September 30, 2015

Celebrating America’s Rich Ethnic Heritage

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Photo: Hispanic family.

Nearly 50 after President Lyndon Johnson established Hispanic Heritage Week, Hispanics represent a vibrant and thriving segment of our diverse nation.  Their histories and cultures extend across centuries and continue to add new chapters to our national story.

During Hispanic Heritage Month, we join the country in remembering and recognizing the many Hispanic and Latino Americans whose tremendous accomplishments have enriched America.  Some notable examples come to mind:

Carlos Juan Finlay, a modest Cuban physician, first realized yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes, a discovery that saved hundreds of workers during the construction of the Panama Canal.

In the arts, the creations of contemporary sculptor Marisol Escobar, a U.S. citizen of Venezuelan descent, are on display in many of the world’s great museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

American literature has also felt the Hispanic influence. The works of O. Henry have stimulated our imaginations with the stories of the Cisco Kid and Zorro, while Don Quixote, written by the Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes, is considered to be one of the finest works of fiction ever written.

And in the area of public service, Hispanics have distinguished themselves in unprecedented ways.

Henry Gabriel Cisneros was the second Latino mayor of a major American city when elected as the mayor of San Antonio, Texas in 1981, and was later appointed as the 10th Secretary of HUD by President Bill Clinton in 1993.

Sonia Sotomayor, the daughter of Puerto Rican-born parents, was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the South District of New York by President George H. W. Bush in 1991, and later nominated by President Bill Clinton to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1997. In 2009, she was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Barack Obama, becoming the first justice of Hispanic Heritage and only the third female justice.

And Bill Richardson was a U.S. Congressman, Ambassador to the United Nations, and Secretary of Energy under former President Bill Clinton, before being elected governor of New Mexico in 2003 – the only Hispanic governor in the United States at the time.

America is truly a better place because of the contributions of these individuals, as well as many other Hispanics who are part of the fabric of this nation.

Yet, remarkably, Hispanics continue to face challenges. One of them is housing discrimination. Last year alone, HUD and its Fair Housing Assistance Program partner agencies received nearly 2,000 complaints alleging national origin discrimination.

Addressing this kind of unlawful discrimination is not easy since much of it is subtle, but many of our enforcement efforts have had positive results.

Just three months ago, HUD reached an agreement with a North Miami Beach condominium association settling allegations that its board president made discriminatory remarks about Hispanic residents and contrived Section 8 rules violations in an attempt to evict them.

A month earlier we reached an agreement with the city of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, settling allegations that its housing authority violated the rights of Spanish-speaking applicants and residents by requiring them to supply interpreters in order to communicate with housing authority staff and by denying them limited English proficiency services.

That same month, HUD reached an agreement with Associated Bank resolving allegations that the Wisconsin-based lender unlawfully denied mortgage loans to Hispanic and African-American applicants and discriminated in the provision of loan services in neighborhoods with significant Hispanic or African-American populations. The $200 million settlement in that case was the largest of its kind that HUD has ever reached.

In a nation founded on the principles of justice and equality, no one should be denied access to housing simply because of where they come from or what language they speak.  Much work remains to be done, but I believe that together we can make a difference.

Let us honor our Hispanic heritage by recommitting ourselves to creating communities of opportunity where every person has the same chance to build a better life, free from discrimination.

Gustavo Velazquez is HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity.

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