As of 2019, the US Census Bureau estimated that 42 percent of San Joaquin County’s population is Hispanic or Latino. For Gracie Madrid, who spearheads efforts to bring cultural events to the community through the Mexican Heritage Center in Stockton, Hispanic Heritage Month is an opportunity for the Hispanic community to keep their traditions alive and teach the next generation of Mexican Americans about the history behind these customs.
“Heritage is something you’re born into and it’s important for kids to feel proud of who they are,” Gracie says. “They might have assimilated to the American culture, but that’s really not their heritage. It’s important for them to know what you do and why you do it, because these are practices that come down from our ancestors.”
Celebrated every year from September 15 to October 15, Hispanic Heritage Month was enacted into law during Ronald Reagan’s presidency in 1988. The month pays homage to the histories, cultures, and achievements of Americans whose families and ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, or Central and Southern America. Under normal circumstances, the Mexican Heritage Center would host a Mexican Independence Day celebration to commemorate September 16. “That’s the one we really celebrate,” Gracie says, “not Cinco de Mayo.”
The celebration always includes the Grito de Dolores, the battle cry of the Mexican War of Independence, and features traditional dances and music. With ongoing restrictions on large gatherings due to COVID-19, the celebration won’t be possible this year, but Gracie encourages families to celebrate at home. Instead, the Mexican Heritage Center will focus more on the traditions that lead up to Día de los Muertos. The center will welcome the community to build traditional altares (altars) and ofrendas (offerings) to honor their ancestors and loved ones. Gracie hopes to be able to allow visitors to come in small groups to see the altars.