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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 OchoaShutterstock

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.

Jose AndresJordan Strauss/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

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). These iconic newspaper covers went down in history. 

Four stars with American military pattern isolated on black background. 3d illustrationrawf8/shutterstock

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 Justin Sutcliffe/AP/Shutterstock

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-LehtinenMichael Brochstein/Sopa Images/Shutterstock

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, first Latina to serve in Congress

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 ClementeEverett Collection/Shutterstock

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 Larrazolacourtesy library of congress

Octaviano Larrazola, first Hispanic American to become a U.S. Senator

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 MorenoRichard Shotwell/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

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 ChavezDavid F Smith/AP/Shutterstock

Cesar Chavez, Civil Rights activist

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 HerreraJohn Barrett/Shutterstock

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.

Ruben Salazarvia

Ruben Salazar, journalist

Ruben Salazar was just an infant when his family immigrated to the United States from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. He would go on to become one of the first Mexican American journalists in mainstream media. His work was particularly significant because it highlighted the lives of Chicanos. Salazar was raised in El Paso and served in the army before becoming a journalist for the Los Angeles Times. In his career, he focused on injustices being done to those in the Chicano community. In Who is A Chicano, Salazar explained the plight of Mexican-Americans struggling to find identity and equality: “Chicanos feel cheated. They want to effect change. Now.” While covering a protest of the Vietnam War, the Chicano Moratorium in 1970, his life was cut short by a tear gas projectile thrown by the police.

Lin-Manuel MirandaChris Pizzello/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Lin-Manuel Miranda, composer, performer, and activist

Originally from upper Manhattan, Lin-Manuel Miranda is a Puerto Rican-American composer, lyricist, actor, writer, and activist. He’s most famous for having written the Broadway musical, Hamilton, based on Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography of American Founding Father, Alexander Hamilton. This groundbreaking hip-hop musical earned numerous awards, including the Tony Award for best musical in 2016. As Miranda accepted the Tony Award he famously said, “Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside,” in part a reference to the shootings at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando which had happened in the wee hours of the morning that same day. Miranda has received several Tony awards, an Oscar, a Pulitzer Prize, a Kennedy Center Honor in 2018, and was given the MacArthur Foundation’s genius grant in 2015. Alongside the Hispanic Federation, Miranda helped raise millions of dollars in efforts to support Puerto Rico after the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria.

Sonia SotomayorRogelio V Solis/AP/Shutterstock

Sonia Sotomayor, first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice

In 2009, Bronx-born Latina Sonia Sotomayor became the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice of the United States. She was nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate in a vote of 68 to 31. Sotomayor holds a B.A. from Princeton and a Law degree from Yale University. Her long career includes time spent as assistant district attorney for New York County, being a judge to the U.S. District Court (appointed by George H.W. Bush), and serving as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Sotomayor has been outspoken about how her unique experience as a Latina has contributed to her work as a judge. “The Latina in me is an ember that blazes forever.”

Sylvia MendezRon Sachs/Shutterstock

Sylvia Mendez, Civil Rights activist

Not many know that seven years before 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling integrated America’s schools, a young California girl’s family fought for her to attend an “all-white” school. Sylvia Mendez was a small girl when she tried to register to attend school in Westminster, California. The school’s superintendent testified that those of Mexican descent were “Intellectually, culturally, and morally inferior to European Americans.” Sylvia Mendez’ parents, Gonzalo and Felicitas, would have none of it. They united with other local Chicano families and hired a lawyer. They won their case, and in 1946 California schools became integrated by law.

Dolores HuertaRichard Shotwell/Invision/AP/Shutterstock

Dolores Huerta, Civil Rights activist

Born as Dolores Clara Fernandez in northern New Mexico in 1930, Dolores Huerta followed a family tradition of activism. Her father was a farmworker and union activist, while her mother was active in numerous civic organizations. Huerta found her voice while serving as an organizer for the Stockton Community Service Organization (CSO). It was during this time that she met a fellow organizer, Cesar Chavez. The two bonded and in 1962, they formed the National Farm Worker’s Association (NFWA). Throughout her long career, Dolores Huerta has advocated for workers’ rights, women’s rights, and Latinx rights, and continues to do so to this day, at age 89. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan was taken from Huerta’s words from NFWA strikes: “Si se puede,” which translates to “Yes we can.”

Gabriela MistralAP/Shutterstock

Gabriela Mistral, first Hispanic person to win a Nobel Prize in Literature

Born as Lucila de María del Perpetuo Socorro Godoy Alcayaga in Chile in 1889, poet and educator Gabriela Mistral was the first Hispanic person to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. Although she was no stranger to tragedy, she used her pain to create lasting works of poetry. Throughout her career, Mistral traveled the world as a writer and educator, teaching at Columbia University, Vassar College, and the University of Puerto Rico. She died in New York in 1957, 12 years after winning the Nobel Prize. You won’t want to miss these 13 memoirs written by strong women.

Sara Alvarez Kleinsmith
Sara Alvarez Kleinsmith is a writer and wellness professional whose work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, and We Are Mitu. She's written countless articles on health and wellness and contributed to the book "The Handmaid Mama" by Mary Helen Leonard as a prenatal yoga expert.