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Hispanic Heritage Month: 10 Amazing Hispanic Women You Need to Know

Hispanic Heritage Month is September 15-October 15. Most of us go through school without being taught what Hispanics have contributed to the United States. If we were lucky, we were assigned to read The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros or a teacher enlightened us by playing Gloria Estefan or throwing a Day of the Dead party. 2017 has been all about taking strides to understand other people’s histories and walks of life. With xenophobia running rampant through the White House with the intended end of DACA, it is important to acknowledge what Hispanic people, in this case women, have accomplished.

Sonia Sotomayor

Sotomayor was born 1954 in the Bronx to Puerto Rican immigrant parents. Her father died when she was 9 and her mother worked two jobs to make sure Sotomayor and her brother could have access to their dreams. After graduating from Princeton, she went to Yale Law School. After climbing her way up the ladder, President George H.W. Bush appointed her to U.S. District Court Judge for the Southern District of New York City. 5 years later she was appointed to the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals by President Bill Clinton. Then in August 2009, after being nominated by President Barack Obama, Sotomayor became the first Hispanic female Supreme Court Justice.

Dolores Huerta

Huerta was born 1930 in New Mexico. She began her career as a teacher but found herself more interested in activism after she witnessed her students coming to school barefoot.  She founded the Agricultural Workers Association and, later set up voter registration drives and pressed local governments for barrio improvements. Later, she began lobbying for securing Aid For Dependent Families (“AFDC”) and disability insurance for farm workers in the State of California in 1963. She was also heavily involved in the passing Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975. In 2000, she went around the country advocating Latinas and women to take up political office. She currently dedicates her time to educating agricultural and undocumented workers about the laws and policies that protect them. In 2012 President Obama awarded Huerta with the highest civilian award in the United States, The Presidential Medal of Freedom. 

Julia Alvarez

Alvarez was born in 1950 in New York City to Dominican Immigrants. Her books include: In the Time of Butterflies and How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. The first of which was made into movie starring Salma Hayek about the Mirabal sisters who were executed for plotting overthrow the Dominican Republic government in 1960. Alvarez was one of the first Hispanic writers to find a space in the writing canon. 

Ellen Ochoa

Ochoa was born 1958 in Los Angeles, California. She is the first and only Hispanic woman to go to space. NASA elected her as an astronaut in 1990, where she completed four missions: STS-56 in 1993, STS-66 in 1994, STS-96 in 1999, and STS-110 in 2002. She received NASA’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal and is currently Director of the Johnson Space Center. 

Sylvia Rivera

Rivera was born as Ray Rivera to a Venezuelan mother and a Puerto Rican father in the Bronx in 1951. She suffered abuse from her grandmother after being orphaned by her mother who committed suicide and her father who disappeared from her life. Rivera was too dark skinned and feminine for a boy in her grandmother’s eyes. She ran away to the streets at age 11 and found a home on 42nd street with drag queens and homeless LGBTQ+ youth. Once she became a member of this misfit family, she adopted the name, Sylvia. Her presence at the Stonewall Riots is questioned although some say she threw the first brick. However her presence proceeding the riots is nothing but influential. After the riots there were a number of organizations forming as a response such as Gay Liberation Front (GLF) and Gay Activists Alliance (GAA) but Rivera was not allowed to join these white, middle-class groups initially because of her Hispanic, homeless background. Later in the seventies and eighties she would fight to have drag queens and drag culture included in the gay rights bill. With her friend Marsha P. Johnson, she would create and run S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries), an organization that shelters LGBTQ+ youth. She died of liver cancer at age 50.

Celia Cruz

Cruz was born in Havana, Cuba in 1925. The music of her neighborhood as a child served a great influence. After dropping out of teaching college and a music conservatory, she began her music career. She began singing with the Cuban orchestra, Sonora Matancera. While they were touring in Mexico, Castro began to gain more power in Cuba. They decided to cross over and become citizens of the United States. Castro banned Cruz from Cuba in 1961. In the sixties she would join the Tito Puente Orchestra. Throughout the rest of her career she would record 75 records, 23 of which went gold.

Raffi Freedman-Gurspan

In 2015, Raffi became the first transgender woman of color to work in the White House when President Obama appointed her to the Outreach and Recruitment Director for the White House personnel office. She  “was also the first transgender woman to work in the Massachusetts state house  where she was instrumental in passing the state's Transgender Equal Rights Law.

Quiara Alegría Hudes

Hudes was born 1977 in Philadelphia. She is a playwright who has written many musicals including In The Heights with Lin-Manuel Miranda, which won the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical and was a Pulitzer Prize Finalist, and Water by the Spoonful which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. She also created Emancipated Stories which aims to publish on page written by every incarcerated person in the United States.  Hudes is currently a Residency 5 Playwright at Signature Theater in New York City.

Ileana Ros-Lehtine

Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtine was born in 1952 in Havana, Cuba and fled to Miami with her family when she was 8. She began her career as a teacher in Florida before becoming the first Hispanic woman to be elected into both the Florida State House of Representatives in 1982 and the Florida Senate in 1986. In 1989, she became the first Hispanic woman to serve in the House of Representatives and has been representing the 27th District of Florida since.

Olga E. Custodio

Lt. Colonel Olga Custodio was born in 1953 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Her father was in the military and her family moved around a lot, however at age 16, when Custodio first set out to achieve her dream she was denied access to the necessary training and courses because she was a woman. She served 24 years in the U.S. Air Force as a pilot before becoming the first Hispanic woman to become a commercial airline captain. In 1988, she began flying for American Airlines and has since retired to Texas to make documentaries.


Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11

Senior at Montclair State University. Storyteller. Artist. Cinephile. Writer. Twitter/Instagram: @ChristlStringer
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