Hispanic Heritage Month kicks off! A time to be proud, a time to be grateful

Hispanic heritage is everywhere in the United States, but every Sept. 15 we become especially aware of it, as it marks the beginning of the National Hispanic Heritage Month — a 30-day celebration of our Hispanic traits and a grateful month-long nod to the many Latinos who have contributed to the America we proudly call home.

One of the engines working to keep the Hispanic name up high is the Hispanic Heritage Foundation (HHF), a non-profit created by President Ronald Reagan in 1987 to promote the advance of the members of the Latino community — wherever they may be.

Jose Antonio Tijerino, the foundation’s CEO, puts it simply: their mission is to lead leaders.

“I’m most proud that we’ve created a kind of ecosystem of talent that presents a value system to the U.S.,” Tijerino told Fox News Latino. “Contrary to current political rhetoric about Latinos, we have to define ourselves as the next great Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein, both of whom were from immigrant families,” he added.

To Tijerino, a Nicaraguan-born immigrant who arrived in the U.S. at the age of 6, in this day and age one of the priorities is addressing the digital divide. He said the HHF has developed several programs related to the issue, including Code as a Second Language, a national initiative which offers computer coding classes for students in various cities.

The program is part of a larger HHF initiative called the LOFT Institute, Latinos on Fast Track, which includes leadership training, and workshops on financial literacy, media and social innovation. It also helps students obtain internships, mentorships and full-time positions.

“I’m saying a 15-year-old kid today with access to a computer and WIFI can reach more people than Dr. Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, and Cesar Chavez — ultimately you’ve got to get out of these kids way,” Tijerino says.

HHF does not offer scholarships. The-28-year institution is building a network of teenagers and young adults focusing on key areas in finance, entrepreneurship, health, media and technology,  to name a few. They offer workshops, give awards, and help young people find jobs in the sectors they’re pursuing.

Tijerino, who has been at the helm of the foundation for 14 years now, is a University of Maryland and Chicago School graduate who worked for many years in public relations for several corporations.

He describes his first years in the U.S. as extremely difficult. Even before his teenage years, he says, he became hyper-aware of being different in his community and that his parents didn’t fit in either.

A few years later, his mother’s death would become a pivotal moment in his life. What she told him on her deathbed resonated deeply and signaled the path to follow.

“She was holding my hand, and she said ‘I want you to be a good man.’ I thought ‘I am a good man’,” he said. “But then she said, ‘Don’t ever forget you’re an immigrant. You need to pay back two-fold what you get from this great country.”

One of the activities kicking off this Hispanic Heritage Month is a roundtable at the White House on Friday with 13 Latinos that have been recognized as “Agentes de Cambio/Agents of Change” for their “outstanding leadership and service to the community.”

Later in the month, the HHF will hold its 29th Annual Hispanic Heritage Awards ceremony, honoring Justice Sonia Sotomayor, author Junot Diaz, Tony Jimenez for technology, and Massy Arias for the Arts, among others.

In a letter from Tijerino to guests of the event, he says, "Never has it been more important to demonstrate the tremendous value we offer this great country as real Americans. America needs the Latino community to move forward and we need to be ready to answer the call as we have over and over again throughout history."