17 Asian Latinx Changemakers You Should Know

From Pedro Shimose to Myrna Mack, here are 17 Asian latinx changemakers you should know

Asian Latinx changemakers

Photos: Instagram/@lara_lee/@mcarolinahoyost

Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month is celebrated every year during the month of May. This is our opportunity to shed light on the historic and present-day contributions of communities from Southern and Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Western Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the Pacific Islands. Asian Latinxs have played and continue to play a huge part in the fabric of Latin America in various fields including politics, social justice, sports, literature, entertainment, art, science, and more. So there’s no better time than now to spotlight several changemakers who have made a difference, like singer and revolutionary Arlen Siu and abstract artist Tomie Ohtake. Read on to learn more about 17 Asian Latinx changemakers you should know for AAPI Heritage Month.

Arlen Siu

Arlen Siu Bermúdez was born in 1955 to a Chinese father and a Nicaraguan mother. From a young age, she was very interested in Chinese culture and the arts including dancing, singing, drawing, writing poetry and essays, and music composition. She could also play the guitar, accordion, and flute, and soon became an accomplished and nationally known singer-songwriter. When she was 18, she joined the Sandinistas, a left-wing political party that was trying to overthrow then-President Anastasio Somoza Debayle through an insurrection. Against her family’s wishes, she moved to the mountains of León with a group of other revolutionaries for training camp, but before too long, they were ambushed by the President’s National Guard in August 1975. She was killed in the crossfire at only 20 years old and is thought to be one of the first Sandinista revolutionaries to die. She has since become a symbol of the revolutionary movement, with her poems and essays becoming crucial texts to the Sandinistas and Nicaraguan feminists. Her poem “María Rural,” which talked about Nicaraguan mothers living in poverty in the countryside, was later set to music and performed by the Nicaraguan folk group Pancasán. Today, two neighborhoods and a street in Nicaragua are named after her and every year, her family annually organizes the “Arlen Siu Music Festival” where singer-songwriters from all over the country perform guerilla-themed music.

Carlitos Balá

Carlos Salim Balaa Boglich, better known by his stage name Carlitos Balá, was an Argentine entertainer born in Buenos Aires with Syrian and Austrian roots. He first started out in radio with a weekly children’s program. He then appeared on the popular comedy show La revista dislocada, and soon formed his own comedy trio with fellow comedians Jorge Marchesini and Alberto Locati in Los Tres. The show followed the three men and Angueto, an invisible dog that Balá would pull around on a leash. Even after starring in no less than 18 family films and hosting several summertime tours, this was among his most popular projects that gave him icon status in Argentina. He is still well-known for his trademark bowl cut hairstyle and catchphrases like “¿Qué gusto tiene la sal?,” “un gestito de idea,” “un kilo y dos pancitos,” and “observe y saque fotocopia.” The Legislature of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires declared him an Outstanding Cultural Personality in 2009.

Pedro Shimose

Based in Madrid, Pedro Shimose Kawamura is a Bolivian writer, poet, journalist, and professor of Japanese descent who is often considered one of Bolivia’s most famous poets. After working at the newspaper Presencia in his home country and teaching at the Higher University of San Andrés, he published several works of poetry and short stories including Quiero escribir, pero me sale espuma; Triludio en el exilio, and Sardonia, Poemas para un pueblo. He is also known for publishing the comprehensive guide of Latin American authors, titled Diccionario de autores iberoamericanos. Throughout his career, he has received critical acclaim and won the Casa de las Américas Prize, one of Latin America’s oldest and most prestigious literary prizes, for his writings on national identity, social liberation, and politics.

Sérgio Echigo

Sérgio Echigo is a Brazilian soccer player of Japanese descent. Born in 1945 in São Paulo, he played for the Brazilian sports team the Corinthians, as well as Towa Real Estate S.C. from Japan. As a midfielder, he has been recognized for his technical skills, especially for his feints and dribbling. He even invented his own dribbling move called the “Elastico” or “flip flap,” where the offensive player tricks the defensive player into moving in the opposite direction of the ball. This is done with the player using their dominant foot to push the ball toward their dominant side, then quickly moving their foot around the ball and pushing it to their non-dominant side. It was perfected by his teammate and Brazilian soccer legend Rivellino in 1964 and popularized in the ’80s. Today, he works as a commentator and is known for his harsh critique and strict style. In 2006, he received the Lifelong Sports Achievement Award and the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays in 2017, the first national decoration awarded by the Japanese government.

Fabiane Hukuda

Asian Latinx Changemakers AAPI Heritage Month
Photo: Olympedia

Born in Registro, Brazil in 1981 to a Japanese family, Fabiane Mayumi Hukuda is a well-known female judo expert from Brazil known as a “judoka.” She rose to prominence in the late ’90s and 2000s after she won the bronze medal in the half lightweight division at the Pan American Games, winning in 1999 and 2003. She also represented Brazil at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece. Though she lost to Georgina Singleton, an English judo artist from England, she went on to compete in the Pan American Championships and World Juniors Championships in Rio de Janeiro. Today, she works as an acupuncturist in Praia de Pernambuco and continues to be remembered for her contributions as an Asian Latina Olympian.

Iara Lee

Iara Lee is a groundbreaking Brazilian film producer, director, and activist of Korean descent who is best known for her work in the Middle East and Africa. Since 1994, she has made 16 documentary films including An Autumn Wind, The Kalasha and the Crescent, and Cultures of Resistance. They cover a variety of topics like art, dance, social justice, liberation, and community activism. Her most recent work is titled Unite for Bissau, which she directed and produced and which follows the local women of Guinea-Bissau challenging patriarchal social norms, building, institutions to support self-sufficiency through agroecology, and standing up against female genital mutilation and forced marriage. Outside of filmmaking, she has become known for her own social activism, founding the Cultures of Resistance Network Foundation, supporting nonprofits like Greenpeace International and Amnesty International, and working with indigenous and civil society campaigns to prevent dam construction in Brazil. In 2010, she was forced to smuggle her film footage of the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” out of Israel by hiding it in her underwear, which documented the murder of nine pro-Palestinian activists by Israeli naval forces. In 2020, she established the Cultures of Resistance Awards, which has awarded more than 200 creatives in the global South with support and funds toward creative activism and artistic expression.

Tomie Ohtake

Born in 1913 in Kyoto, Japan, Tomie Ohtake took a life-changing trip to Brazil to visit one of her brothers when she was 23 years old. When the Pacific Theater of WWII began, she was unable to return and decided to settle in São Paulo after marrying her husband. Then, when she was 39, she finally decided to pursue her long-awaited art career. Her early work in figurative painting, primary colors, and geometric frames established her as a key figure in the Brazilian geometric abstraction movement. She also dabbled in “blind paintings,” where she blindfolded herself while painting to make a statement against extreme rationalism in contemporary Brazilian art. Heavily inspired by both Western and Japanese traditions, her work can be found today all across São Paulo, including a mosaic on one of the Metro stops, a monument beside the Centro Cultural São Paulo, and in her own museum the Instituto Tomie Ohtake. She received many awards before her death in 2015 including the Order of Rio Branco for her sculpture commemorating the 80th anniversary of Japanese immigration in São Paulo and the Order of Cultural Merit. Outside of Brazil, her work can be found in museums in the U.S. including The Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET), the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Tate art gallery in the U.K.

Diamela Eltit

Diamela Eltit is an internationally recognized Chilean writer and professor of Palestinian descent. After graduating from Universidad Católica de Chile and the Universidad de Chile with degrees in literature, she began teaching in public high schools in Santiago. She has also taught at the university level in Chile and the U.S. including UC Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, Stanford, Washington University, University of Pittsburgh, and University of Virginia. Besides writing opinion columns for the Chilean newspaper El Desconcierto, she currently works as a professor at the  Universidad Tecnológica Metropolitana in Chile and as a distinguished global visiting professor at New York University, where she teaches at the Creative Writing Program in Spanish. She is also an incredibly accomplished writer and author of 11 novels – several of which have been staged as plays and translated into multiple languages – three essay collections, one anthology, and one collection of plays. In 2007, her novels Lumpérica, El cuarto mundo, and Los Vigilantes were recognized as three of the 100 best novels in the Spanish language in the last 25 years. She has been celebrated for her exploration of sexuality, authoritarianism, domestic life, and gender identity.

José Zalaquett

Asian Latinx Changemakers AAPI Heritage Month
Photo: Udemy

José “Pepe” Zalaquett Daher was a Chilean lawyer of Palestinian descent who came to international prominence for his defense of human rights during General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship from 1973 to 1990. Several years after graduating from the law school of the University of Chile in 1967, he worked as the legal director of the Comité Pro Paz, a nonprofit for human rights established under Roman Catholic Cardinal Raúl Silva Henríquez. In this position, he directed internal and external lawyers defending human rights, served as counsel for defendants accused by military courts, filed for constitutional relief on behalf of military-held detainees, and conducted investigations into the whereabouts of detainees. Outside of Chile, he has served as the head of the international executive committee of Amnesty International and the director of the Human Rights Centre at the University of Chile’s law school. While he has been punished by the Chilean military for his work with multiple arrests, detentions, and exiles, he has also been celebrated by the international community. He has received UNESCO’s Prize for Human Rights Education and Chile’s National Prize for Humanities and Social Sciences.

Nydia Quintero Turbay

Nydia Quintero Turbay was born in Huila, Colombia to Lebanese and Basque parents in 1931. From childhood on, her parents instilled in her the values of family and social justice. She would often join her mother as she brought aid to poor neighborhoods after floods and visited the sick. In 1948, she married her husband Julio César Turbay Ayala and became the First Lady when he became the president of Colombia in 1978. In her new role, she was able to tour around the country but was moved by the amount of problems that her fellow citizens faced. She then created the Solidarity for Colombia Foundation with her daughter and journalist Diana Turbay, a nonprofit dedicated to assisting Colombian families living in poverty and with disabilities through educational and nutritional programs. Through her nonprofit work, she was able to expand medical care coverage for minors up to 16 years (as opposed to seven), passed a law to protect the rights of child workers, signed a charter to help victims of natural disasters, and built 13 community centers in Bogotá. She continues her humanitarian work today through her Solidarity Walk, which is held annually to create solidarity among Colombians through art, music, and sports.

Franklin Chang-Díaz

Franklin Chang-Díaz is a Costa Rican engineer, physicist, and former NASA restaurant of Chinese descent. He was born in 1950 in San José, Costa Rica to a Chinese Costa Rican father, whose father fled China during the Boxer Rebellion, and a Costa Rican mother. He graduated from the University of Connecticut with a degree in mechanical engineering, then earned a Ph.D. in applied plasma physics at MIT, where he also studied fusion technology and plasma-based rocket propulsion. In 1980, he was selected as a NASA astronaut candidate, becoming the third Latin American and the first Latin American immigrant to go to space. He flew a total of seven Space Shuttle missions from 1986 to 2002 – breaking a historic record for most spaceflights – and worked as the director of the Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center before retiring in 2005. Since then, he formed his own company to experiment with advanced plasma rocket propulsion technology, creating a magnetoplasma rocket that could take a crew to Mars in just 39 days, as well as teaching physics and astronomy at Rice University, a private research university in Houston, Texas. He has received many awards and honors throughout the years including the Medal of Liberty and the Buzz Aldrin Quadrennial Space Award. He was inducted into the NASA Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2012.

Wifredo Lam

Asian Latinx Changemakers AAPI Heritage Month
Photo: Wifredolam.net

Wifredo Óscar de la Concepción Lam y Castilla was an Afro-Chinese-Cuban artist born in Sagua La Grande in Cuba in 1902. His childhood was characterized by a multicultural upbringing, with his mother being born to a former Congolese slave and Cuban mulatto father, and his father being a Chinese immigrant. As a result, his family was largely of African descent, practicing Catholicism alongside their African traditions and rites. These spiritual practices would later heavily influence him as an artist, painter, sculptor, and printmaker. In his teen years, he moved to Havana in order to study law as his family wishes but it was studying tropical plants at the Botanical Gardens that influenced his decision to study art. As a result, when he was 21, he was awarded a grant to study in Europe and he ended up staying in Spain for 14 years, where he studied the great Spanish paint masters. In Paris, he was able to meet with and work with renowned painters like Pablo Picasso. Eventually, he began to find his own voice, determined to revive and celebrate the Afro-Cuban spirit he had grown up with his whole life. He became known for his unique style of strange, hybrid figures and visuals, all informed by Afro-Cuban religion and Cuban mythology. In 1964, he won the Guggenheim International Award, given to an artist from around the world, and was honored with more than one hundred retrospective exhibitions of his work throughout Europe.

Myrna Mack

Myrna Mack Chang was born in 1949 to a Chinese mother and a Mayan father in Guatemala. As a young student, she studied anthropology at the University of Manchester and Durham University in the U.K. After graduating, she returned to Guatemala and began to do fieldwork with Maya campesino communities who were impacted by the Civil War. This work influenced her to become a human rights activist, working closely with Indigenous communities throughout the country and the government-led attacks they were suffering. While she was fierce in her critique of the government and the military for its human rights abuses against the Maya, it ultimately cost her her life. In 1990, she was assassinated by an armed forced death squad outside her office in Guatemala City when she was 40 years old, suffering 27 stab wounds. Her sister Helen Mack Chang became a public face for her sister’s death, who filed a case with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. A foundation was also set up in Myrna’s honor to support the prosecuting team. Her killer was convicted in 2003 in Costa Rica and her family received financial compensation in 2004 as part of the settlement. Her family continues to do humanitarian work in Myrna’s honor, whose legacy is still felt today.

Helen Mack Chang

Asian Latinx Changemakers AAPI Heritage Month
Photo: Right Livelihood

Helen Mack Chang is a Guatemalan activist of Chinese descent and the sister of Myrna Mack Chang, who was assassinated by the Guatemalan military for her human rights work and outspoken criticism of the government and military. Alongside her family, Helen became an outspoken human rights advocate after her sister’s murder. Through her sister’s legal case, was able to achieve convictions for one assailant, former Army Sergeant Noel de Jesús Beteta and a legal case against Colonel Juan Valencia Osorio, who became one of the highest-ranking officials in Guatemala ever to be tried for human rights violations. Beteta was sentenced to 25 years in prison, while Osorio received 30 years for ordering her murder. She also founded and became the executive director of the Myrna Mack Foundation to support the protection, support victims of war, promote political and economic development in Indigenous communities, and promote human rights throughout Guatemala. In 1992, Sweden award her the Right Livelihood Award for her human rights work, among other distinctions. In 2010, she was appointed by President Álvaro Colom to lead investigations into police corruption, which she found were centered in low pay and poor work conditions for Guatemalan police.

Ana Gabriel

María Guadalupe Araujo Yong, today known by her stage name Ana Gabriel, is an award-winning Mexican singer-songwriter of Chinese descent. Born in Sinaloa, Mexico, she loved singing from an early age, singing on stage for the first time when she was six years old. She received coaching from her grandfather, who was an immigrant from China. While she initially moved to Tijuana to study accounting, she ended up pursuing her passions and recorded her first song when she was 21 years old, entitled “Compréndeme.” She went on to win third place at the Portuguese music festival OTI, which spawned one of her most popular singles, “Ay Amor.” Since 1985, she has released 21 albums in various genres including Latin pop, Latin ballad, and Ranchera, three of which reached number one on Billboard, and has become known as “La Diva de América” and “La Luna de América” among fans. For her work, she has received a Grammy Award nomination, four Latin Grammy Award nominations, thirteen Lo Nuestro Awards, and the Excellence Award at the Lo Nuestro Awards. In 2017, she was inducted into the Latin American Songwriters Hall Of Fame.

Pandurang Sadashiv Khankhoje

Pandurang Sadashiv Khankhoje was a revolutionary, scholar, and agricultural scientist born in India in 1884 to a father who worked as a petition writer. He spent much of his life traveling around the world including the U.S., where he graduated from Washington State University. While in Portland, Oregon, he founded the Pacific Coast Hindustan Association and the Ghadar Party, a political movement that sought to overthrow British rule in India. Over the next few years, he traveled through Turkey, Persia, and the Soviet Union, spread his nationalist message, and also attempted insurrections, which ended up getting him banned from India. Eventually, he settled in Mexico in the 1920s, where he taught at the National School of Agriculture as a professor of Botany and Crop Breeding, married a Mexican woman, and had two children. He later served as the director of the Mexican government’s Department of Agriculture. Today, he can be seen in “Our Bread,” a mural by Diego Rivera that currently hangs in the Secretariat of Public Education in Mexico City. His figure sits at the head of the table and breaks a loaf of bread with a big knife while people from various nations sit in surrounding chairs.

Tilsa Tsuchiya

Tilsa Tsuchiya Castillo was a Peruvian printmaker and painter who is considered one of masters of Peruvian painting. She was born in Supe, Peru to a Japanese father who migrated to Peru as a study and a Peruvian mother who was a descendant of Chinese immigrants. Castillo became an orphan at a young age, which caused her to stop her art studies and instead open a window-making and framing shop with her brother. When she went back to school, she was singled out by professors for her unique personality and style. She ended up graduating with honors and winning the Segundo Premio del Salón Municipal award in recognition of her work. She also studied printmaking and engraving in France until the ’70s. She rose to prominence around this time for her small compositions and was able to exhibit her work at the Institution of Contemporary Art and install a public sculpture on Portugal Street in Peru. Throughout all of her work, she explored fantastical elements, gender, and identity. She often incorporated Indigenous Peruvian mythology and imagery with European influences. She died in 1984 at the age of 56 and a few years before her death, in 1979, she represented Peru at the XV Bienal de São Paulo, an art exhibition that occurs every two years in Brazil.

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AAPI Heritage Month Asian Latinx Asian Latinx history Featured Latinx changemakers
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