. Referred to as a Latino crusader, he questioned why the Hispanic community’s national recognition was only held for a week. After disagreeing with the response, he set out to extend this commemorative week to a month by organizing a grassroots approach resulting in bills and laws passed. Dad is now considered the, “Father of Hispanic Heritage Month”, a civilian title he is honored to hold. He takes pride in hearing about nationwide celebrations and children learning about their heritage. 

     Like George Bailey of “It’s a Wonderful Life”, Dad is the richest man in town as he is loved and respected by family, friends and people from San Antonio, Washington D.C., Madrid, and around the world. Through him we value integrity, hard work, mission, and family. I’ve heard that success can be measured by how far you’ve traveled. Dad took the longest route; he is living proof that determination and focus will get you to a place of respectability and honor.

Elaine Coronado

Daughter of Colonel Gil Coronado

The Father of Hispanic Heritage Month

Colonel Gil Coronado

    At fifteen, I was labeled a juvenile delinquent and a troublemaker. My mother passed away when I was five years old. Every morning before school, I scrubbed pots and pans at my father’s grocery store, often running to the elementary school to beat the bell. I wasn’t only seen as son, but rather an employee and another paycheck for my family. My father would later remarry to a woman only nine years older than I. Growing up in the poorest zip code in the barrio, I took to the streets of San Antonio. Often in trouble, I had a police rap sheet with three criminal convictions. I was angry and blamed God for my circumstances. 

     As a student at Lanier High School, Latino children were on a predetermined track for vocational trades. We weren’t seen for our potential nor academically prepared for college. I was told I would never amount to anything. Those words burned into my heart and soul. I dropped out of Lanier High School and drove to Corpus Christi. Determined to prove everyone wrong and take charge of my destiny, I obtained my birth certificate, altered my date of birth and joined the Air Force. After taking my written and physical examinations, I qualified for military service and reported for active duty, days after my sixteenth birthday.

     I returned to San Antonio for basic training at Lackland Air Force Base. This was my first experience with discipline, regime, and teamwork. Although the experience was difficult, I finally felt at home. Upon completion of basic training, I earned my first stripe. Driven to excel, I graduated with honors and a promotion from clerk typist school. As an Airforce Lieutenant, I earned my GED and went on to graduate from Officer Candidate School, in 1958.

     My military career would take my family and I across the globe. I served in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War including tours in Germany, Panama, and Spain. As a major, I aspired to make Colonel, however, I was told I would not receive another promotion unless I obtained a college degree. I enrolled at Our Lady of the Lake University, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology, in 1975.

     In 1985, my family and I would eventually settle in Washington D.C., and my career would pivot in a new direction. Through my life’s experiences, it was important to me to champion for Latino causes. In 1968, Hispanic Heritage Week was signed into law. I found a week to be to short of a time frame and began a grassroots campaign to change the duration to a month-long acknowledgement. Over the course of three years and working with congressmen, staff, and advocacy groups, President Ronald Regan signed an amendment on August 17, 1988, designating National Hispanic Heritage Month. After this historic moment, I retired as Colonel, earning over 35 awards and decorations, including the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star. However, my retirement was short lived as I was asked by a young state senator, the late Frank Tejeda, to join the campaign trail for Presidential nominee, Bill Clinton. Upon Bill’s election as President, I joined President Clinton’s Transition Team. After a year at the Pentagon, I was appointed as Deputy Assistant Secretary at the Department of Veteran Affairs. In 1994, I was nominated as Director of the Selective Service System, of which the U.S. Senate soundly approved, becoming the first Hispanic director in its 60-year history. 

     At 15, no one saw a future military officer with a career that would take me around the world and inducted into the Military Hall of Fame. Nor did they envision my being honored at a Rose Garden Ceremony by President Reagan for initiating the creation of National Hispanic Heritage Month and my life story recorded in the Congressional Record, 106th Congress – 2nd session. Most certainly, not as a Presidential Appointee and the first serving Hispanic Director for the Selective Service System. Throughout this journey, I am blessed in matrimony and family, raising four incredible children. Not bad for a troublemaker, whom the Lord, in his own quiet way, transformed an angry young man with no future and molded him into a productive citizen.

This is narrative is written by Colonel Gil Coronado, a life in own his words.

Photo courtesy of Colonel Gil Coronado. Permission for story provided by Colonel Gil Coronado. All rights reserved by Colonel Gil Coronado.

1 thought on “The History of Hispanic Heritage Month”

  1. I was at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus when you came to me to aid in getting congressional support. I was honored to work on this and thank you and Senator Hatch for making it come true. Would not have happened without you.

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