By Acting Under Secretary Gilbert Gonzalez

The diversity and perspectives brought to our nation by people who trace their roots from other countries have been hallmarks of the unique American character. In recognition of the rich Hispanic culture that thrives in America, President Bush has observed Sept. 15 through Oct. 15 as National Hispanic Heritage Month.

According to the 2000 Census, Hispanics are the largest and fastest growing minority group in the United States. This growth has spurred a demographic shift in rural America, where Hispanics grew at the highest rate, bringing new energy and ideas for future growth and prosperity.

The Bush Administration is actively supporting the efforts of Hispanic Americans to build better lives for themselves and their families.

At USDA Rural Development, our most important priority is to increase the quality of life for all rural Americans by providing increased access to capital, affordable housing and community facilities. Through these programs and services, we assist rural America to compete at home and abroad.

Through a partnership with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, USDA is improving the living and economic conditions of rural residents of the Southwest border region, particularly in areas commonly called the “colonias,” where many historically underserved settlements often have no running water, waste disposal or other services.

This program helps uphold President Bush’s commitment to work with community leaders along the Mexican border to address serious economic, health and social conditions facing the people in this region of the country. During the past three years, $55 million has been provided to support development and improvement of living standards in many of these local communities, while $35 million has been invested to assist with business development, job creation and housing.

Homeownership is a major part of the American dream. USDA Rural Development has taken aggressive steps to ensure President Bush’s Minority Homeownership Initiative is moving forward, by simplifying the home-buying process, recruiting minority lenders and actively promoting credit counseling and homeownership education. So far this year, 32,894 families reached their dream of home ownership with the help of USDA’s programs. Of this amount, 27,273 are first time homebuyers and 20% of these new homeowners were minorities.

Through the Colonias program alone, we have helped nearly 600 families living along the U.S. and Mexican border to become homeowners and minority homeownership today stands at a record high 51 percent.

USDA Rural Development is dedicated in our work toward enhancing the future of rural communities. Hispanic business owners and entrepreneurs are creating new jobs and spurring innovation and we are proud of our role in helping them establish profitable business ventures that will bring new opportunities to rural America.

In our effort to assist in the development of minority-owned industries, we selected one such firm to assist in our marketing efforts to open the door to additional qualified Hispanic families and entrepreneurs to benefit from the loan and grant programs offered by USDA Rural Development.

National Hispanic Heritage Month provides an opportunity to reflect and celebrate the accomplishments and advances the Hispanic community has achieved. Looking to the future, the contributions of Hispanic Americans are vital to ensuring our continued economic growth and prosperity.

At USDA Rural Development, we have taken this to heart in our motto: “Desarrollo Rural de USDA Estamos Dedicados al Futuro de las Comunidades Rurales.”