When I was in grade school my father often took me to Los Angeles’ historic district. He had a business friend who had an office there. My dad would bring me along and let me explore Olvera Street, which had great souvenirs, music and delicious Mexican food, all of which I found irresistible. (My mother, however, wasn’t exactly thrilled when I returned home with no appetite for dinner.)

My childhood was in L.A. and my adult life has been in Santa Monica. Both cities are filled with Hispanic history. Los Angeles is Spanish for “The Angels” since its founding in 1850, and Santa Monica is Spanish for “Saint Monica,” the mother of St. Augustine, a sinner who became a saint and great writer of the Faith.

There’s a tall, white statue of Saint Monica in Palisades Park. And, at 725 California, there’s St. Monica Church, and St. Monica High School, which was founded in 1899 and consistently excels in academic and sports.

The point of all this (there better be one) is that I considered myself fairly well informed about Hispanic culture. But, until this week, I didn’t know there was a National Hispanic Heritage Month, which, as it happens, begins Sunday. So much for “well informed.”

I was puzzled why National Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated in the latter half of one month and through the first half of the next. I discovered it starts on September 15th to correspond with the independence of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Chile. Meanwhile, communities across the U.S., Canada and Latin America, will mark the achievements of Hispanic and Latino Americans with festivals and educational activities.

My connection to the Hispanic culture deepened in 2004 when I read an article in the L.A. Times “Was This Woman Railroaded?” The story chronicled the tragic life of Modesta Avila who, at 21, in 1889 San Juan Capistrano, boldly stood up to the Sante Fe Railroad, which had run track 15 feet from her front door without compensation.

In protest, Modesta strung a clothesline across the track and later planted a sign on the tracks, “This land is mine!” In a rigged trial, Modesta became the first woman sent to San Quentin and died 3 months before her release. However, in 2002, the same railroad applied for a second line that would run through Capistrano. The young environmental activists discovered Modesta’s courageous protests and duplicated them as a rallying cry.

Shockingly, the railroad was denied a 2nd line by a unanimous vote of the State Transportation Committee. I eventually wrote a screenplay, “Modesta – A Light Across Time,” because, even to this day, there are 911 calls describing her in a white dress, on moonlit nights at midnight, dancing barefoot on the tracks.

In 2011, I wrote another screenplay about another charismatic Mexican-American, 1950’s tennis legend, Richard (Pancho) Gonzalez, who was called the “Jackie Robinson of tennis” for breaking the color and class barriers in tennis. The title is “Fury and Grace,” as Richard had an abundance of both.

Born in 1928, the oldest of 7 children, Richard was raised in S. Central Los Angeles. When his father, Manuel, was 10, he and his father walked 600 miles from Mexico to Arizona, primarily at night to avoid the broiling heat and ruthless banditos. Manuel was tough and strict and Richard was rebellious, which was a tumultuous mix.

Completely self taught, at 20 and 21, Richard won the U.S. Championships in 1948 and in 1949, when he became the last player in the tournament’s history to come back from 2 sets to love down and win. Always controversial and volatile, Richard’s considered among the greatest players of all time, finishing #1 in the world for a record 8 times.

Lastly, in the spirit of the National Hispanic Heritage Month, is actor, stand-up comedian, filmmaker and playwright, John Leguizamo, in his hilarious (and educational) one-man play direct from Broadway, “Latin History for Dummies” at the Ahmanson Theater in downtown Los Angeles. The Tony and Emmy Award-winner who has also appeared in 75 movies and produced 10, gives the audience a “crash course” covering three continents and 3000 years of history.

The idea for the play came about when Leguizamo’s son was being bullied at school and mocked for his Latino heritage. Leguizamo, who was born in Bogotá, Colombia, remembered his youth in New York and also being bullied. Leguizamo used his extraordinary humor to escape getting beat up but he wanted his son to be able to fight back with facts.

A self-professed “ghetto scholar,” Leguizamo engaged in exhaustive research about Latinos that are not taught in the schools. The result is an undeniably entertaining, brilliantly funny and often poignant play whose time has definitely arrived. Meanwhile, I’m still thinking about the delicious food on Olvera Street.

To learn more, go to:www.nationalhispanicheritagemonth.org. For Richard Gonzalez and the work done in his name, go to www.panchofoundation.org. “Latin History for Morons” info go to www.Ahmasontheater.org. Jack is at jackdailypress@aol.com.