Each year, Americans observe Hispanic Heritage Month from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15, celebrating contributions, histories and deep ties in the community that have shaped much of the nation’s landscape today.
The month is meant to recognize the cultures that stem from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America and South America. Hispanic Heritage Month starts in mid-September -- and it’s for a symbolic reason.
Many Central American countries declared their independence Sept. 15, with Mexico and Chile celebrating their independence days on Sept. 16 and Sept. 18, respectively. Hispanic Heritage Month recognizes all of those independence days as they paved the way for the United States to interact with the individual nations in a new way.
Sept. 15: Central American Independence Days
The start date was chosen to honor the anniversary of independence of five Hispanic countries: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, all of which declared independence from Spain in 1821.
Read about their journey to independence below.
Christopher Columbus is often credited for stumbling upon Costa Rica in 1502 and giving it its name, which means “rich coast.” Home originally to Nahuatl culture and influenced by the Chibcha tribe, both cultures were eliminated in the area by diseases such as smallpox when the Spanish colonized the country.
Its geographic location was impractical to establish useful trade routes, thus largely ignored by the Spanish Monarchy and left to develop on its own. This meant Costa Rica was largely free of Spanish intervention, but it also contributed to its poverty as it didn’t experience the prosperity other Central American nations were benefiting from. With its indigenous communities wiped out and its population left to fend for themselves, Costa Rica became a “rural democracy,” with no oppressed classes, thus joining other Central American provinces to declare independence from Spain.
El Salvador or “The Republic of the Saviour” has a storied past of revolutions, with lasting impacts seen today. Currently, the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America, the Spanish Empire conquered the territory that would be ruled by the Viceroyalty of New Spain from Mexico City in the 1500s. It would eventually be declared the Captaincy General of Guatemala, or part of the Kingdom of Guatemala, another subset of Spanish rule. After more than 300 years, it would break free from Spanish rule and declare independence officially becoming a sovereign nation a few years later in 1841.
In 1523, Pedro de Alvarado, a member of Hernán Cortés' group that conquered Mexico, was sent to conquer the area of land below Mexico that is known today as Guatemala. After going to war with the region’s Mayan population, the Spanish Crown had official rule over the area by 1540. Its conquerors ruled the area from Mexico, but Guatemala enjoyed significant freedom in terms of how it governed locally especially as a central location for Spain’s Central American provinces. It eventually grew restless for its own freedom as it continued to grow as a prosperous country. After its neighbor Mexico shook Spanish rule, Guatemala did the same, declaring its independence in a collaborative effort with other Central American nations.
Honduras is shaped by its turbulent history, beginning when Central America was used as a land bridge connecting North and South America. Some did not make it to their destination but rather stayed and created a new culture. Various tribes of different ethnicities laid roots there, with Mayans taking over much of the region until its city’s collapse.
Everything changed when in his fourth and final voyage, Christopher Columbus journeyed to the New World and landed on Hondura’s Bay Islands in 1502. He was the first European to reach Central America, putting it on Spain’s radar.
Multiple Spanish explorers spent the next 20 years traveling through Central America, conquering its various regions -- eventually meeting in Honduras. The isthmus became the bloody battleground as Spanish conquistadors came from all different directions fighting each other and the land’s indigenous people for control. Honduras had silver -- making it an economic hot spot. Spanish rule was solidified in 1539, but it was never full in control. The British eventually stepped in, backing the Miskito tribe against the Spanish -- an indigenous tribe they never conquered. Honduras, like many other Central American nations, become part of the Captaincy-General, which was an extension of the Spanish Crown ruling from Mexico. This subset broke free from Mexico, and it, along with Central America a few weeks later, declared independence from Spain.
Honduras, put under so much turmoil over who was ruling it, never really wanted Central America to dissolve into its own countries but rather wanted to remain a united nation. Its flag serves as a testament to this history, with five stars representing the five nations that made up the original Federal Republic of Central America.
The first European to set eyes on Nicaragua was Christopher Columbus, but it was Gonzalez Davila who helped conquer it.
Earning the trust of the indigenous peoples, he forced its chief, Nicarao, to convert to Christianity. The country is named after the cacique chief with the word agua, water, at the end of it to honor the regions many lakes and rivers.
Historians say the 300 years between the 1520s and Nicaraguan independence were uneventful. The Spanish realized it wasn’t the wealthy land full of gold they thought it was. The Spanish who were there mixed with the indigenous people, creating the mestizo ethnicity, with the British staking their claim in other parts of the region. Nicaragua eventually became a province of the Captaincy General of Guatemala, which in itself was overseen by the Viceroyalty of New Spain and what later became Mexico. Nicaragua declared its independence shortly after Mexico claimed its own sovereignty.
This article was initially published in 2020. It has since been updated.