Hispanic Heritage Month Is Over But These Latino Trailblazers Should Be Celebrated All Year Long
Hispanic Heritage Month ended on Oct. 15, but our appreciation for the activists and pioneers that came before us will last many lifetimes. Honoring these people, and celebrating them, especially with any young people you have in your life, makes the whole community feel valued, reflected, and rooted in our history, which is often missing from history books. Here are trailblazers that everyone in the Latino community should know about.
Thankfully, we learned about Cesar Chavez in our history books in like one paragraph. Chavez was a major change-maker for migrant farm workers in the U.S. in the 1960s. Chavez dropped out of school early on to help his family in the fields.
He organized a boycott so large, that it gave him leverage, as the co-founder of the National Farmworkers Association (today known as the United Farm Workers of America) to unionize.
Here’s what that middle school paragraph left out. Dolores Huerta was Cesar Chavez’s equal partner and co-founder of UFW. She helped organize the 1965 grape strike and led all the negotiations that resulted in a more fair contract for the workers involved.
Huerta was the first Latina inducted into the National Woman’s Fall of Fame and is responsible for our widespread use of the phrase “si se puede.” Both Chavez and Huerta were early gay rights activists and feminists as well.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor
Sonia Sotomayor sits as the Supreme Court of the United States’ first and only woman of color to achieve the highest court in the land. Appointed by President Obama in 2009, the bar was set incredibly higher than the recent Senate hearings.
Republican moderate Ana Navarro recently tweeted, “I am so old, I remember when a Supreme Court nominee calling herself a “wise Latina”, was considered a scandal.”
Berta Cáceres was a Honduran award-winning Indigenous environmental activist who campaigned successfully to block the Gualcarque River from a dam construction. Her tribe, the Lencas, consider the river a sacred source of water, food and medicine.
Anti-Indigenous rights activists sent her death threats for years. On March 3, 2016, at least two attackers broke into her home and shot her to death. Her death sparked an outcry for the high rates of environmentalist deaths around the world.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Colombian author, Gabriel Garcia Marquez was one of the most lauded writers of our time. He won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, best known for the magic realism he invoked in all his fiction, especially “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
That is an 8-year-old you’re looking at and she is already trailblazing. When she was just 5 years old, she gave Pope Francis a letter during his 2015 visit to the White House.
It read, “I want to tell you that my heart is very sad, because I’m scared that one day ICE is going to deport my parents. I have a right to live with my parents. I have a right to be happy.”
Today, she’s still fighting hard for her parents, who are undocumented immigrants. She was one of the keynotes at this year’s Women’s March.
The daughter of a Puerto Rican and a Mexican immigrant, Mendez became a trailblazer while barely realizing it. Her parents sued the all-white Westminster School District after they forced her to go to a segregated school.
In the 1947 Mendez v. Westminster case, it was decided: California would integrate public schools. Today, Mendez is a major civil rights activist for Latino student rights in the U.S.
Lizzie Velásquez is a Latina motivational speaker and disabled advocate. She was born with a rare congenital condition, which makes it impossible for her to gain any weight. Years ago, you may have seen her face when her cyber-bulling reached despicable heights as a YouTube video started circulating called, “World’s Ugliest Woman.”
Today, she tours the globe to speak out against bullying and to advocate for disabled people. You can watch a film about her life, called “A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velásquez Story” on Amazon Prime.
There’s no question that bisexual Mexican artist is the icon for queer Latinas everywhere. Kahlo channeled her gender expression (girl wore suits), sexuality, politics and mental and physical disabilities into her art, and we’re better because of it.
Gays, listen up. Sylvia Rivera was the trans woman of color who started the Stonewall uprising. She struggled within her own community to have her voice heard, but she demanded a seat at the table of the activists who first marched for gay rights in America.
Caption: “Shane Ortega is a #Latinx two-Spirit, disabled, retired American combat soldier who served three duty tours and became the first openly #trans man in the U.S. military. He fought for the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and is still fighting for transgender rights in the military today. He co-founded the nonprofit SPARt*A for members of the #LGBTQ military community. He continues to advocate for people of color, athletes, LGBTQ health competency, veterans, woman, and disabled people.”
Orlando Cruz is the first and only openly gay man to win a world title in boxing. GLSEN reports that Cruz said, “I have and will always be a proud Puerto Rican. I have always been and always will be a proud gay man.”
Side note: Puerto Rico ranks higher than the United States on Spartacus’ LGBTQ Travel Index.
Gloria Estefan was born in Havana, but her family fled to Miami after the Cuban Revolution. She is the official Queen of Latin Pop, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama for her contributions to American music.
Last year, she became the first Cuban-American to be named as one of the Kennedy Center Honors.
Behold, the Queen of Queens. Selena Quintanilla is probably the most celebrated Mexican-American artists of our time. She broke through a male-dominated Tejano genre and made it so much better.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Sammy Sosa is a major icon in Major League Baseball and in the Latino community. He is one of only nine players in MLB history to hit 600 career home runs.
Dr. Ellen Ochoa
In 1993, Dr. Ochoa became the first Latina woman in the world to go to space. She spent nine days aboard the shuttle Discovery. She then went on to become the first Latina director at Johnson Space Center.
Edward James Olmos
Olmos is Mexican-American, raised in Los Angeles. He was made famous for portraying Jaime Escalante in “Stand and Deliver.” He was the first Mexican to win an Oscar nomination.
Gloria Evangelina Anzaldua
Gloria Evangelina Anzaldua is famous for co-editing the anthology “This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color.” Her work focuses on the language border used to mistreat women in Chicano and Latinx culture, lesbians in the straight world, and Chicanx in white American society.
Carlos Santana is the Mexican American who pioneered a whole new genre of music that we can only call Santana. He fused rock with Latin American jazz, integrates Latin and African rhythms in with his bluesy guitar sets. He is an icon, no question.
The woman, the myth, the legend: Rita Moreno is the only Latinx person to ever become an EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award winner). She was only the second Puerto Rican to win an Academy Award and rose to fame playing Anita in West Side Story.