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Hispanic Heritage Month- Influential Figures

Updated: Oct 20, 2020

DISCLAIMER: All the highlighted people in this article fit into more than just one category, it is even possible to come up with an infinite amount of ways to categorize them. These categories are a simple way that we have thought of to better organize the following information and make it easier for you to read.

NOTE: This article is meant to be read along with our monthly podcast, which can be found here.


Musicians

Music has always been one of the cornerstones through which Latinx culture is showcased. For musicians, it is an outlet that can be used to express themselves and their ideas, push against historical narratives, and even make political statements. For listeners, music creates a world where they can feel their experiences and culture seen and appreciated. Music can have religious and spiritual purposes and can also call back foundational stories that are essential to Latinx heritage and culture. Here, we highlight some musical figures that have changed the world.


Selena

  • She is known as “Queen of Tejano Music” 

  • Selena was credited for catapulting a music genre into mainstream media

  • Known for her bold style and bedazzled bustiers

  • She began in a band with her family called Selena y los Dinos at a very young age which is what began her music career

  • Inspired and paved the way for many of the Latinx artists we know today

  • Her posthumous album “dreaming of you” was the first album by a Latin artist to debut at number one on the billboard 200

Ritchie Valens

  • Father of the Spanish speaking rock and roll movement and Chicano rock movement

  • The day he died is known as the day that music died

  • Most known for song La Bamba

  • He is a self-taught musician

  • He died at just 17 years old

Lin Manuel Miranda

  • Puerto Rican composer, has written multiple Broadway shows, acted in movies and shows, and produced songs for fundraisers to help Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria. 

  • Has won a Pulitzer prize, three Tony’s, three Grammy’s, and an Emmy. 

  • Musical In the Heights addresses gentrification and lack of resources directed towards communities of color in New York.

Benito Ocasio- Bad Bunny

  • Puerto Rican reggaeton artist, shot to popularity in 2016.

  • First Latinx urban music artist to be featured on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine.

  • Second album YHLQMDLG became the highest-charting all Spanish album ever on the Billboard 200.

  • Has challenged masculinity and the gender stereotypes that are highly perpetuated in the Latinx community. 

  • Has been critical about the lack of government aid that Puerto Rico received after the 2016 hurricane season, and is still failing to receive. 


Artists

Similar to music, art has been a method of expression in the Latinx community for generations and generations. Visual art such as paintings, sculptures, prints, carvings, and even more modern digital creations have been used as expressions of the artist’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences. As an easily accessible medium to express oneself, art has always had different layers of power and representation in the Latinx community. In this section, we highlight influential artists that have continued to represent us.


Alma Lopez 

Our Lady (1999) Alma Lopez
  • Our Lady (1999) is her most famous piece

  • She received death threats for portraying La Virgen in the way she has, but has also been acclaimed for her interpretation of what she means in religious contexts and for representing the connections Latinx people forge with La Virgen.

  • Other works are murals and prints alluding to folklore, such as La Llorona, and indigenous Mexican themes.


Ester Hernandez

Sun Mad III (1982) Ester Hernandez
  • Internationally acclaimed artist, mostly prints, pastels, and physical installations.

  • Work deals with social, political, ecological, and spiritual themes.

  • Most renowned piece is Sun Mad (1982), which references the work of immigrants in poor conditions to produce food across the country.





Frida Kahlo

Two Nudes in a Forest (1939) Frida Kahlo
  • Regarded as an icon for Chicanos, the feminism movement and the LGTBQ+ movement (she was openly bisexual) 

  • Her art set many records, in 1990 first Latin American artist to sell at auction for over $1 million, and her painting Two Nudes in a Forest sold for $8 million in 2016. 

  • She arrived at her first solo exhibition in her bed via ambulance in April 1953 in Mexico at the Galeria Arte Contemporaneo. 

  • She wanted her year of birth to coincide with the start of the Mexican Revolution, so she shaved three years off and said she was born in 1910.

Soni Lopez Chavez

  • Modern artist, shares and sells her art through Instagram. Art based on the Latinx experience and pushing against stereotypes, while also embracing race and culture.

  • A burgeoning artist, so you can support her work at her site https://barriologan.wixsite.com/soniartist

Chafil Cheucarama

Curing Ceremony, Chafil Cheucarama
  • Indigenous artist known for drawing, illustrating, and carving. 

  • Mainly does prints and acrylic paintings that show scenes of the Indigenous experience in Panama.

  • Son is also a renowned artist in Panama, carves tagua seeds.






*Not listed are countless artisans (weaving, ceramic works, embroidery) without outright social media presence and readily available information*


Activism

As a community, we have a long history of fighting injustices and the prejudices that are imposed among us. In present-day, the Latinx community continues to fight against inequities that are effects of historical events. Here we highlight some of the individuals who committed themselves to take leadership and took part in creating better conditions for us. They provided the foundational work we now follow the blueprint to continue to advocate for our rights.


Sylvia Rivera

  • Rivera was a Trans woman of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent, as well as an avid activist for LGBTQ+ community

  • Present at the Stonewall Inn for one of the most significant nights in LGBTQIA+ history: June 28, 1969, the night that the Stonewall Riots began. 

  • Cofounders Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson spearheaded the Gay Liberation Front, a committee dedicated to fighting for gay rights, and S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), an organization that provided support and housing for the homeless LGBTQ+ youth of NYC.

  • Outspoken in her critiques of the LGBTQ+ community for their lack of support for Trans people and LGBTQ+ people of color in her time, especially considering these minority groups’ integral role in the Gay Liberation Front

Rigoberta Menchu

  • Human rights activist for the indigenous people of Guatemala

  • Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Glamour Award for The Peacemaker, and the Order of the Aztec Eagle

  • In 1983 Menchú gained international attention with her book I, "Rigoberta Menchú", in which she tells the story of her youth and retells the torture-murders of her family members.

Dolores Huerta

  • Amazing Chicana activist, played a major part in the Farm Workers' Movement and helped Cesar Chavez in negations but Huerta's work is never highlighted as important in comparison to Chavez.

  • Received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Obama.

  • Has established her own foundation.

César Chávez

  • He was an American labor leader, community organizer, businessman, and Latino American civil rights activist.

  • He dedicated his life to improving treatment, pay, and working conditions for farmworkers

  • As a labor leader, Chavez employed nonviolent means to bring attention to the plight of farmworkers such as marches, boycotts, and several hunger strikes

  • He also brought national awareness to the dangers of pesticides to workers' health.

Politicians

Systems of political power in the U.S. were created by and for white men, however, having figures in these positions who are Latinos (and more) allow for institutional change and they become a form of resistance. Many of the figures we listed below are an inspiration to many of us as they have paved the way for more representation in politics and everywhere else in life.


Sonia Sotomayor

  • First Latina and third woman on the Supreme Court, appointed by Barrack Obama in 2009.

  • Raised in the Bronx housing projects, came out of a low-income family, and was appointed to the federal district courts before the age of 40.

  • Has brought to the forefront of conversation juvenile diabetes.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC)

  • Youngest-ever elected Congresswomen and she’s Puerto Rican

  • Strong grassroots campaigns

  • Part of the Standing Rock pipeline protest, visits Flint, Michigan,

  • Protests Trump administration’s family separation policy

  • Shuts down double standards via her strong social media presence


Benito Juárez

  • Mexico’s only indigenous president who served five presidential terms, from 1858 to 1872

  • His native language was Zapotec and he did not learn Spanish until he was thirteen years old when he realized that in order to succeed, he needed to learn the language. 

  • He fought against foreign occupation, pursued reforms that helped establish a democratic federal republic, modernized Mexico, and most importantly, he secured rights for indigenous people.

  • He is remembered as a strong and diligent hero in Mexican culture because of his political success and ability to lead the country through rough times.


Athletes

Sports have existed for centuries dating as far back as 3000 BC. Within the athletic field, there have been many influential individuals that have changed the face of sports. Sports give Latinx people a stage to represent their talents. Latinx representation within the athletic field is just as important as having representation in other fields such as politics. Here are a few influential athletes that have left an impact on their sport. 


Laurie Hernandez

  • She is a U.S Olympic gymnast of Puerto Rican descent. She grew up in New Jersey and began competing in gymnastics in 2012.

  • At the age of 16, she won a gold and silver medal during the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics.

  • She was also the winner of Season 23 of Dancing with the Stars.

  • In 2019, she was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame which honors individuals from New Jersey that have made contributions to society

Monica Puig

  • She was the first Puerto Rican in history to win an Olympic Gold Medal in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics representing Puerto Rico.

  • Puerto Rico was honored and many celebrated that Puig won the gold medal in the Olympics.

  • Puerto Rico has acquired 9 Olympic medals in total and Monica Puig won the 9th medal.

  • She is also a Central American and Caribbean champion and Pan American silver medalist.

Roberto Clemente

  • He was a Puerto Rican professional baseball player and the first Afro-Latinx player in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

  • His activism paved the way for Latinx players in the MLB.

  • He raised awareness about natural disasters in Nicaragua but unfortunately passed away in an airplane crash attempting to ship relief supplies.

  • He was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, a year after his death. He became the first Latin American and Caribbean player to be enshrined.


Writers


Gloria Anzaldúa

  • Chicana writer/ scholar, a pioneer in Chicana cultural theory, feminist theory, and queer theory

  • Known for Borderlands: La Frontera: The New Mestiza, in which she wrote on her life growing up on the Mexico–Texas border and incorporated her lifelong experiences of social and cultural marginalization into her work

  • Developed theories about the marginal, in-between, and mixed cultures that develop along borders

Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz

  • Mexican poet, philosopher, and nun of New Spain

  • Spoke fluently in Latin and Nahuatl (largely frowned upon at the time)

  • Considered a proto-feminist (held many feminist ideals and paved the way for modern feminism)

  • Was a renown, self-taught intellectual - unheard of for women at the time - which garnered attention when she served as a lady-in-waiting for the Vicereine of New Spain

  • Chose to become a nun to further her studies