10 Hispanic American pioneers who changed the world
Quizlet is proud to partner with teachers to showcase authentic voices on our blog. This guest post is by Kai Rush.
National Hispanic American Heritage Month is here, and here at Quizlet, we want to celebrate all the great pioneers and achievements of the Hispanic-American community.
The history of Hispanic American Heritage Month
The United States is a diverse nation, home to many different ethnic groups. According to the 2020 U.S. Census, the Hispanic-American population accounts for 18.7% of the total U.S. population, making it the second-largest ethnic or racial group in the country.
Unlike many national month-long observances, Hispanic American Heritage Month does not comprise a full calendar month, instead starting in the middle of September and ending in the middle of October. There is a reason for these specific dates. Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua all declared their independence from Spain on September 15, 1821. Mexico’s independence day is September 16, and Chile and Belize also celebrate their independence during the second half of that month.
The observance began as Hispanic Heritage Week, which was first recognized by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1969. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan recognized Hispanic Heritage Month
Since that time, the month has been recognized every year. It’s a great time to learn more about the history, culture and contributions of the Hispanic-American community. In this post, we’ll look at 10 Hispanic-American pioneers who broke down doors in America.
Cesar Chavez (1927-1993)
One of the most celebrated Hispanic-American pioneers is Cesar Chavez. He was born in Yuma, Arizona, but his family moved to California after losing their homestead during the Great Depression. Forced to earn money for his family, Chavez dropped out of school in the 8th grade. Cesar joined the Navy in 1946. After receiving an honorable discharge two years later, he returned to the same fields he had worked on as a kid.
As a laborer, Chavez saw the injustices and the abuses that many farm workers faced and he co-founded the United Farm Workers Union with another Hispanic-American pioneer, Dolores Huerta. Learning from Gandhi's teaching of nonviolent tactics, he was able to gain farm laborers more rights, higher pay and the right to unionize. One tactic that Chavez used was boycotts of grapes, lettuce and other crops farm laborers harvested.
Cesar also championed other causes. He protested against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and was an early vocal supporter of gay rights in the 1970s. After his death, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor (1954-)
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor is the first Hispanic man or woman to serve on the nation’s highest court. Sotomayor was born in New York City to parents of Puerto Rican descent. She has said that, while she came from a life of poverty, her mother taught her that education was very important. With that motivation, Sotomayor received her undergraduate degree from Princeton University, and her law degree from Yale. She was a founder of Princeton’s Latino Student Organization.
She began her career in 1979 as assistant district attorney in New York City. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush nominated her to the U.S. District Court. Then in 1997, President Bill Clinton appointed her to the U.S. Court of Appeals of the Second Circuit. At the same time, she taught at New York University and Columbia University.
In 1994, a ruling by Sotomayor helped end a baseball strike that had stopped the last six weeks of the regular baseball season. President Obama noted when he nominated her to the Supreme Court in 2009 that some people credited her as having “saved baseball.”
Sotomayor has stated that her philosophy as a justice is “fidelity to the law.”
Dr. Ellen Ochoa (1958-)
Dr. Ellen Ochoa is a pioneer in many different areas of space exploration. She was the first Hispanic woman in space and the first Hispanic director of the Johnson Space Center.
Dr. Ochoa was born in California and quickly earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees as well as a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from Stanford University. In 1990, while working as a research engineer at the Ames Research Center, she was selected to be an astronaut at the Johnson Space Center. She became the first Hispanic woman in space on the space shuttle Discovery in 1993. The mission’s official name was STS-56. She went to space on three additional missions: STS-66, STS-96 and STS-110. She logged over 1,000 hours in orbit before becoming the director of the Johnson Space Center. Dr. Ochoa is also an inventor and has three patents on her inventions.
Dr. Ochoa has been recognized with NASA's highest award, the Distinguished Service Medal, for her lifetime achievements in space and on earth.
Roberto Clemente (1934-1972)
Baseball is a very popular sport across the Americas, including the United States, the Caribbean and Latin American countries. In 2017, nearly one-third of the players in the National Baseball League were of Hispanic descent. But it wasn’t always that way.
Roberto Clemente, one of the first pioneers to open doors for Hispanic American players in baseball, was born in Carolina, Puerto Rico in 1934. He helped his family in the sugar canes field to make ends meet.
Clemente joined the baseball team in high school and went on to play in the Puerto Rican Baseball League, where he signed with the Santurce Crabbers, a winter league team.
In 1954, he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, and was famously ”stolen” by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1955. In 1958, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves and served for six years.
Jackie Robinson had become the first person of color to play in the National Baseball League in 1947, and there was still resistance to minority participation in the sport. Clemente also faced racism during his career.
Clemente won 12 National League Gold Glove awards as well as the league’s Most Valuable Player award in 1966. In 1960, he helped the Pittsburgh Pirates win the World Series. He was the first Hispanic-American player to play in and win the World Series.
On the baseball field, he was known for his accuracy and hitting power. Off the field, he was known for his charity in his home country of Puerto Rico.
Sadly, Clemente died in a plane crash on December 31, 1972 off the coast of Puerto Rico. He was the first Hispanic American baseball player to be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor in 1973. His number, 21, has been retired by the Pittsburgh Pirates.
He is recognized in the U.S. through the many schools and parks that have been named after him. His legacy also lives on through all the Hispanic-American players who play major league baseball today.
Dr. Luis von Ahn (1978-)
Have you ever visited a website and been asked to pick pictures of roads to identify yourself as a human over a computer? That technology, known as reCAPTCHA, was invented by Dr. Luis von Ahn, a Guatemalan American pioneer in the technology community.
Von Ahn is also considered a pioneer of crowdsourcing or human computation, a way to gather a bunch of experts or people online to complete a big task.
But that’s not all he has done. Von Ahn was also inspired by his humble upbringing in Guatemala to invent a new technology, now used by millions of people around the world.
He noticed that people who spoke both Spanish and English could raise themselves out of poverty. So in 2011, von Ahn created Duolingo, a free language education system people can use to learn almost any language. He wanted to make learning English affordable and created a Duolingo English Test in 2014, which has been accepted by Duke University, UCLA, Columbia University and many institutions.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, millions of people around the world have joined the Duolingo language platform. Some school districts have adopted it as their official language learning program. Dr. von Ahn has won many awards and was named one of the “50 best brains in science” by Discover Magazine.
Chef Aarón Sánchez (1976-)
Being a chef runs in Aarón Sánchez’ family. He was born in El Paso, Texas, to pioneering Mexican American Chef Zarela Martinez. He grew up working in her kitchens, learning to prepare authentic Mexican food.
Chef Sánchez studied culinary arts at Johnson and Wales University before beginning his career as a chef at Erizo Latino in 1996. He was given his first head chef position by future business partner, Chef Alex Garcia.
Since opening his first restaurant, Johnny Sánchez in New Orleans, Chef Sánchez has become an award-winning chef and a familiar American TV personality. He has been a host chef on Chopped, Chopped Jr. and MasterChef. Through the Aarón Sánchez Scholarship Fund, he helps young aspiring chefs from Hispanic communities in America follow their passion into culinary arts.
Dr. Maria Contreras- Sweet (1955-)
Dr. Maria Contreras-Sweet was born in Guadalajara, Mexico and arrived in the United States when she was five years old. Like many of our other pioneers, she learned the value of hard work from her mother and to value education. Sweet went to community college and then attended California State University for her bachelor’s degree.
She became an entrepreneur, working in the public and private sectors, for companies like 7-Up and for the U.S. Census Bureau. She became a pioneer when she was appointed as secretary of the California Business, Transportation and Housing Agency in 1999—the first Hispanic American woman to hold a cabinet position in California.
In 2014, President Barack Obama selected Contreras-Sweet to be the administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration. Her main agenda item was to push for initiatives to help members of the underrepresented communities and American women start their own small businesses.
After finishing her term as administrator, she founded the first-ever Hispanic American-owned bank in Los Angeles, ProAmérica Bank. This pivotal move provided financing to small businesses that might have seemed too risky to bigger institutions. Her alma mater awarded her an honorary doctorate for opening doors in corporate America, in recognition of her life’s work.
Former Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (1952-)
Long before U.S. Senator Mario Rubio or U.S. Representative Alexandra Ocasia-Cortez were making headlines, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen made history as the first Hispanic woman elected to the U.S. Congress.
Ros-Lehtinen and her family escaped from oppression in Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba and started a new life in Miami, Florida. Like many of our pioneers, Ros-Lehtinen grew up in a home that prized education. She took that teaching to heart and earned a master’s degree in education.
As an educator, she found herself being a liaison and advocate for immigrant parents. Her advocacy led her to run for the Florida House of Representatives in 1982. Only four years later, she was elected to the Florida senate, where she served three years before winning a U.S. House of Representatives seat.
Ros-Lehtinen served for 30 years in the U.S. House of Representatives and retired in 2019. She spent most of her tenure on the Foreign Affairs Committee, where worked tirelessly to recognize the contributions of women veterans of World War II and fought for policies to oppose Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba. Today, thanks in part to the trail blazed by Ros-Lehtinen, there are 40 members of Hispanic descent serving in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Selena Quintanilla-Perez (1971-1995)
Joan Baez, Gloria Estefan, Selena Quintanilla-Perez. All of these Hispanic-American women made names for themselves in the music industry, working the Spanish language and/or Latin beats into American folk and pop music. Selena’s tragic murder thrust Hispanic artists into the limelight. Hispanic-American singer Jennifer Lopez starred in a movie about her life, and Selena’s death is considered to have opened the door to Hispanic superstars like Lopez and Ricky Martin.
Selena was born in Texas to Mexican American parents on April 16, 1971. Her father noticed her singing talent when she was six years old. After losing the family restaurant and being evicted from their house during the recession in the 1980s, Selena’s father formed a family band, with Selena as lead singer. The band was named Selena y Los Dinos.
As Selena’s popularity grew, her father refurbished an old bus and took the band on the road. The first few years were very hard on the family, but in 1984, Selena recorded her first album. Selena grew up speaking English, but her father taught her to sing in Spanish to connect with the Hispanic community. As a result, she was the first mainstream artist to record a Spanish-language album before an English-language album, which didn’t come until years later.
Selena quickly gained popularity and became known as the “Queen of Tejano music” and “Mexican Madonna.” Some music producers considered Selena the Mexican version of Gloria Estefan, who was of Cuban descent.
Selena had seven number one hits. While traveling around the country, Selena found time to design her own outfits and had ambitions to be a fashion designer, as well as a singer.
In 1995, Selena was shot by the president of her fan club over a monetary dispute. Selena accomplished so much in her short 23 years, but her legacy will live for centuries through the Hispanic American entertainers for whom she paved the way.
Linda Alvarado (1951-)
The American construction industry isn’t known for its high concentration of women, but Linda Alvarado is a pioneer in two American industries: construction and sports.
Linda was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico and attended Pomona College in 1969, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in economics. Upon entering the male-dominated construction world, she encountered bias and thought about quitting many times. But she persevered, and in 1974, she borrowed $2,500 from her parents to start Alvarado Construction, Inc.
She started off obtaining small jobs and then she put in a bid to renovate a hotel. Alvarado has said that admitted that many people were rooting for her to fail, but her company succeeded, growing into a multi-million dollar business that has built over 60 high profile buildings across America today.
In 1992, she became co-owner of the Colorado Rockies, becoming the first Hispanic-American owner of a major league team. In recognition of her accomplishments, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame and the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. She is an inspirational pioneer to many young women in construction and sports.
These are just 10 of the incredible and inspiring Hispanic pioneers shaking things up in the world. Take the time this Hispanic Heritage Month to honor the individuals who have worked and are working to shape the world into a better place. To read more about women making things happen, check out History’s 15 Influential Hispanic Americans Who Made History.