by Jessica Toomer
September 15th marks the beginning of Hispanic Heritage Month. Guideposts is celebrating all month long by recognizing a few of the extraordinary men and women of Hispanic descent who have helped shape the world. From painters and poets to astronauts, actresses, and Nobel Peace Prize winners, here are some influential Hispanic Americans you should know about.
Rita Moreno was born in Puerto Rico in 1931. The actress, singer, and dancer began her career early, starring on Broadway in her teens before earning acclaim for her portrayal of Anita in West Side Story in 1961. That role earned her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, making her the first Latina to win the award. She would go on to be one of only 11 people to have received the four major entertainment honors—Emmy, Oscar, Tony, and Grammy awards. Her work has paved the way for other Hispanic actors and actresses in Hollywood.
Macario Garcia was born in Mexico in 1920 before his family immigrated to Texas in search of a better life. He grew up working as a cotton farmer before World War II broke out, prompting him to enlist. On November 27, 1944, García’s platoon was trapped by enemy fire in Grosshau, Germany. Realizing that his company could not advance because it was pinned down, Garcia went alone and destroyed two enemy emplacements and captured four prisoners. Despite being wounded himself, he continued to fight on with his unit until the battle was over. He became the first Mexican immigrant to receive the Medal of Honor, the United States' highest military decoration. Just a few years later he was granted American citizenship.
Julia Alvarez penned her way to fame with books like How the García Girls Lost Their Accents and In the Time of the Butterflies. Her writings focused on the struggle of immigrants to assimilate into American culture and her experience growing up as a Dominican-American after her family was forced to flee their home. Alvarez is considered one of the most significant and successful Latina-American writers of her generation and is credited with paving the way for contemporaries like Junot Diaz.
Roberto Clemente was one of the most beloved baseball players in the history of the sport thanks to his strong batting average and philanthropic efforts off the field. The Puerto Rican right fielder played 18 seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates and was a Gold Glove Award winner for twelve consecutive seasons from 1961 through 1972. Clemente was delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua when his plane crashed. He became the first Latin American and Caribbean player to be enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame after his untimely death in 1972.
Alfonso Cuarón had been nominated for multiple Academy Awards before becoming the first Mexican director to win an Oscar for his 2013 drama, Gravity. The filmmaker who grew up in Mexico City made a name for himself with an acclaimed volume of work that included dramas like A Little Princess and Y Tu Mamá También, the fantasy film Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and science fiction thrillers like Children of Men before making history at the Academy Awards.
In 1993, Dr. Ellen Ochoa became the first Hispanic woman to go to space when she served on the nine-day STS-56 mission aboard the space shuttle Discovery. She would go on to venture to space four times, logging nearly 1,000 hours in orbit before returning to Earth to make history again, this time as the Johnson Space Center’s first Hispanic director and only its second female director.
Sonia Sotomayor grew up in South Bronx. Her father died when she was young, leaving her mother to raise her children as a single parent. Her mother placed a strong emphasis on education and, in 1976, Sotomayor graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University. Sotomayor passed the bar in 1980, going on to serve as a U.S. District Court Judge and on the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals. In 2009, Sotomayor became the first Latina Supreme Court Justice in U.S. history.
Luis Walter Alvarez was an inventor and experimental physicist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1968 for discovering subatomic particles through what physics calls “resonance states” and for developing a device and a method to make the discoveries possible. His work changed the way physicists viewed matter and helped America develop its nuclear technology.
Lin Manuel Miranda’s game-changing musical ode to one of America’s founding fathers, Hamilton: An American Musical, broke records when it was nominated for 16 Tony Awards in 2016. Hamilton charted the rise, fall, and contributions of Alexander Hamilton, the immigrant who helped shape America in its early days. Miranda’s lyrical talent, love of traditional Broadway tunes, and fondness for hip hop helped catapult his musical to new heights and earned him a Pulitzer Prize, two Grammy Awards, an Emmy Award, a MacArthur Fellowship, and multiple Tony Awards.
Sixteen-year-old Laurie Hernandez became the third U.S.-born Latina athlete to make the U.S. women’s gymnastics Olympic team last year during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil. The New Jersey native wowed fans with her energetic routines and powerhouse tumbling, helping the U.S. to take home the gold in the women’s gymnastics team competition.
One of the most famous educators in American history, Jaime Escalante was born in Bolivia before immigrating to the United States in search of a better life. He worked odd jobs, taught himself English, and earned a second college degree before going on to teach a group of troubled students at a violent Los Angeles high school. In 1982, his largest class of students took and passed an advanced placement test in Calculus. Some of the students' test scores were invalidated by the testing company because it believed that the students had cheated. Escalante protested, saying that the students had been disqualified because they were Hispanic and from a poor school. A few months later many of the students retook the test and passed.
Celebrated Mexican artist Frida Kahlo was born in Mexico City to a German immigrant father and a Mexican mother. She contracted polio when she was young which caused her to walk with a limp. In 1925, Kahlo was traveling on a bus when the vehicle collided with a streetcar. As a result of the collision, Kahlo was impaled by a steel handrail, which went into her hip and came out the other side. She suffered several serious injuries, including fractures in her spine and pelvis. During her recovery, she began to paint, finishing her first self-portrait the following year. Kahlo was regarded as a feminist icon for her creativity and political activism. She was the first Mexican artist to be featured in the Louvre and Mexico has declared her works national cultural heritage, prohibiting their export from the country.
Born to a family of migrant workers in Arizona, Cesar Chavez made it his life’s goal to improve working conditions of farm workers through nonviolent protests and the National Farm Workers Association. He led marches, called for boycotts and went on several hunger strikes. He also brought national awareness to the dangers of pesticides to workers' health.
Gloria Estefan was born in Havana, Cuba in 1957. She fled with her family to Miami, Florida during the Cuban Revolution where she began recording music with the Miami Sound Machine. Estefan has sold over 100 million albums worldwide and won seven GRAMMYs. She became the first Cuban-American to be named as one of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2017 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama for her contributions to American music.
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