Today March 8, otherwise known as International Women’s Day, is a day during Women’s History Month for all of us to celebrate the achievements of women throughout history and current female change-makers all over the world. But growing up, we didn’t have many Latina icons to look up to in real life or in the literature we read. So seeing a book character who had a name like ours or looked like us, shared our culture or spoke our family’s native languages always felt radical. It helped us understand that our stories mattered and made us feel seen—which is why representation is so important.
We’re grateful to Latina authors past and present for giving us female characters to look up to and help us feel seen in literature. These fictional Latinas go through all kinds of hardships and joys, come from different countries in Latin America, are immensely complex in what they want out of life and how they move through the world—and yet remain resilient and strong even in the face of adversity. While there are countless more, here are 10 Latina characters in books that have inspired, represented, and empowered the girls and women who read them.
Pam Muñoz Ryan‘s highly acclaimed novel Esperanza Rising follows Esperanza Ortega, a Mexican teenager living through the Great Depression. Beginning the story as a kind but spoiled wealthy ranch girl, Esperanza and her family are forced to flee to California and work in the fields after her father is murdered. Even through great trauma and hardship, she stays true to her kind heart, takes on the responsibilities of difficult labor, and becomes stronger than she ever thought she could. She learns how to better take care of herself and her loved ones through her own hard work and to take life as it goes through its cycles of valleys and hills. After giving hope and visibility to young Latina readers since 2000, Esperanza literally lives up to her name.
Manuela or Manu, the main character of Romina Garber‘s YA novel Lobizona, is a force to be reckoned with from page 1. An Argentine immigrant living in the U.S., Manu has secrets upon secrets that endanger her life every day: she is undocumented, she’s running from her dead father’s crime family, and she has no idea who she is or how to live without fear. When her mother is arrested by ICE and her grandmother attacked, Manu tries to trace the origin of her past, only to find out yet another secret: she’s a werewolf. Throughout the story inspired by Argentine folklore and magic, Manu suffers a great deal trying to belong in any of her worlds when everything about her feels wrong and different. But she learns how to fight, how to be both vulnerable and strong, and most importantly, how to love who she really is in all of her complexity. Manu and her story are unforgettable.
Camila Hassan, the protagonist of Furia by Yamile Saied Méndez, is an undeniable role model for Latinas of all ages. Living in Rosario, Argentina, Camila lives a double life, one as the dutiful daughter of strict parents, the other as a fierce, unbeatable player on the soccer field. But when her team is eligible to play in a South American tournament, she’s determined to take her life into her own hands, even though her parents would never allow a girl to play soccer. Camila has to figure out how to find the freedom to pursue her dreams while also discovering what her relationship with her former flame is exactly and what it means for their career goals in soccer. Through all of her life’s trials, Camila stands tall against the world, follows her dreams, and, even as everyone around her tells her no, she keeps saying yes!
The title character of Racquel Marie’s novel Ophelia After All is a myriad of representation for young Latinas growing up in the world today. At first, Ophelia knows exactly who she is: a Cuban-American teen who loves crushing on boys — maybe a bit too much — tending to the roses in her garden, and eating her family’s food. When she discovers that she may also like girls, her entire identity is thrown into question and she no longer knows what’s really true about herself. Hilarious, relatable, and kind, Ophelia is the hero that young queer Latinas need in their lives to let them know they’re not alone, they’re loved, and they’re perfect just as they are.
Julia is suffocated by her own imperfections as a daughter and sister in Erika L. Sanchez’s debut novel I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,especially when compared to her “perfect” older sister Olga. Julia often feels unworthy, unwanted, and unloved by her parents—that is until Olga dies unexpectedly and Julia realizes that her sister’s life is not what she thought. Stubborn, determined, and complicated, Julia is nevertheless an inspiration for other teen girls who might also feel insecure but desire more out of life than what everyone else tells them they deserve.
The granddaughter of the eponymous character in Zoraida Córdova’s adult fiction novel The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, Marimar bears a striking resemblance to her grandmother in so many ways. Resilient, mischievous, and full of secret magic powers, she travels to her family’s home country of Ecuador after Orquídea dies to piece together who her grandmother really was—and what Marimar herself could be. Throughout the story, Marimar learns to accept and embrace her family’s female line, and to see herself as carrying on the legacy of the strong, loving women she comes from.
Noemí Taboada’s journey in Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s highly acclaimed novel Mexican Gothic is one that will stay with you even after the last page. After she receives a letter from her cousin claiming her husband is trying to kill her, she heads to her family’s house in the Mexican countryside to provide protection and seek answers—only to ask more questions than she had when she arrived. A glamorous debutante from Mexican high society, Noemí turns out to be the perfect sleuth, disguising her curiosity and determination with her colorful lipstick and gorgeous, slim-fitting gowns. Smart, tough, and fearless, Noemí is the perfect hero of her own story, ready and willing to save others and herself, and a true role model for young women.
Need another queer icon? Look no further than Juliet Milagros Palante, the “Puerto Rican lesbian” heroine of Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera. After coming out to her family, Juliet is struggling to living a new life in Portland, Oregon without them, especially her mother, who didn’t take the news very well. But with a little love, kindness, and passion for books including interning with her favorite author for the summer, Juliet is determined to start over, embrace her identity, and live her complete, honest truth, serving as an inspiration for many of us hoping to do the same.
Elizabeth Acevedo‘s YA novel With the Fire on High follows Emoni Santiago, a teen mother struggling to balance her responsibilities for her young daughter and grandmother with school, a social life, and dreams of being a world-renowned chef. But even with the chaos and unpredictability, Emoni stays true to her path and passion for cooking in admirable ways: advocating for herself when applying to her school’s culinary arts class, devising ways to save money for the class trip to Spain, and allowing herself little moments of happiness and joy. Determined, smart, and resourceful, Emoni is a wonderful role model for ambitious girls and women.
Where would many of us be without Esperanza Cordero, Sandra Cisneros‘s heroine from The House on Mango Street? A teen girl growing up in Chicago, she harbors dreams of being a writer and escaping her neighborhood and a family that doesn’t always understand her. Throughout the book of vignettes, Esperanza struggles to fit in school, inhabit the world of men, and release her voice on the page. But she learns to wield her talent and accept the city where she comes from, even to the point of promising to return after finding her life out in the wider world and help others escape. One of the first mainstream heroines in Latinx literature with the book’s release in 1984, Esperanza was the first taste of representation for many young Latinas in the U.S. and remains the blueprint for other Latina characters in literature to this day.