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  • Hispanic Women's Corporation

Celebrating 21 Influential Latinas

By Hispanic Women's Corporation

March 17, 2023

With so many having fought so hard for our communities it’s important to reflect on, and be proud of, prominent Latinas and their history-making moments during Women’s History Month.

Here’s a short collection of biographies celebrating powerful Hispanic women. Follow the links to read more about these women and the impacts they’ve had on the world.

1) Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957) was a Chilean author and poet and the first Latin American author to receive the Nobel Prize in literature.

She was the daughter of a dilettante poet, she began to write poetry as a village school teacher after a passionate romance with a railway employee who committed suicide. She taught elementary and secondary school for many years until her poetry made her famous. She played an important role in the educational systems of Mexico and Chile, was active in cultural committees of the League of Nations, and was Chilean consul in Naples, Madrid, and Lisbon. She held honorary degrees from the Universities of Florence and Guatemala and was an honorary member of various cultural societies in Chile as well as in the United States, Spain, and Cuba. READ MORE

2) Frida Kahlo (1907-1954) cemented herself in history with her iconic paintings that documented her vast amount of pain.

Kahlo contracted polio at age 6, which left her right leg thinner than the left. It has been conjectured that she also suffered from spina bifida, a congenital disease that could have affected both spinal and leg development. As a girl, she participated in boxing and other sports. In 1922, Kahlo was enrolled in the Preparatoria, one of Mexico's premier schools, where she was one of only thirty-five girls. After the accident, Kahlo turned her attention away from the study of medicine to begin a full-time painting career. The accident left her in a great deal of pain while she recovered in a full body cast; she painted to occupy her time during her temporary state of immobilization. Kahlo once said, "I paint myself because I am often alone and I am the subject I know best". Her mother had a special easel made for her so she could paint in bed, and her father lent her his box of oil paints and some brushes. Drawing on personal experiences, including her marriage, her miscarriages, and her numerous operations, Kahlo's works often are characterized by their stark portrayals of pain. Of her 143 paintings, 55 are self-portraits which often incorporate symbolic portrayals of physical and psychological wounds. READ MORE

3) Celia Cruz (1925 - 2003) is one of the most prominent Latina recording artists of the 20th century. The Afro-Cuban singer broke barriers and is known internationally as the “Queen of Salsa”.

Celia was drawn to music from an early age. Legend has it that her first pair of shoes was actually a gift from a tourist for whom she sang. In addition to singing her siblings to sleep, Celia sang in school productions and community gatherings. Her career began in earnest as a teenager, when her aunt and cousin took her to cabarets to perform. Although her father wanted her to become a teacher, she followed her heart and chose music instead, studying voice, theory and piano at Havana’s National Conservatory of Music. In the late 1940’s, she competed on an amateur radio show contest called “The Tea Hour.” As a result of her growing radio fame, she came to the attention of influential producers and musicians. She was hired as the singer for Las Mulatas Del Fuego, a dance group that traveled throughout Latin America. In 1950, she became the lead female singer for La Sonora Matancera, Cuba’s most popular orchestra. Over the next years with the orchestra, her star continued to rise. READ MORE

4) Dolores Huerta (1930 - ) led the United Farm Workers Movement, along with Cesar Chavez, which established the first union for farm workers in the U.S. – the United Farm Workers Union.

Her father, Juan Fernández, was a farm worker and miner by trade, was a union activist who ran for political office and won a seat in the New Mexico legislature in 1938. Dolores spent most of her childhood and early adult life in Stockton, California where she and her two brothers moved with their mother, following her parents’ divorce. According to Dolores, her mother’s independence and entrepreneurial spirit was one of the primary reasons she became a feminist. Dolores’ mother Alicia offered rooms at affordable rates in her 70 room hotel and welcomed low-wage workers, and often waived the fee for them altogether. She was an active participant in community affairs, involved in numerous civic organizations. The agricultural community where they lived was made up of Mexican, Filipino, African-American, Japanese and Chinese working families. Alicia’s community activism influenced Dolores. She was active in numerous school clubs, was a majorette, and a dedicated member of the Girl Scouts until the age of 18. Upon graduating, Dolores continued her education at the University of Pacific’s Delta College. During this time, she married and had two daughters, Celeste and Lori. While teaching, she could no longer bear to see her students come to school with empty stomachs and bare feet, and thus began her lifelong journey of working to correct economic injustice. READ MORE

5) Rita Moreno (1931 - ) is the first Latina to have an EGOT, winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony – a rare feat in the entertainment industry. She was also the first Hispanic woman to win an Academy Award.

Her countless credits span more than seven decades, beginning with her Broadway debut at age 13. Moreno received the Peabody Career Achievement Award and the Kennedy Center Honor for her lifetime contributions to American culture. Prior to that, she was honored by her peers as the 50th recipient of the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award. She has served as a Grand Marshal of the Rose Parade and the National Puerto Rican Day Parade. She released her first ever all-Spanish language album, “Una Vez Más,” produced by musician Emilio Estefan, and has added New York Times bestselling author to her list of accomplishments with her first book, “Rita Moreno: A Memoir,” published by Celebra Books in 2011. Moreno has starred on Broadway and London’s West End, appeared in more than 40 feature films, and countless television shows, and has performed in numerous regional theaters including her one woman show, “Life Without Makeup,“ at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre. See below for an extensive timeline of her achievements and milestones. READ MORE

6) Martha Bernal (1931 - 2001) was the first Latina to earn her PhD in clinical psychology. She’s Mexican American, born and raised in Texas.

Her parents, Alicia and Enrique de Bernal, emigrated from Mexico as young adults. She earned her doctoral degree in clinical psychology from Indiana University, Bloomington, in 1962. Martha contributed significantly to the early development of two important areas in the field of psychology (Vasquez & Lopez, 2002). The first was to bring the rigors of learning theory and methods to the treatment and assessment of children with behavior problems. She contributed to an increase in the use of empirically validated interventions in child treatment. Second, through both her scholarship and professional activities, she helped to advance a multicultural psychology - one that recognizes the importance of diversity in training, recruitment, and research. Martha applied her interests, energies and abilities in ways that proved invaluable in helping change paradigms within the structure of the American Psychological Association. In the early 1970s, Dr. Bernal dedicated herself to the goal of ensuring that students of color had the opportunity to receive graduate training. She applied much of her research to increase the status of ethnic minority recruitment, retention and training. READ MORE 7) Alicia Escalante (1933 - ) was a leading activist in the Chicano Rights Movement and founded the East LA Welfare Rights Organization (ELAWRO).

She was born in El Paso and was the second oldest of seven children and shared an intense bond with her mother. After 15 years of marriage, Escalante’s mother decided to divorce her father due to his infidelity, alcoholism and abuse. At the divorce court proceedings, her father was granted custody of all seven children, because of her mother’s lack of employment and housing. After the divorce, Escalante’s mother moved to Los Angeles to live with her sister and find work in hopes that she might be able to regain custody of her children. Devastated to be separated from her mother, and miserable with “the oppressive situation” of living with her father’s extended family (who frequently blamed her mother for the divorce), Alicia vowed to be reunited with her mother at any cost, which led her to California where her legacy would begin. A single mother of five, she was swallowed by poverty and began to recognize the Welfare system as punitive and oppressive. The Welfare Rights Organization provided community workshops on policies and rights, translated forms for Spanish speaking families, aided people in applying for aid and grievances, and even opened a café to help feed the community while training women for work. She also worked to create a bilingual newspaper through her organization, La Causa De Los Pobres. READ MORE

8) Gladys Zender (1939 - ) was the first Latina to win the Miss Universe pageant.

Representing Peru, the model and beauty queen won when she was only 17 years old in an event held in Long Beach, California, United States. Although her historic win didn’t comply with the contest’s minimum age requirement, pageant officials decided that she could keep the crown after they were told she was considered to be 18 in Peru. Zender became an instant celebrity; therefore, she was considered to take the inaugural flight from Idlewild International Airport in New York City to Limatambo Airport in Lima, Peru. After her landing, she was greeted by thousands of fans. Gladys also graced the cover of Peru’s most popular news magazine, Caretas, becoming among the celebs featured on the publication’s first all-color cover. READ MORE

9) Joan Baez (1941 - ) is an activist, singer, songwriter and musician of Mexican descent from Staten Island, New York.

She made her debut appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1959. Fifty years later she returned to that same Rhode Island stage on August 2, marking her and the festival’s 50th anniversaries. The year 2008 was a landmark year for Joan, marking 50 years since she began her legendary residency at Boston’s famed Club 47. She remains a musical force of nature whose influence is incalculable—marching on the front line of the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King, inspiring Vaclav Havel in his fight for a Czech Republic, singing on the first Amnesty International tour and just this year, standing alongside Nelson Mandela when the world celebrated his 90th birthday in London’s Hyde Park. She brought the Free Speech Movement into the spotlight, took to the fields with Cesar Chavez, organized resistance to the war in Southeast Asia, then forty years later saluted the Dixie Chicks for their courage to protest war. Her earliest recordings fed a host of traditional ballads into the rock vernacular before she unselfconsciously introduced Bob Dylan to the world in 1963 and focused awareness on songwriters ranging from Woody Guthrie, Dylan, Phil Ochs, Richard Fariña, and Tim Hardin, to Kris Kristofferson and Mickey Newbury, Dar Williams, Richard Shindell, Steve Earle and many more. READ MORE

10) Dr. Antonia Novello (1944 - ) is the first female and first hispanic to be appointed U.S. Surgeon General.

Her 1990 appointment came after nearly two decades of public service at the National Institutes of Health, where she took a role in drafting national legislation regarding organ transplantation. Born in Farjardo, Puerto Rico, she suffered throughout her childhood from a medical condition that could only be corrected with surgery, which inspired her to become a doctor. She earned her M.D. degree from the University of Puerto Rico. While in medical school, she met and married Joseph Novello, a U.S. Navy doctor. As surgeon general, Novello focused on the health of young people, women, and minorities. She issued reports and spoke out on under-age drinking, smoking, drug abuse, AIDS (especially among women and adolescents), childhood immunization and injury prevention, and improved health care for Hispanics and other minorities. One of her most visible and effective campaigns was against tobacco industry advertising aimed at children, especially evident in posters and billboard advertisements that featured the cartoon character "Joe Camel." Dr. Novello alerted the nation to the rising incidence of AIDS among women and adolescents. After serving as Surgeon General, Dr. Novello was a special representative to the United Nations Children's Fund from 1993-1996, where she expanded her efforts to address the health and nutritional needs of women, children, and adolescents, to a global scale. READ MORE

11) Antonia Hernández (1948 - ) is a civil rights attorney and the CEO of California Community Foundation. She’s most known for representing 10 Mexican-American women in Madrigal v. Quilligan, a 1978 case she won against Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center for forced sterilization.

Nationally regarded for her expertise in immigration, civil rights and philanthropy, Hernández has spent more than four decades advocating for social justice and improving the lives of underserved communities in Los Angeles County and beyond. Since 2004, she has served as President and Chief Executive Officer of California Community Foundation, one of Southern California’s largest and most active philanthropic organizations, which has served Angelenos for over a century. The Foundation partners with more than 1,600 individual, family and corporate donors and holds assets of more than $1.7 billion. During her tenure, California Community Foundation has granted nearly $2 billion, with a focus on health, housing, education, immigration programs. Previously, Hernández was president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), a national nonprofit litigation and advocacy organization dedicated to protecting the civil rights of the nation’s Latinos through the legal system, community education and research and policy initiatives. READ MORE

12) Ana Mendieta (1948 - 1985) was one of the most influential Cuban-American artists.

In a brief yet prolific career, Ana created groundbreaking work in photography, film, video, drawing, sculpture, and site-specific installations. The major themes in her work are exile, displacement, and a return to the landscape, which remain profoundly relevant today. Her unique hybrid of form and documentation, works that she titled “siluetas,” are fugitive and potent traces of the artist’s inscription of her body in the landscape, often transformed by natural elements such as fire and water. The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection, LLC, in collaboration with Galerie Lelong & Co., recently catalogued and digitized the entirety of Mendieta’s moving image works, discovering that the artist remarkably made more than 100 in the ten-year period in which she worked in the medium. The groundbreaking exhibition of her moving image works, Covered in Time and History: The Films of Ana Mendieta, was organized by the Katherine E. Nash Gallery, University of Minnesota in 2014, and has since traveled to several institutions worldwide, including: NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale, Florida; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive; Bildmuseet, Umeå, Sweden; Martin Gropius Bau, Berlin; and the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris. READ MORE

13) Sylvia Rivera (1951 - 2002) was a trans woman and a transgender rights organizer who was based in New York City and active in the Stonewall Inn Uprising.

Sylvia was a leading figure in the quest for LGBTQ rights. Rivera sits in the center of the photograph, between her partner Julia Murray (right) and Christina Hayworth. The three women are shown, hands interlocked, sitting on a stone wall with a sign at their feet that reads “Respect Trans People/Men!” The photograph captures a somewhat atypical scene for Pride Weekend. Rather than the bustling energy of the parade with crowds and celebration, this captures a moment of tranquil friendship and unity. The three women are shown joined together in the movement to ensure equal protection for the transgender community. As a Latina who spent much of her life homeless, Rivera was particularly sensitive to the struggles of trans people of color and those living in poverty. READ MORE

14) Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (1952 - ) was the first Latina elected to the U.S. Congress and by the end of her career she was the senior US Representative from Florida.

A childhood refugee from Cuba, she emerged as a powerful voice in her South Florida community and as a critic of Fidel Castro’s communist regime. In 1989 she made history as the first Hispanic woman and the first Cuban American elected to the U.S. Congress. In her three decades in the House she left her mark as a foreign policy leader and human rights advocate, most especially from her position on the Foreign Affairs Committee. “I still can’t believe that I was chair of that wonderful committee: the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee,” Ros-Lehtinen mused. “And to think that just a few years before, I had come, sitting in a little intern desk, not even part of the dais.”1 Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was born Ileana Ros in Havana, Cuba, on July 15, 1952, to Enrique Ros and Amanda Adato Ros.2 At the age of eight, she moved with her family to the United States shortly after Castro came to power in 1959. READ MORE

15) Maria Elena Salinas (1954 - ) was the longest running female news anchor, making her one of the most prominent Latina broadcast journalists in the U.S.

She’s an award-winning journalist and was the co-anchor of “Noticiero Univision”. She began her journalism career in 1981 as a reporter, anchor and public affairs host at Univision’s KMEX-TV in Los Angeles. Her reporting to the Hispanic community in Southern California led to her joining Jorge Ramos as co-anchor of “Noticiero Univision” in 1987. In 2015, Salinas received a Peabody Award, Walter Cronkite Award, an Emmy and a Gracie for her documentary special "Entre el abandono y el rechazo" (Between Abandonment and Rejection). In 2016, she was the recipient of the Mickey Leland Humanitarian award and in 2012, she became the first Latina to receive an Emmy Award for Lifetime Achievement. In addition to her journalism career, Salinas has served as the spokeswoman for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) for nearly two decades during their campaign to increase Latino voter engagement. READ MORE

16) Sonia Sotomayor (1954 - ) is the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice and the third woman to serve as an Associate Justice in the high court.

She was born in the Bronx on June 25, 1954. She earned a B.A. in 1976 from Princeton University, graduating summa cum laude and a member of Phi Beta Kappa and receiving the Pyne Prize, the highest academic honor Princeton awards to an undergraduate. In 1979, she earned a J.D. from Yale Law School where she served as an editor of the Yale Law Journal. She served as Assistant District Attorney in the New York County District Attorney’s Office from 1979–1984. She then litigated international commercial matters in New York City at Pavia & Harcourt, where she served as an associate and then partner from 1984–1992. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominated her to the U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, and she served in that role from 1992–1998. In 1997, she was nominated by President Bill Clinton to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit where she served from 1998–2009. President Barack Obama nominated her as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court on May 26, 2009, and she assumed this role August 8, 2009. READ MORE

17) Ellen Ochoa (1958 - ) is a veteran astronaut at NASA and was the first Hispanic woman to go to space in 1993. She was also the first Hispanic to serve as director of the Johnson Space Center.

Ochoa joined NASA in 1988 as a research engineer at Ames Research Center and moved to Johnson Space Center in 1990 when she was selected as an astronaut. She became the first Hispanic woman to go to space when she served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993. She has flown in space four times, including STS-66, STS-96 and STS-110, logging nearly 1,000 hours in orbit. Born in California, Ochoa earned a bachelor's degree in physics from San Diego State University and a master's degree and doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University. As a research engineer at Sandia National Laboratories and NASA Ames Research Center, Ochoa investigated optical systems for performing information processing. She is a co-inventor on three patents and author of several technical papers. Ochoa has been recognized with NASA's highest award, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award for senior executives in the federal government. READ MORE

18) Susana Martinez (1959 - ) was the first Hispanic female governor in U.S. history after being elected in 2010 and the first female governor of New Mexico.

Prior to being elected governor, she was a prosecutor for 25 years along the nation’s southern border and served as Doña Ana County’s elected district attorney for over half that time. As governor, she prioritized keeping New Mexico’s communities safe, ensuring all students receive a high-quality education, and diversifying and growing the state’s economy. When Governor Martinez took office in 2011, she inherited a nearly half-billion-dollar budget deficit, on a state budget that totaled just over $5.5 billion at the time. Through responsible spending and a commitment to expanding and diversifying the state’s economy, she turned the largest structural deficit in state history into a $2 billion surplus by the time she left office. She never raised taxes. In fact, she vetoed over $1 billion in proposed tax increases, and cut taxes and fees 61 times while in office. READ MORE

19) Maria Hinojosa (1961 - ) was the first Latina in many newsrooms. She’s a Pulitzer Prize winner and the anchor and executive producer of Latino USA on NPR.

Maria dreamt of a space where she could create independent, multimedia journalism that explores and gives a critical voice to the diverse American experience. To that end, in 2010, she created the Futuro Media Group, an independent, nonprofit organization based in Harlem, NYC with the mission to create multimedia content for and about the new American mainstream in the service of empowering people to navigate the complexities of an increasingly diverse and connected world. She is also the co-host of In The Thick, Futuro Media’s award-winning political podcast, Maria has informed millions about the changing cultural and political landscape in America and abroad. She is also a contributor to the long-running, award-winning news program CBS Sunday Morning and a frequent guest on MSNBC. Hinojosa’s nearly 30-year career as an award-winning journalist includes reporting for PBS, CBS, WNBC, CNN, NPR, and anchoring the Emmy Award winning talk show from WGBH Maria Hinojosa: One-on-One. READ MORE

20) Selena Quintanilla (1971 - 1995) was the first female Tejano artist to win Best Mexican-America Album at the Grammys. She was also the first Latina to have an album hit number one on the Billboard Top 200 and was widely regarded as the “Queen of Tejano Music”.

Selena's rise to fame was like a shooting star: she was brilliant and inspiring, but her life was brief. Despite her untimely end, Selena's memory and music continue to inspire a generation of Latina/o fans. Selena Quintanilla was born in 1971 in Lake Jackson, Texas, and she was performing Tejano music with her Mexican-American family around the state at a very young age. By her teens she was on the rise to stardom, and soon her music was hitting the charts. Sometimes called the "Queen of Tejano," Selena's music expanded the audience for Texan-Mexican music, and contributed to a rise in Latin music popularity across the United States. On March 31, 1995, Selena was killed by a woman who was the ex-president of her fan club and the former business manager of her boutique. A final album was released in the month after her death, Dreaming of You, and she became the first music artist to have five Spanish albums simultaneously on the Billboard 200 list. READ MORE

21) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (1989 - ) is the youngest woman and youngest Latina to ever serve in Congress.

Born in the Bronx, Alexandria’s parents moved the family 30 minutes north in search of a stronger public school for her and her brother. Alexandria’s mother was born and raised in Puerto Rico and worked throughout her childhood as a domestic worker. Alexandria’s father was a second-generation Bronxite, who ran a small business in The Bronx. After high school, Alexandria attended Boston University, and graduated with degrees in Economics and International Relations (and tens of thousands of dollars in student loans). During this period she also had the opportunity to intern in the office of the late Senator Ted Kennedy. Her role in Senator Kennedy’s office provided a firsthand view of the heartbreak families endured after being separated by ICE. These experiences led the Congresswoman to organize Latinx youth. During the 2016 presidential election, Alexandria worked as a volunteer organizer for Bernie Sanders in the South Bronx, expanding her skills in electoral organizing and activism. Shortly thereafter, she was inspired by demonstrations being led by Indigenous communities at Standing Rock, South Dakota in opposition to a new pipeline. She decided to travel across the country to join them, and left the experience resolved to dedicate her life to public service. A few months later, she launched her first campaign for Congress. READ MORE


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