For Women’s History Month, a time when we recognize the groundbreaking contributions of women past and present, it’s important to remember that we wouldn’t have rights as women or Latinas if it weren’t for the efforts of powerful Latina changemakers throughout history. Even though some have passed on, their effects on science, politics, entertainment, healthcare, and more are still felt in the U.S. and internationally today. This is not an exhaustive list but a select round-up of a few changemakers who have made their mark on history and deserved to be remembered for their spirit, power, and ways of paving the path for future generations to go even further in gaining rights and liberation for all. Read on to learn more about 11 Latina changemakers you should know who made history in their fields and the world.
Most people know the name Cesar Chavez but not as many recognize and celebrate Mexican American labor and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the National Farmworkers Association alongside Chavez. She helped lead and organize strikes throughout many farms in California in the 1960s at the height of the Chicano movement, and negotiated contracts with corporations for better working conditions, higher wages, and fair treatment for immigrant and women farm workers. She is also known as being the first Latina in history to be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993 and the originator of the famous phrase “Sí, se puede.” She was even honored with her own statewide holiday on April 10, known as Dolores Huerta Day. Today, she continues to work in activism as a campaigner, organizer, and head of her nonprofit foundation to better the lives of women and farm workers across the U.S.
Raffi Freedman-Gurspan is an Indigenous and Jewish Honduran American transgender rights activist known for her groundbreaking advocacy work on behalf of the LGBTQIA+ community. She made history when she became the first openly transgender person to serve on the White House staff, where she worked as an LGBTQIA+ liaison and point of contact for LGBTQIA+ groups across the nation at the employment of former President Obama. She has fought for LGBTQIA+ equality in various government offices including the National Center for Transgender Equality and the Massachusetts House of Representatives, offering her expertise and experience to combat homophobia, as well as LGBTQIA+ violence, discrimination, incarceration, immigration detention, and poverty, especially for transgender people of color. Today, she continues to work in the White House under President Biden’s administration as the Deputy Director of Public Engagement at the U.S. Department of Transportation, and continues to play important roles in passing laws in favor of transgender rights.
Ellen Ochoa is a Mexican American engineer, scientist, and former astronaut who made history as the first Latina to go to space during a nine-day mission on the Space Shuttle Discovery to study the ozone layer of the Earth. She then went on to travel on four space flights as a mission specialist, payload commander, and flight engineer over a period of 10 years and 1,000 hours in space. In 2012, she began to serve as the director of the Johnson Space Center, becoming the Latina and the second woman to do so. Though she has since retired from both roles, she continues to advocate for more representation of women and Latinas in STEM roles, and was inducted into the 2018 International Air and Space Hall of Fame.
Sonia Sotomayor is a Puerto Rican lawyer and jurist who made history as the first Latina Supreme Court justice when she began serving in August 2009 after being nominated by President Barack Obama. She has served on the bench for almost 15 years as an associate justice and is known to be one of the more liberal justices on the court. She has a number of prestigious degrees under her belt from Princeton University and Yale Law School, and outside of the Supreme Court, has served on the board of directors for various organizations including the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. Throughout her tenure, Sotomayor has played instrumental roles in historic cases and rulings to further the fight for criminal justice reform and groups marginalized for their race, ethnicity, and gender identity.
Diana Trujillo is a Colombian aerospace engineer at NASA, who co-created and hosted #JuntosPerseveramos, NASA’s first-ever Spanish-language live broadcast of a planetary landing, for Perseverance’s landing on Mars. At just 17, she moved to the U.S., learned English, and worked as a housekeeper before joining the NASA Academy as the first Latina immigrant woman to be admitted, then later hired, into the program. Throughout her career, she has worked at NASA as an engineer, activity lead, surface lead, mission lead, flight director, even helping develop a revolutionary dust removal tool that was used on Mars to help scientists explore beneath the planet’s surface. She has been recognized as one of the 20 most influential Latinos in the technology industry, been the subject of a children’s science book, and has worked to advocate for greater inclusion of Latina and Black women in science, engineering, and technology.
Sylvia Mendez is a Mexican American and Puerto Rican civil rights activist who played a critical role in desegregating schools in California. At only eight years old, she was barred from enrolling in or attending a “Whites only” school due to her dark skin and Spanish last name in favor of what was known as “Mexican schools” at the time. In collaboration with her parents, she helped organize and file a lawsuit in the local federal court on behalf of their community. Thanks to their efforts, they ended educational segregation for Latinxs on the basis that it was unconstitutional, making California the first state to end segregation and setting the stage for national integration and the civil rights movement. In fact, Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall would later use Mendez’s case to rule in favor of the landmark case of Brown vs. Board of Education seven years later. In 2011, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and continues to speak, give lectures, and inspire others to make change in their communities.
Lizzie Velásquez is a Mexican American motivational speaker, author, and activist who was born with Marfanoid–progeroid–lipodystrophy syndrome, a rare disease that prevents her from keeping body fat, gaining weight, and seeing in her right eye, with limited vision in her left eye. When she was just 17, she was named “World’s Ugliest Woman” in a viral YouTube video and faced cyberbullying, inspiring her to begin motivational speaking against bullying. She has been featured in TedTalks, social media challenges, her own LifeTime documentary, and her own Fullscreen original series. She has also written an autobiography and two children’s books in English and Spanish, teaching readers important life lessons about self-love, acceptance, celebration, optimism, kindness, and online etiquette.
Pura Belpré was an Afro-Puerto Rican librarian, educator, puppeteer, and writer who became as the first-ever Puerto Rican librarian in New York City. After first working in the garment district, she was hired as a Latina Assistant by the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library as part of a diversity initiative. She soon made the role her own by traveling around the city, leading bilingual story hours in English and Spanish, incorporating Spanish-language books into the library’s catalog, organizing programs geared at Latinx patrons, and pioneering outreach to the Spanish-speaking and Puerto Rican communities. Her branch became known as a safe space for the Latinx community in the neighborhood, including figures like Diego Rivera. In addition to her library work, she wrote and published several children’s books including translated Puerto Rican folk tales. In recognition of her groundbreaking and revolutionary contributions to literature, the Pura Pelpré Award was established and is now awarded annually to a Latinx writer whose work best represents and celebrates their cultural experience for children.
Celia Cruz was a Cuban American singer who became internationally known as the “Queen of Salsa” for her groundbreaking contributions to Latin music that garnered her a fanbase in the U.S. After rising to fame as the vocalist for Sonora Matancera, she left her home country after the Cuban Revolution and embarked on a successful solo career in Mexico and the U.S. over the course of 37 albums and numerous chart-topping singles. Among many other honors, she’s won multiple Grammy and Latin Grammy Awards, coined the famous phrase “¡Azúcar!”, and was recently chosen to be the first Afro-Latina to appear on a U.S. quarter.
France A. Córdova
France A. Córdova is an American astrophysicist of Irish and Mexican descent who made history as the youngest person and first woman to become the Chief Scientist at NASA. As a scientist, she has contributed to the fields of astrophysics, x-ray and gammy ray, and space instrumentation. Under the appointment of former President Obama, she has worked with the Smithsonian and the U.S. Senate as the head of the National Science Foundation, and the National Science Board under former President George W. Bush. Now working as the President of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, she continues to advocate for greater numbers of women and Latinas in science.
Helen Rodríguez Trías was Puerto Rican pediatrician, educator, and activist who was the first Latina to serve as president of the American Public Health Association. When she discovered that the U.S. was sterilizing Puerto Rican women without their knowledge or consent in order to develop birth control, she founded the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse, testified before the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, advocated for abortion rights, and drafted guidelines to make enforced sterilization illegal on the federal level. Thanks to her work, sterilization now requires written consent in their preferred language and a waiting period. She also established more accessible and wide-ranging public health services, including abortion and HIV and AIDS treatment, for women and children, low-income communities, and BIPOC communities not only in the U.S. but also in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. She was awarded with the Presidential Citizen’s Medal by former President Clinton for her work that still affects and improves the lives of marginalized people around the world today.