back to top

14 Things Latinos Gave To America

Hispanic Heritage Month is great and all, but Spanish-American and Latino influence goes much deeper than tacos and salsa music. Note: tacos and salsa music are awesome.

Posted on

A fun fact to remember for Hispanic Heritage Month: The Spanish arrived in what is now the U.S. well before the pilgrims, and a huge chunk of the country used to be Mexico. What this means (besides the downer, "Our genocidal conquerors arrived before yours!") is that A LOT of American culture comes directly from Spanish-American culture and from Latinos in America. Here are some examples:

2. Place names! / Via Wikimedia Commons

You can't throw a rock Out West without it hitting a sign with a Spanish name on it. Some of them are obvious (San Luis Obispo?) while others are less so — Alamo, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, Napa, and on and on. Even Utah comes from yuta, the Spanish pronunciation for the Ute native people.

Los Angeles, though? It may have been El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reyna de los Ángeles, or maybe it was El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles de Porciúncula. A reference to "the queen" being a difference. Two best friend historians are actually having a fight about it — it's a whole thing — but either way it has Spanish origins.

3. Omg barbecue!


Humans have been cooking meat over fire since about 10 minutes after humans learned how to make fire. But that distinctly American brand of Southern Barbecue originated when the Spanish introduced pigs to the New World and encountered the Caribbean natives' method of cooking things slowly, over indirect heat, and with a lot of smoke. In fact, the word barbecue comes from the Spanish barbacoa. Speaking of which...


4. Words. Lots of words.


Oh, but you do! "Hey bro, let's go to the bodega before the tornado hits and get some jerky and chocolate and tobacco (you know, those little cigars, which we totally won't use to roll up some marijuana). Also some Macho Man Randy Savage trading cards. But watch out for all the alligators and cannibals."

5. Instagram — but also Facebook?!

Instagram has Brazilian Mike Krieger and Facebook had Eduardo Saverin (remember sort of uptight Andrew Garfield in the Social Network but then he had Facebook stolen from him so it sort of makes sense he was uptight?)

But while a few of your favorite apps had Latino founders involved, less than 1% of venture-backed startups have a Latino co-founder, so there's still a ways to go.


7. Country Western music?

View this video on YouTube

Yes! So, "Latin" music in the U.S. usually means some flavor of Caribbean (salsa, reggaeton, Miami Sound Machine, whatever). Which is cool, but it's still considered "Latin," i.e., foreign.

But that All-American country music — especially certain strains from the 1950s — probably wouldn't exist without Mexican rancheras.

8. Color television what.

The world's first patent for the color TV was given to a Mexican inventor, Guillermo González Camarena, by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Full disclosure: His system fell out of favor and was replaced in the U.S., where it was only used by scientists and became standard for NASA spacecraft.

9. Mars exploration!


Speaking of NASA: Orlando Figueroa, who is from Puerto Rico, was the head of the Mars exploration program during two of its most successful Rover expeditions, Opportunity and Spirit.

Opportunity has proven to be quite the resilient little space robot: it's been wandering around the Red Planet for more than 10 years. As one NASA employee put it: "I don't think your car works that good."


10. Oh nothing, just feeding the home front during WWII.

Via YouTube

OK. Let's get somber for a minute. Aside from the fact that hundreds of thousands of American Latinos (mostly Puerto Ricans and Mexican-Americans) served in World War II, there's also the fact that, to make up for lost labor on the home front, the U.S. and Mexico set up the bracero program to bring Mexican farmworkers stateside.

That program laid the groundwork for the system of migrant agricultural labor that exists to this day.

11. Historic school desegregation. Really.


Most of the credit for mid-20th Century social progress rightfully goes to the Black Civil Rights Movement, but the Chicano Movement did its part: Before Brown v. Board of Education, there was Mendez v. Westminster, which desegregated California schools and provided a big leg-up in terms of momentum and legal precedent.

12. The frontier narrative.


A couple hundred years before Lewis & Clark, a Spanish conquistador by the name of Cabeza de Vaca survived a catastrophic expedition and wound up going on a tripped out journey across the North American continent. He lived amongst the natives for nearly a decade and chronicled the devastation of the conquest (not that anyone cared).