Trailblazing Hispanic Americans Who Made History
Hispanic Heritage Month kicks off on September 15. Take a look at just a few notable Hispanic Americans who have changed the course of history.
Ellen Ochoa, first Latina astronaut
Born in Los Angeles and raised in La Mesa, California, Ellen Ochoa, PhD, was the first Hispanic woman in space. After earning her doctorate in engineering from Stanford University, Ochoa joined NASA in 1988 as a research engineer and was selected to be an astronaut in 1990. Her first mission in space was aboard the shuttle Discovery in 1993. She went on to serve three more missions, spending almost 1,000 hours in orbit. Ochoa was the 11th director of the Johnson Space Center and the center’s first Hispanic director. Her historic firsts put her in great company with other pioneering women who changed the world.
José Andrés, restauranteur and activist
Critically acclaimed chef José Andrés came to the United States from Spain in 1991 and began a long career of award-winning culinary innovation. After the tragic 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Andrés formed the World Central Kitchen (WCK), an organization that provides hot meals to those affected by natural disasters. After Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico in 2017, he gathered 19,000 volunteers to serve 3.5 million meals to distraught residents who had limited access to electricity, clean water, and food. In 2019, Andrés fed furloughed workers during a month-long government shutdown. “We have shown that there is no place too far or disaster too great for our chefs to be there with a hot plate of food when it’s needed most,” Andrés writes on the WCK website. Andrés has won the James Beard Award for both Outstanding Chef and Humanitarian of the Year and is a nominee for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize (winners will be announced October 11).
Richard Cavazos, first Hispanic four-star general in the United States Army
Texan and Mexican-American Richard E. Cavazos was the first Hispanic person to become a four-star general in the United States Army. He graduated from Texas Tech University and went on to serve in the Korean war as the commander of the 65th Infantry Regiment. He then served in Vietnam as commander of the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry Division. He became the first Hispanic four-star general of the United States Army in 1982, and received a number of military honors, including the distinguished service cross, the silver star, the bronze star, and the purple heart. Cavazos died in San Antonio in 2017.
Sylvia Rivera, LGBTQ activist
“We have to be visible. We should not be ashamed of who we are. We are numerous. There are many of us out here.” Born in the Bronx in 1951, Venezuelan and Puerto Rican-American Sylvia Rivera was a Civil Rights pioneer. New York City’s Stonewall Inn is now a historic landmark and destination for Pride celebrations, but in 1969, brave patrons like Rivera were resisting an unlawful raid by police. The riots at Stonewall were a turning point in history for equal rights. Rivera went on to be the co-founder of the Gay Liberation Front. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which provides legal representation and support to all those in the trans, non-binary, and non-gender conforming communities, was established in 2002 shortly after her death.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, first Latina to serve in Congress
Michael Brochstein/Sopa Images/Shutterstock
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was born in Cuba in 1952 and immigrated to the United States at the age of eight. Her family settled in Miami. She was elected to the Florida House of Representatives and then to the Florida Senate, becoming the first Hispanic woman to serve in both. In 1989, she ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives against Democrat Gerald F. Richman, who used the campaign slogan, “This is an American seat.” Many viewed this as anti-Cuban and anti-Hispanic rhetoric, and in a backlash, Ros-Lehtinen won the election, making her the first Hispanic woman to ever serve in the United States Congress, definitely a famous female first to remember.
Roberto Clemente, first Hispanic baseball player to be inducted into the MLB Hall of Fame
Originally from Puerto Rico, Roberto Clemente Walker came to the United States to play major league baseball in 1954. He spent his career as a right fielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Although he was an elite athlete, achieving over 3,000 base hits by the end of his career, Clemente faced racial bias in the United States. This led Clemente to become an advocate for Latino and Black players’ rights in baseball. He died in a plane crash in 1972, en route to bring relief to earthquake-stricken Nicaragua. He believed in a life of serving others. “Any time you have an opportunity to make a difference in this world and you don’t, then you are wasting your time on Earth.” Clemente is one of the players who paved the roots for future generations of Latino ballplayers to join the game.
Octaviano Larrazola, first Hispanic American to become a U.S. Senator
courtesy library of congress
Born in Chihuahua, Mexico in 1859, Octaviano Larrazola immigrated to the United States as a boy and was raised in New Mexico. A Republican from New Mexico, Larrazola was a champion of Civil Rights and equal treatment for Hispanic Americans. This made him popular with New Mexican voters, who would elect him to be the fourth governor of New Mexico in 1918. Ten years later, he was elected to the United States Senate, making him the first Hispanic American to serve as a U.S. Senator.
Rita Moreno, first Hispanic woman to win an Academy Award
Born Rosita Dolores Alverio, Rita Moreno is the first Hispanic woman to win an Academy Award and is one of few people to hold the honor of being a “PEGOT” winner. (She has won Peabody, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Awards in her career of over 70 years.) Although her long career has taken her from stage to screen, this Bronx girl is most famous for her portrayal of Anita in the 1962 film, West Side Story, one of the best movie musicals, for which she won her Academy Award. Moreno has spoken openly about emotional trials in her life, including deep depression and a suicide attempt during a tumultuous relationship with Marlon Brando. A true survivor, Moreno continues to work and entertain today at age 87, appearing in the smash-hit shows Jane the Virgin and One Day at a Time. “It is through art that we will prevail and we will endure. It lives on after us and defines us as people.” Moreno is just one of the Hispanic women out there who have changed the world.
Cesar Chavez, Civil Rights activist
David F Smith/AP/Shutterstock
Once called “one of the heroic figures of our time” by then-Senator Robert Kennedy, Cesar Chavez lived a life of service to justice and equal rights. As the first-generation American son of farm workers in Arizona, he was drawn to a life of activism. After serving in the Navy in 1946, Chavez returned home and became a community organizer, first as a leader in the San Jose Community Service Organization (CSO), and then by establishing the National Farm Worker’s Association. Chavez led successful marches, strikes, fasts, and protests, and was inspired by peaceful resistance movements and leaders including Martin Luther King, Jr. and Gandhi. His legacy lives on in Latinx and worker’s rights movements going on today.
Carolina Herrera, fashion designer
Born in Caracas, Venezuela, fashion designer, and mother-of-four Carolina Herrera has created an iconic style and a highly successful global brand. As a young girl, Herrera would often sew dresses for her dolls. In 1980, she launched her own line, at the suggestion of her friend, Diana Vreeland, who also happened to be the editor in chief at Vogue. Herrera has dressed some of the most prominent of stylish women, including First Ladies Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, and Nancy Reagan and many notable names including Kate Middleton and Karlie Kloss. She has broken many barriers for Latinas in fashion, including having been featured on the cover of Vogue seven times. In 2009, Herrera became a naturalized American citizen, putting her in good company with these other 25 famous people you didn’t know got American citizenship.