Editorial Feature

10 Inspiring Latinas Who’ve Made History

From astronauts to artists, meet the Latinas who’ve shaped the U.S. today

“People think of Latina women as being fiery and fierce, which is usually true”, says Zoe Saldaña, “but I think the quality that so many Latinas possess is strength.” From Selena to Sylvia Rivera, Latinas have shown their strength, fortitude and skill in every discipline and field, including science, the arts, law, and politics. Here we take a look at a handful of the inspiring Latinas who have made history, shaped the society we live in, and changed our world for the better.

1. Ellen Ochoa

On April 8, 1993, Ellen Ochoa became the first Hispanic woman in the world to go into space. Ochoa was aboard the Discovery shuttle for a total of nine days while conducting important research into the Earth’s ozone layer. Since that ground-, or sky-, breaking moment, Ochoa has gone on a further three space flights, logging 1,000 hours in space in total.

And, as if her first pioneering mission wasn’t enough, in 2013 Ochoa became the first Hispanic director, and second female director, of the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

NASA Astronaut Ellen Ochoa, by Candy Torres, 2014 (From the collection of The Futuro Media Group)

2. Joan Baez

“We shall overcome”, sings Joan Baez, legendary folk singer, at the March on Washington for civil rights in 1963. “We are not afraid today, oh deep in my heart I do believe, we shall overcome someday”; Baez lived by these words, as a passionate spokesperson for the anti-war effort, a civil rights activist, and a powerful, unforgettable singer-songwriter. Baez is probably most well-known for her relationship with Bob Dylan, but it was her human rights advocacy, her breathtaking voice, and her continual fight for justice for the marginalized and oppressed that have secured her place in the history books.

Joan Baez, by Ralph Crane, 1962 (From LIFE Photo Collection)

3. Dolores Huerta

Doing back-breaking work under the unforgiving sun, sleeping in rough shacks with dozens of men to a room, all for below-poverty-level wages; farm workers in the early Twentieth Century, most of whom were immigrants from Central America, had a hard, painful, unjust life. That is, until Dolores Huerta and others like her, came along. In 1965, Huerta created the United Farm Workers, an organization that worked tirelessly to improve the working conditions for farm workers. By leading boycotts, picketing, protesting and lobbying, Huerta was instrumental in bringing about legislation that protects some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Dolores Huerta, by Barbara Carrasco, 1999 (From the collection of Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery)

4. Selena

Born Selena Quintanilla on April 16, 1971, in Texas, the artist known as ‘Selena’ was a pop superstar who brought Mexican Tejano music to the masses. She’s one of the most influential Latin artists of all time, winning a Grammy award in 1993 and a gold record in 1994 with Amor Prohibido. Selena, along with Rita Moreno and Gloria Estefan, was one of the few Latin pop stars who crossed over into the mainstream. She was tipped to be the next Madonna, but tragically her career was cut short when she was shot by the president of her fan club over a dispute over the latter’s embezzlement of Selena’s company money. On the posthumous release of her last album, a nation mourned the death of this lost talent.

5. Sylvia Rivera

Sylvia Rivera, a mixed race Venezuelan-Puerto Rican trans woman, was a pioneering LGBT activist who fought tirelessly for trans rights, often credited as the person to "put the "t" in LGBT activism”. Together with Marsha P. Johnson (who allegedly threw the first brick in the Stonewall riots), Rivera created the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) organisation, which provided a home for trans people living on the streets in 1970s New York. A tireless advocate for LGBT people, ethnic minorities, and the homeless, Rivera dedicated her life to helping others. Sylvia’s Place and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project were both named in her honor and still work for the safety and rights of LGBT people to this day.


6. Ana Mendieta

Ana Mendieta became a refugee at the age of 12, fleeing the regime change in her native Cuba for Dubuque, Iowa. This sense of displacement and loss would later be visible in Mendieta’s incredible artworks. Most of her 200 artworks use the earth as their medium — drawing on native forms of knowledge, spiritualism, and magic, as well as being profoundly feminist in their approach and subject matter. Often overlooked in the art history books in favor of her husband, Carl Andre, who was controversially cleared of Mendieta’s murder in 1985, Ana Mendieta is only now getting the recognition she deserves in the art world.

Untitled (Facial Hair Transplants), by Ana Mendieta, 1972 (From the collection of Hammer Museum)

7. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen has had a career of firsts: she was the first Latina to serve in the Florida house; the first Latina in the Florida senate; the first Latina to serve in the US House of Representatives; the first Latina and the first Cuban-American in Congress; and the first woman to ever be chair of a regular standing committee of the House. A true political pioneer in every sense, the Republican representative announced her retirement this year after forty-years of service to her constituents and local community.

U.S. Representatives including Nita Lowey, Pat Schroeder, Patsy Mink, Jolene Unsoeld, Eleanor Holmes Norton and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen walking by the U.S. Capitol on their way to the Senate / Library of Congress, by Maureen Keating, 1991, (From the collection of National Women’s History Museum)

8. Julia de Burgos

Julia Constanza Burgos García was born in 1914 in Carolina, Puerto Rico. A successful published poet in her native Puerto Rico, de Burgos struggled to get the recognition she deserved after moving to the U.S. in the 1930s. Her poems spoke of the beauty of her native country, and celebrated her identity as an immigrant black Latina — all things that were outside of the mainstream in early 20th-century poetry circles. Way ahead of their time, de Burgos’ scintillating poems center on themes of feminism and social justice, setting the stage for many Latino writers to come.

Julia de Burgos, by Carlos Irizarry, 1981 (From the collection of Museo de Arte Puerto Rico)

9. Maria Elena Salinas

With more than 30 years on our screens, Maria Elena Salinas is the longest running female news anchor on U.S. television, and is the first Latina to receive a Lifetime Achievement Emmy. Dubbed the “Voice of Hispanic America” by The New York Times, Salinas has become a figurehead for the Latino community. She recently announced her departure from her current role at Univison saying, “I am grateful for having had the privilege to inform and empower the Latino community through the work my colleagues and I do with such passion.” Thanking her Latino audience she said, “as long as I have a voice, I will always use it to speak on their behalf.” She has always used her platform to cover issues that affect Latinos today, including the plight of unaccompanied immigrant children, as well as being an active philanthropist, working to increase voter registration in the Latino community and helping Latino youth into journalism.

10. Sonia Sotomayor

“There are uses to adversity, and they don't reveal themselves until tested”, says Sonia Sotomayor, “whether it's serious illness, financial hardship, or the simple constraint of parents who speak limited English, difficulty can tap unexpected strengths.” Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is herself testament to these words. Raised in a single parent household in the Bronx, Sotomayor went on to graduate summa cum laude from Princeton, go to Yale Law School, and from there become, first a U.S. District Court Judge, and then a Supreme Court Justice. Indeed, Sotomayor became the first Latina Supreme Court Justice in U.S. history. During her time in the Supreme Court, Sotomayor has worked tirelessly to be a voice for women and ethnic minorities in criminal justice reform.

Sonia Sotomayor - 2016 Hispanic Heritage Awards (From the collection of Hispanic Heritage Foundation)
Words by Leonie Shinn-Morris
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