Besides César Chávez, in schools in the U.S., we don’t learn much about Latino heroes who championed civil rights in the Americas. Who else advocated for meaningful change for their people, beyond Chavez? Who was the Malcolm X of Puerto Rico? Who was the Muhammad Ali of the Chicano movement?
These figures exist. Their stories are just largely erased from the American history narrative. You have to dig a little deeper to find them.
For Hispanic Heritage Month, we asked Latino writers and thinkers to share the one Latino activist they think more people should know about. We told them their choice could be someone who was born here or someone who lived primarily in a Latin American country but influences Latino communities in the United States today.
Here are 15 icons well worth reading up on.
Julia de Burgos
“One of the early pioneers of New York City’s Latinx literary scene, Julia de Burgos was an activist and poet who was devoted to uplifting her community and was guided by an unwavering commitment to social justice. Her experience of migration from Puerto Rico to New York City was central to her work, and her poems often celebrated her Afro-Latinx, feminist identity at a time when literary tradition was dominated by masculine conventions. Her poem ‘A Julia de Burgos (To Julia de Burgos)’ was written in the 1930s to denounce colonial injustices and oppressive norms but can still be an anthem for any young Latinx student finding their voice.” ― Stephanie Jimenez, author of “They Could Have Named Her Anything”
“There are so many incredible island writers whose work is not known in the United States, but de Burgos managed to bridge that divide and was an award-winning poet on the island and in New York City, where she was considered a foremother of the Nuyorican literary movement. In her poetry, she was as fearless and unapologetically authentic as she was in life. She published three collections of poetry (one posthumously) and struggled with depression and alcoholism. Tragically, she died penniless on a street in Spanish Harlem but became an icon in Puerto Rican history. In her poem “Yo Misma Fui Mi Ruta,” (“I Was My Own Route”), she beautifully captured the struggles facing a biracial, Puerto Rican, woman poet who was born way before her time: ‘At each advancing step on my route forward / my back was ripped by the desperate flapping wings / of the old guard.’” ― Ann Dávila Cardinal , author of young adult novels “Five Midnights” and “Category Five”
“Emma Tenayuca was born in 1916 in San Antonio, where I live. I never heard her name in school, despite her passionate advocacy on behalf of migrants and the working poor preceding the work of Cesar Chavez and Sylvia Rivera. At age 16, at the height of the Great Depression and at a time when Mexican Americans were afforded few rights and even less dignity, Emma was arrested for joining a picket line of workers striking against Finck Cigar Co. By 21, she was known as the most effective organizer for the National Workers’ Alliance. She led a strike of 12,000 pecan shellers, most of them women, that forced a necessary pay rise. It’s still considered the first significant victory for Mexican American laborers’ fight for equal rights.
The next year, when giving a speech at what would ignite San Antonio’s largest riot, Emma was effectively chased out of town under threat of lynching. But she continued her social justice work in Houston and San Francisco, returning to San Antonio in her 60s as an educator for migrant children. She said, ‘I never thought in terms of fear. I thought in terms of justice.’ These words should inspire all of us in the run-up to this election, when the rights of women and marginalized communities are under direct threat ― and after, because we have a long way to go to achieve Emma’s vision for fairness and equality for the poorest of us.” ― Katie Gutierrez, a writer and editor
Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales
“Rodolfo ‘Corky’ Gonzales (1928-2005) was a revolutionary who could knock opponents out. And I mean that literally. He made a name for himself in the boxing world as a Golden Gloves champion before spending much of his life fighting for the rights of Mexican Americans. A true activist, he understood the power of words. His poem ‘I Am Joaquin’ is an epic classic that traces the history of Chicanos as it pays homage to the 1800s outlaw Joaquin Murrieta, who is said to be the inspiration for Zorro. He helped champion the Crusade for Justice, convened the first national Chicano youth conference and spent much of his life preaching pride and advocating for equal rights. He is a true example of someone who refused to be defined by the standards others set for him, and he is a role model for anyone who thinks that you have to look a certain way or be in any one profession to change the world.” ― José B. González, professor of English and editor of LatinoStories.com
“I wish schools across the U.S. would dedicate more time to teaching students about Luisa Moreno, a Guatemalan-born labor activist who worked tirelessly to improve workers’ rights in the U.S. Born Blanca Rosa López Rodriguez, when Moreno came to the U.S. in 1928, she encountered a labor force marred by long hours, measly wages and discrimination against people of color. Dreaming of better conditions, she became an advocate for immigrant laborers all around the country, championed women’s rights and encouraged employees to coalesce into unions. In addition to her labor activism, Moreno co-founded the Congress of Spanish-Speaking Peoples, an organization that successfully lobbied for legislation and reform around education and housing for the Latinx community. In 1950, the federal government ordered Moreno’s deportation, citing her ties with the Communist Party as a threat to national security. Moreno’s story is a clear example of how deportation has been used as a weapon to punish immigrants who dare to speak up about injustice. What’s more, she’s a powerful example of the invaluable contributions immigrants bring to the United States.” ― Salomé Gómez-Upegui, writer and human rights advocate
Jessica Govea Thorbourne
“Jessica Govea Thorbourne grew up in central California and was a farmworker child. From age 4 to 15 she performed backbreaking work in cotton fields, prune orchards and grape vineyards. After graduating high school, she joined César Chávez and Dolores Huerta’s National Farm Workers Association (later renamed the United Farm Workers/UFW) and became a caseworker helping union families. She was convinced that some farmworkers’ illnesses were caused by pesticide poisoning and was the first to force the union to start advocating for farmworkers’ pesticide protection, which became a hallmark of its platform. She was such a charismatic organizer that the union sent her to Montreal, Canada, at the age of 21 to direct an international grape boycott (Canada was a top market for California table grapes). Her success at drawing millions of Canadians to the cause gave the UFW the critical leverage it needed to finalize labor contracts with top U.S. grape growers.
After her involvement with the UFW ended, Govea Thorbourne moved to the East Coast and taught organizing skills at Rutgers and Cornell universities. Her dedication to training workers of all kinds (from health care workers in the U.S. to coffee-processing workers in El Salvador) continued right up until she died in 2005 at the age of 58 from a long battle with breast cancer. Her persistent voice and international organizing made her truly special and a role model for other women in union movements.” ― Lori A. Flores, associate professor of history at Stony Brook University
“As a Puerto Rican, and because the topic of racism has been so prevalent the last several months, baseball great Roberto Clemente comes to mind for this. He’s an idol in his native Puerto Rico and one of the first Latin American baseball stars in the United States. Not only was he mocked by the media for his strong accent in those days, but he was an advocate for equality and one of the most generous human beings. Roberto died in a plane filled with food, medicines and other essentials on his way to Nicaragua to help earthquake victims on New Year’s Eve, 1972. I remember when he died. I was 15. The whole island was devastated, as was the baseball world. To me, he was more than a baseball player, he was a champion of Latinos in a world that was still pretty green in regards to equality and inclusion. He was really a true hero and a role model for children all over the world.” ― Maritere R. Bellas, author and the host of the Mamás411 podcast
Francisco P. Ramirez
“I am a writer, my words are my activism. Growing up, I didn’t read many books or news articles written by Latinos or that centered our stories, our struggle, our frustrations or our triumphs. Then I came across Francisco P. Ramirez, who in 1855 at the age of 17 owned and published his own newspaper, El Clamor Público (The Public Outcry). Imagine, 165 years ago, there was a Latino using his words as his power, to bring attention to issues affecting Mexican Americans in California. He pushed against the status quo and critically examined what freedom meant in America. In July 1855, he wrote an editorial where he questioned liberty in the United States. He called it ‘truly curious’ that some people had no liberty at all. ‘It is denied by the courts,’ he wrote. ‘But there is the great liberty of any white man to buy a human being in order to arbitrarily hand him or burn him alive,’ he strongly stated. He called slavery the ‘vilest despotism.’
He knew in 1856 what many of us still don’t: ‘We have enough votes among ourselves to control the election in this country and we have the power to elect candidates who will work for our interest,’ he wrote. He was a writer, publisher, activist. He knew the power of the Latino vote. He knew we could demand a different system, one that recognized our strength and contributions.” ― Julissa Arce, writer and immigrant rights advocate
“Sylvia Rivera is a Puerto Rican and Venezuelan trans woman who has become celebrated for her role in the Stonewall Riots in 1969, which helped launch trans and queer liberation movements for decades to come. She was a sex worker, she was houseless, she was a survivor, she was booed while advocating for incarcerated queers at the Christopher Street Liberation Day Rally in 1973. Her life was not easy. She fought tirelessly for the most marginalized people in the trans and queer community. Alongside her friend and activist, Marsha P Johnson, they founded STAR in order to house trans youth and sex workers. When thinking about Sylvia Rivera, I often think about her quote, ‘We always felt that the police were the real enemy.’ I think Sylvia’s legacy of fighting against police violence is an especially important legacy to follow today. Her life story demands that we confront police violence as a central component of fighting for trans and queer liberation. For me, Sylvia Rivera is a powerful inspiration for the abolitionist imagination.” ― Christopher Soto, poet and lecturer at the University of California, Los Angeles
“The image of Bianca Jagger astride a white horse –– razor-sharp cheekbones and off-the-shoulder neckline daring you to question her authority –– inside a packed Studio 54 is seared into the cultural consciousness. Whether she rode the horse into the club or whether she simply mounted it for a photo-op is irrelevant, as are many of the glamorous things for which she is best known. Warhol parties and Rolling Stones affiliations aside, the Nicaraguan Blanca Pérez-Mora Macías has made an even bigger (if less flashy) impact on the world stage as a longtime human rights advocate.
Raised by a struggling single mother under the country’s Somoza dictatorship, Jagger parlayed her Paris Institute of Political Studies scholarship and glamorous social capital into a multifaceted career of intersectional activism. She has chased after Honduran death squads, opposed U.S. intervention in Central America, championed women’s rights and education, campaigned for more sustainable environmental practices and proposed abolishing death penalties around the world. It hasn’t been just issue-of-the-week dilettantism, either, and if it sounds like a lot, well, it is. But 50 years of goodwill later, she has the humanitarian awards (and inimitable style) to prove it.” ― Juan A. Ramirez, writer and critic
Maria Irene Fornes
“Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel says, ‘In the work of every American playwright at the end of the 20th century, there are only two stages: before she has read Maria Irene Fornes and after.’ For me, the stages are before and after I met Fornes. In my first-ever playwriting class at age 20, she told me that I could be a playwright like her, which I had never imagined. I pursued that dream, only to find that theater classes were almost entirely focused on her white male peers (like Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and Sam Shepard). Despite having won numerous awards for her 40 plays, Fornes was never on the syllabus.
A painter turned playwright, reinvention ― perhaps a natural outgrowth of having left Cuba for the U.S. as a teen ― was her truest mode. From sociological portraits like ‘Mud’ to her form-pushing feminist play ‘Fefu and Her Friends,’ she never settled on a single style. Not content to simply write, she started directing and then led the Hispanic Playwrights-in-Residence Lab at INTAR Theatre, nurturing an entire generation of Latinx talent (Nilo Cruz, Luis Alfaro, Migdalia Cruz, Caridad Svich and Eduardo Machado among others).” ― David Valdes, playwright and author
Antonia Navarro Huezo
“Antonia Navarro Hueza at age 19 became the first woman to graduate from a Ph.D. program in Central America and El Salvador in 1886. She came from a family of intellects; as she defended her thesis on the illusions of the harvest moon, she was recognized worldwide for her work. Although she was brilliant, she was restricted from practicing her profession or teaching at any university. She has influenced me by my work teaching financial literacy and my dream to earn my Ph.D.
With the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I am reminded what sacrifices our ancestors have made, especially women like Antonia. We must see positive representation of what leaders look like, sometimes risking their lives to educate and inspire the rest of the world.” ― Natalie Torres-Haddad, author and host of the podcast “Financially Savvy in 20 Minutes”
Pedro Albizu Campos
“When I was growing up, there were only two historical figures prominently displayed on the living room wall of my family’s home: A framed portrait of Jesus and one of Pedro Albizu Campos. If you’re Puerto Rican, you pretty much grew up knowing who Pedro ‘El Maestro’ Albizu Campos was and why he was so important to the island’s history. Not only was Campos the first Puerto Rican in 1913 to attend and eventually graduate from Harvard Law School and a second lieutenant in the Army during World War I, he became the most outspoken leading activist in the Puerto Rican independence movement and the president of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party. A powerful orator, he led strikes against monopolies taking over the island and spoke passionately against the United States’ colonial control. He was arrested multiple times for his activism, including being tortured with radiation in his last stint in jail. He died on April 21, 1965.
If I had to equate who Pedro Albizu Campos was, he was Puerto Rico’s Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X. Most Puerto Rican history is barely taught in schools, with Campos never getting a mention. A good start in learning more about Campos and Puerto Rico is by reading Nelson Denis’s book ‘War Against All Puerto Ricans’ and watching Democracy Now’s short video that ran on the 50th anniversary of Campos’s death. ― Lilliam Rivera, author of “Never Look Back”
“Today we are connected by the national call ‘Black lives matter.’ In 1969, Black Solidarity Day was founded by the multitalented and righteous Panamanian American Dr. Carlos Russell. Dr. Russell, who was Afro-Latino, looked beyond borders and language. He thought Africans in the Americas needed a common message. The call, as stated by Dr. Russell, was to ‘protest against the intensifying repression that threatens the very existence of black people in America.’ The first Black Solidarity Day was held on Nov. 3, 1969. As a scholar, writer, ambassador, activist and poet, Dr. Russell centered the Black experience both in his work in Panama and the U.S. He was a true practitioner of Pan-Africanism. Dr. Russell was also one of the first reporters to interview Malcolm X for the Liberator magazine on his return from his pilgrimage to Mecca. This visionary activist transitioned in his sleep on July 10, 2018. Many activists and artist, including this Afro-Panamanian writer who feels blessed to call him friend and mentor, see him as a guiding light in building a common agenda for Black liberation.” ― Yvette Modestin, an Afro-Panamanian writer, poet and activist
″‘To survive the Borderlands / you must live sin fronteras / be a crossroads.’ The first time I read Gloria Anzaldúa’s poem ‘To Live in the Borderlands,’ I was a 21-year-old man, a new father, holding my baby at home as my partner worked the morning shift. Mixed-race and unsure of so many things I wanted to be or do, I felt thwarted by the rigidity of the world: college bureaucracies and cultural traditions and familial expectations. Gloria Anzaldúa’s work, especially Borderlands/La Frontera, offered a way out. Her work pioneered the genre-blending, creative nonfiction that is so popular in texts today; it embraced multilingualism, resisted dualities, called for new men and new women, new genders. The book demanded a new way of thinking about spirituality, about colonialism, about identity and, more importantly, about the intersectionality of it all.
Decades later, as a community college teacher, I continually return to her work with my students, offering selections like ‘How to Tame a Wild Tongue’ because the writing and self-reflection she inspires in students is so revealing of the necessity of her work at this time: it’s a text students can see their complicated lives and experiences in, that honors all the facets.” ― Tomas Moniz, teacher and author of “Big Familia: A Novel”
The Mirabal sisters
“The Mirabal sisters ― Minerva, Patria and María Teresa ― are three revolutionary mothers and wives who sought to overthrow the repressive dictatorship of Leonidas Trujillo, one of the most violent dictators in the history of the Dominican Republic. Their fearless underground movement challenged his authority and shed light on human rights violations during his regime. In 1960, they sacrificed their lives in the name of democracy, and through their struggles to regain civil liberties for their community they re-envisioned the role of women in society, education and politics.
Minerva was a brilliant leader who studied the work of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro in the Cuban Revolution. She was the first woman in the Dominican Republic to study law. However, Trujillo refused to confer her degree after she denied his sexual advances. Despite being jailed, having their property seized and being oppressed by patriarchal structures, they continued their fight for social justice. Their brutal murder at the hands of Trujillos’ henchmen on Nov. 25, 1960, led to the creation of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The sisters’ death paved the way for Trujillo’s assassination a few months later.
Their story is a symbol of the power of a woman’s voice in democracies across the world. Stories of Latinx revolutionaries are critical now more than ever as we need youth who are willing to challenge laws and policies for the betterment of society and are invested in civic responsibility. Latinx history is transnational and just, as its influence transcends borders it should also transcend American history books.” ― Natalie Muñoz, a public speaker and doctoral student in social work at Howard University
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