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7 influential Hispanic Americans to admire

16 Sep 2021 - Fiona Raleigh

Hispanic Heritage Month occurs annually from September 15 to October 15, and it is a chance to celebrate the histories, cultures and contributions of American citizens whose ancestors came from Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean and Central and South America. Take a look at our list of 7 Hispanic Americans who have made their mark on the world.

1. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Kicking off our list of influential Hispanic Americans is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Born in 1989 in the Bronx, New York, into a Puerto Rican family, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went on to become the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, at the age of 29.

After a successful grassroots campaign that won a great deal of support, AOC (as she is often referred to) entered the US House of Representatives for New York’s 14th district in January 2019.

Her election was a milestone for women, and particularly for women of color, in US politics. She is an advocate for combating climate change and has become a leading figure in progressive politics, which focus on representing the interests of people outside the political and economic elite.

2. Lin-Manuel Miranda

The next entry to our list of influential Hispanic Americans is also of Puerto Rican descent. Lin-Manuel Miranda was born in 1980 in Washington Heights, New York, and is a composer, actor, writer and activist.

His most famous accomplishment is writing the hit Broadway musical Hamilton, which became a pop culture phenomenon, and earned the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2016.

The ground-breaking hip-hop musical reimagines the early years of America; it’s told by actors of color whose ancestors did not have the opportunity to decide how the country would be built.

Lin-Manuel Miranda himself has won several Tony awards, an Oscar, a Pulitzer Prize, a Kennedy Center Honor, and was give the MacArthur Foundation’s genius grant in 2015. He is also noted for his charitable work, particularly relating to debt and disaster relief in Puerto Rico.

3. Ellen Ochoa

Ellen Ochoa has gone down in history for being the first Hispanic American woman to go to space when she joined the 9-day mission aboard the Discovery shuttle in 1993.

Ellen Ochoa’s grandparents emigrated from Mexico to the USA and eventually settled in California, where Ochoa was born in 1958. After earning her bachelor’s degree in physics, she went on to gain a master’s and doctorate in engineering from Stanford University.

In 1988, Ochoa joined NASA as a research engineer and was selected to be an astronaut in 1990. Three years later, she became the first Hispanic American woman to go to space, as part of a mission to study the Earth’s ozone layer.

Ochoa completed 3 more missions and later became the Johnson Space Center’s first Hispanic director. She is truly one of the most influential Hispanic Americans in history!

4. Cesar Chavez

Born in Arizona in 1927 to a Mexican-American family, Cesar Chavez was a labor leader and civil rights activist.

Having worked as a manual laborer, he was concerned with farm workers’ rights. After serving in the Navy, he became involved with the Community Service Organization (CSO) in California, an important civil rights organization for Latinx people.

Along with Dolores Huerta, he co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), and led peaceful protests and marches to advocate for Latinx civil rights. Chavez was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and his legacy lives on today in workers’ rights movements.

5. Dolores Huerta

We cannot mention Cesar Chavez, without also naming Dolores Huerta as one of the most influential Hispanic Americans.

Born in New Mexico in 1930, Dolores would go on to become a leading civil rights activist. She met Cesar Chavez in California while working for the CSO, and the two bonded. Together they formed the NFWA in 1962, and Huerta made a name for herself by leading successful workers’ strikes, and later with her work for women’s rights.

Now, in her 90s, she is the face of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, whose mission is to “inspire and organize communities to build volunteer organizations empowered to pursue social justice.”

Huerta has received several accolades throughout her career, including the inaugural Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights in 1998, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.

6. Sylvia Rivera

Sylvia Rivera is not only an influential Hispanic American, but an icon for the gay and transgender rights movements.

Born in New York City in 1951 and of Venezuelan and Puerto Rican descent, Rivera had a difficult upbringing and left home at the age of 10. She had to learn to fend for herself as she faced violence and discrimination, and she eventually started down a path of activism.

She met her friend Marsha P. Johnson, and together they formed Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), which supported LGBTQIA+ youth in Manhattan. After the Stonewall riots in 1969, the pair worked with the newly founded Gay Liberation Front to fight for their civil rights.

“We have to be visible. We should not be ashamed of who we are. We are numerous. There are many of us out here.” — Sylvia Rivera

After her death in 2002, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project was established to provide legal representation to those in the trans, non-binary, and non-gender conforming communities.

7. Roberto Clemente

Roberto Clemente was a pioneer for Hispanic Americans in Major League Baseball. He was born in Puerto Rico in 1934 and, after making the professional league there by the age of 18, and playing for a while in Canada, he moved to the USA in 1954 to join the Pittsburgh Pirates.

In 1964, Clemente became the first Latin American and Caribbean to win the World Series as a starting player. Despite this success, however, Clemente faced racial discrimination in the United States and this led him to advocate for Latinx and Black players’ rights in the sport.

He was also passionate about community outreach, famously saying:

“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.” — Roberto Clemente

Clemente died tragically in 1972 in a plane crash on his way to Nicaragua, where he was going to help in earthquake relief efforts.

In 1973 he was the first Hispanic baseball player to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and he paved the way for the Latinx baseball players of the future.

Shape your future with a degree in Hispanic Studies

If you feel inspired to learn more about Hispanic history and culture, then you can study a degree in a related subject and shape the world around you.

From Latin American Studies to Spanish language and Transborder Chicana/o and Latina/o Studies, you can earn a fulfilling degree at our partner universities in the USA.

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