30 Latina Feminist Heroes Whose Work Continues to Empower

Latinas throughout history have fought for equal rights and access to what has long been denied to women

Eva Longoria ABC comedy

Photo: Georges Biard

Latinas throughout history have fought for equal rights and access to what has long been denied to women. Some achieved acclaim — as well as backlash — and others are footnotes (unfortunately and hopefully not for long) in history. But as their achievements show, they’ve made their mark. The women on this list include pioneers and contemporary feminists who are continuing on the path of the fierce Latinas that came before them. From Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz to Frida Kahlo and America Ferrera, these women are trailblazers and creatives and above all, they prove how poderosa Latinas are in the face of oppression.


Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz

The iconic 17th-century Mexican nun and self-taught scholar, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, has been celebrated for centuries for her passionate writing advocating women’s rights. Famously devoted to her studies, she encouraged women to pursue the kind of education that was only available to men at that time. In her poem “Redondilla 92” she famously wrote: “O foolish men who accuse/women with so little cause,/not seeing you are the reason/for the very thing you blame.” She also famously said, “One can perfectly well philosophize while cooking supper.” Netflix recently released a mini-series about her life entitled Juana Inés.


Frida Kahlo

Prolific artist Frida Kahlo defied all norms as a woman in Mexico during the early 1900s. She achieved this not only with her provocative art but also with her eccentric style, open sexuality, and socialist politics. As a bisexual woman who shunned stereotypes, her very existence was a feminist embrace of empowerment and individuality. She deconstructed patriarchal ideologies through her work, which included self-portraits that often incorporated Mexican folk culture. During her lifetime, she was known more for her relationship with Mexican artist Diego Rivera. But after her death in 1954, her art began to receive more attention and she is now one of the world’s most recognized artists and has become a pop culture icon.


Dolores Huerta

Labor and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta is a feminist partially because of her own mother’s independence and “entrepreneurial spirit.”  She co-founded the National Farmworkers Association, now known as the United Farm Workers. She also helped organize the Delano grape strike in 1965 in California, alongside Cesar Chavez. Despite stepping down from her official role in 1999, Huerta continues to advocate for farmer and women’s rights. She also famously coined the phrase “Sí, se puede.” In 2012 she was awarded the highest civilian award in the U.S., the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She is the founder and president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, which campaigns for equality and civil rights.


Ellen Ochoa


Ellen Ochoa — an LA native with Mexican roots — made history in 1993 as the world’s first Latina astronaut when she went on a nine-day journey on the Discovery shuttle. She has been recognized with NASA’s highest award, the Distinguished Service Medal, and in 2013 Ochoa became the first Latina director of NASA’s Johnson Space Center. She has flown in space four times logging in nearly 1,000 hours in orbit and she is the co-inventor on three patents that aid scientist refine images from space. On her achievement, she said, “This was the last astronaut job that was not (yet) done by a woman. Now with this milestone, we can focus on the fact that what is important to succeed in life, it does not matter whether you are a man or a woman.”


Eva Perón

A beloved yet politically controversial figure in Argentina, First Lady Eva Perón is remembered as a champion for the poor and women’s suffrage. She founded the nation’s first large-scale female political party, the Female Peronist Party. Her influence undoubtedly played a role in women’s suffrage in Argentina when they were given the right to vote in 1947, a year after her husband became president. During her run for vice president, she was popular among the working class but eventually withdrew due to her declining health. She died of cervical cancer in 1952 at the age of 33 and is remembered as the “Spiritual Leader of the Nation.”   


Felisa Rincón de Gautier

Felisa Rincón de Gautier made history as the first woman elected as the mayor of a capital city in The Americas, in her hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1946. She is known for her participation in the suffragist movement and eventually became the fifth woman to register to vote once the law was passed. In 1932, she joined the Liberal Party of Puerto Rico, which advocated for Puerto Rico’s independence, and later helped organize the Popular Democratic Party of Puerto Rico. She remained mayor of San Juan for 22 years and after retiring she served as the American Goodwill Ambassador for four US presidents.


Comandanta Ramona


Zapatista Comandanta Ramona, remembered by her combat name, led the initial uprising against the Mexican government leading to the revolution of the indigenous women’s rights in Mexico. She was one of seven women leader in the Zapatista army, dedicated to promoting social equality, in charge of an army that was one-third women. She was born in the Tzotzil Maya community in Chiapas and throughout her life, she advocated for the indigenous community. She took part in creating the Revolutionary Women’s Law, outlining what was necessary for women including reproductive health facilities, access to technology and education, small business support, independent decision-making, and not being abused in any way. Her image is often depicted as a masked peasant with a gun.


Rosario Castellanos

Mexican poet and author Rosario Castellanos challenged stereotypical social structures and inspired self-awareness and empowerment through her pivotal work, “Sobre Cultura Femenina.” In the master’s thesis published in 1950, she argued that women were capable of making meaningful contributions to culture but were devalued and marginalized because of patriarchal structures. In 1971 she became Mexico’s ambassador to Israel where she died three years later, accidentally electrocuted in her home. She was buried in the rotunda of Illustrious Men in Mexico City. Castellanos is considered one of the most prominent and important Mexican writers and feminist figures of the 20th century.


Elvia Carrillo Puerto


Activist Elvia Carrillo Puerto became known as “Monja Roja del Mayab” for her tireless activism for women’s rights. She founded Mexico’s first feminist leagues starting in 1912 including the Rita Cetina Gutiérrez League (1919) focusing on educating women about child care and economics and it also helped establish a state orphanage. Through the feminist leagues, family planning programs were instituted with legalized birth control, the first in the West. In 1923 she became the first Mexican woman elected to the state legislature as a member of Yucatan’s congress. In recognition of her contributions to the Mexican government, she was officially named a “Veteran of the Revolution.”


Isabel Allende

Chilean writer Isabel Allende is one of Latin America’s most celebrated authors, best known for her bestselling novel The House of Spirits. She’s a self-proclaimed “raging feminist” who said, “women working together — linked, informed, and educated — can bring peace and prosperity to this forsaken planet.” She’s written several novels and many revolve around women as the main character, unwrapping their passions and the injustices they face. Her passion for elevating women was evident at a young age when she was working in Chile translating romance novels. She admitted to rewriting the dialogue to make the women sound more intelligent. The Isabel Allende Foundation’s mission is to secure reproductive rights, economic independence, and freedom from violence for women.


Mariana Costa Checa

Peruvian social entrepreneur Mariana Costa Checa is the co-founder and CEO of Laboratoria which provides low-income women in Latin America with an education in software development, with the goal of helping them succeed in the tech industry. There are currently centers in Peru, Chile, Mexico, and Brazil and they’ve had more than 1000 graduates in three years. She was named one of the most influential women in 2016 by the BBC and MIT, who named her one of Peru’s leading innovators under 35.  “We need more people in leadership roles, who shape the future, to take into account women’s needs by building policies, regulations, and circumstances that allow women to have equal opportunities and the same circumstances men have,” she told Global American.


Rigoberta Menchú Tum

Iconic indigenous rights activist Rigoberta Menchú is a humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, who has repeatedly had to leave her native land of Guatemala because of her work. Menchú, who is Mayan k’iche’, published I, Rigoberta Menchú: An Indian Woman in Guatemala, detailing the injustices she endured at the hands of the military government and how she learned Spanish and catechistic work as a form of revolt. She is the sole survivor in her family after her parents and brother were tortured and murdered by the military in the wake of the 1960 civil war that left 200,000 Guatemalans dead. After receiving the Nobel in 1992, she returned to Guatemala and established the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation to support Mayan communities and survivors of the genocide seeking justice. She ran for president in Guatemala in 2007 and 2011 as a candidate for WINAQ, the first indigenous-led political party which she founded. She’s been a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador since 1996.


The Mirabal Sisters

Sisters Minerva, María Teresa, and María Teresa Mirabal were born in the Dominican Republic and famously protested the violent Trujillo dictatorship that began in 1930. Together they established the “Movement of the Fourteenth of June,” in opposition of Trujillo’s regime distributing pamphlets with the names of those he murdered. Their activism provoked Trujillo himself and after repeated imprisonments, he had them murdered and their bodies were found clubbed to death on November 25, 1960. The sisters, known as “Las Mariposas” are immortalized on the 200 Dominican peso note and in 1999 the United Nations General Assembly designated Nov. 25th as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. In honor of their courage, the southeast corner of 168th St. and Amsterdam Avenue in NYC, was named after the sisters on February 10, 2019.


Berta Cáceres

Honduran environmental and indigenous land rights activist Berta Cáceres led a grassroots campaign that forced the world’s largest dam builder to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam in Honduras. She was a member of the indigenous Lenca people and in 1993 she founded the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras, working to not only defend the environment but advocating for women and the LGBTQ community. Cáceres continued to fight against the displacement of indigenous communities by environmental projects and received regular death threats that continued until March 3, 2016, when she was killed by gunmen in her home.She was committed to challenging antiquated beliefs about women and Indigenous people,” Chicana Studies professor Suyapa Portillo wrote in the Huffington Post following her murder.


Argelia Laya

Revolutionary Afro-Latina Argelia Laya was a Venezuelan political activist who advocated for gender equality in the education system and women’s reproductive rights. She was one of the first Venezuelan women to openly talk about women having children outside of wedlock or getting abortions, advocating for its decriminalization. She was involved in guerilla groups as part of the Communist Party for several years taking on the name Comandanta Jacinta. In the late 1960s, she served as vice president of the First Congress of Venezuelan Women, advocating for child care centers and maternity leave. Laya became president of the Movement to Socialism (MAS), a party she co-founded, becoming the first woman and first person of African descent to obtain that position.


María Teresa Ferrari

Argentinian doctor and advocate for women’s rights María Teresa Ferrari is a pioneer known for the strides she made to improve women’s healthcare. She brought gynecological services to Argentina in 1925 and founded the first maternity ward. She later became the first female Latin American university professor in 1927 and one of the first women to teach medicine. She revolutionized women’s health care in Argentina and Brazil by developing a vaginoscope, studying the use of radiation rather than surgery for uterine tumors, and performing Caesarean deliveries. She established the Argentina Federation of University Women promoting civil and political rights for women.


Eloísa Díaz

Chilean pioneer Eloísa Díaz is known for becoming South America’s first female doctor in 1887 after graduating from the Escuela de Medicina de la Universidad de Chile once it became legal for women to attend. She was promoted to School Medic Supervisor of Chile, a position she held for more than 30 years after becoming School Medic Supervisor of Santiago in 1898. She implemented school breakfasts and mass vaccination of students, as well as campaigns to combat alcoholism. Beyond her medical accomplishments, she’s also recognized for her philanthropic work, founding several nurseries, clinics for the poor, and school camps. In 1910, Díaz was named “Illustrious Woman of America” during the Hygiene and Medicine International Scientific Congress in Buenos Aires.


Jovita Idar

Journalist and civil rights and women’s activist Jovita Idar fought for the right to education for Tejana women. She initially studied to be a teacher and later began to write about racial discrimination, lynchings, and other violence by Texas Rangers against Mexican Americans for her father’s newspaper, La Crónica. In 1911, she formed the League of Mexican Women, considered the first attempt in Mexican-American history to organize a feminist social movement. The league focused on providing education for Mexican children and provides supplies for the working-class. She is known for having said, Educate a woman and you educate a family.” 


Julia de Burgos

Puerto Rico’s most famous poet, Julia de Burgos, was an advocate for women who used her works to tear down the notion that being a woman was tied to being a mother. She famously said, “Don’t let the hand you hold, hold you down” to address gender conventions prevalent in the 1930s. As an Afro-Latina she advocated for civil rights and is considered a foremother of the Nuyorican Movement, having moved to NYC later in life. After her first divorce, she added the “de” to her maiden last name to indicate possession of herself instead of the traditional use reserved for marriage.


Gloria Anzaldúa

Chicana queer feminist scholar Gloria Anzaldúa challenged binaries in gender and race most famously through her 1987 semi-autobiographical work, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. Her multifaceted identity inspired her to write this account of the oppression she faced as a Chicana lesbian, the normalization of patriarchal expectations and what it’s like growing up on the Texas-Mexico border. The concept of the “new mestiza” was meant to encourage the breakdown of barriers and limiting binaries in race and gender. She coined the term “Nepantlera” to mean someone who doesn’t align with a belief system or group, rather existing in the in-between and embracing multitudes. “While I advocate putting Chicana, tejana, working-class, dyke-feminist poet, writer theorist in front of my name, I do so for reasons different than those of the dominant culture… so that the Chicana and lesbian and all the other persons in me don’t get erased, omitted, or killed” she said.


Eva Longoria

She may be one of the most well-known Latina actresses but she’s also a philanthropist with a master’s degree in Chicano studies, who has used her fame to elevate Latina and women’s rights. In 2012, she founded the Eva Longoria Foundation to provide resources for Latinas to thrive in education and entrepreneurship. A staunch feminist, she spoke during the Women’s March saying, “What we’re calling for is sustainable and systematic change to the experience of women and girls in America. A change from fear and intimidation to respect. From pain and humiliation to safety and dignity. From marginalization to equal pay and representation.”


Cherríe Moraga

Chicana feminist writer Cherríe Moraga began discussing the “interlocking” of oppressions from the start of her career in the 1970s. She’s best known for co-editing This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color in 1981, an essential read for third wave feminism that introduced the intersectionality of race and feminism. She is a founding member of La Red Xicana Indígena, a network of Chicanas working in education, arts, spirituality, and indigenous rights. The Los Angeles native — who is also a poet, playwright, essayist, and memoirist — is set to release a new literary memoir, Native County of the Heart in 2019.


Hermila Galindo

A prominent figure in the feminist movement in Mexico, Hermila Galindo advocated sex education in schools, women’s suffrage, and divorce amongst other radical feminist causes. She edited the feminist journal Mujer Moderna, which promoted the women’s rise in society. She was one of the first women to voice her discontent with Catholicism for holding women back and became the first woman to run for elected office in Mexico. In 1917 she ran for deputy of the 5th constituency of Mexico City and though she allegedly received the majority of votes, she was rejected due to a law forbidding women to hold office.


Ana Mendieta


Ana Mendieta was born in Havana in 1985 and despite her youth, she is considered a major figure in the world of contemporary art. Best known for her photography work in nature, including her famous  “Tree of Life” image from the Silueta Series featuring female silhouettes in nature, Mendieta worked closely with the body. She was known for often using blood in her pieces to challenge viewers to think deeply about violence against women. Her work is tied to feminist ideals, in part because of her focus on the fluidity of gender and how she embraced feminine mysticism. She died at the age of 36, after falling from her 34th-floor apartment in the Greenwich Village but her legacy lives on through her works of art found in museums, including the Guggenheim.


Sandra Cisneros

Chicana writer Sandra Cisneros’s 1984 coming-of-age novel, The House on Mango Street is considered a must-read in the Chicana literary canon. But her books Women Hollering Creek and Other Stories and Loose Woman are more explicitly feminist, with stories about empowered Chicana protagonists critiquing the patriarchy and candid poems celebrating how women love. She also gained a lot of attention for the cover of her 1987 book My Wicked Wicked Waysfeaturing a woman in a suggestive pose. Cisneros defended the cover saying “Where’s your sense of humor? And why can’t a feminist be sexy?” She also helps foster the growth of emerging writers through her nonprofits the Macondo Foundation and the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation.


Luz Argentina Chiriboga

Afro-Ecuadorian writer Luz Argentina Chiriboga was one of the first writers to examine the duality of Afro-Latina identity. Her short stories and novels also challenged stereotypes of women and embraced women’s sexuality. She confronted ideas of purity by creating lustful and sensual female characters and took on misogyny in an essay on the depictions of women in songs. She’s also focused on preserving Afro-Ecuadorian history through Diáspora por los caminos de Esmeraldas, showcasing legends, recipes, cultural references within the African diaspora in Ecuador. Her 1991 novel, Bajo la piel de los tambores helped elevate the Afro-Latinidad narrative and delved into topics often looked over in Latin American literature, including sexual violence and birth control.


America Ferrera


The award-winning actress America Ferrera rose to fame when she starred in the 2002 film Real Women Have Curves and the TV series Ugly Betty. But it’s her contributions outside of TV and film that also deserve attention. A spokesperson for Voto Latino and a vocal supporter of DREAMers, Ferrera has also been involved in the #MeToo campaign addressing sexual harassment in her own life and she is a founding member of the Time’s Up legal defense fund to help victims of sexual violence. She made history when she became the first Latina to win an outstanding lead actress Emmy, for the comedy Ugly Betty in 2007. She’s an executive producer for Gentefied, an upcoming bilingual dramedy on Netflix inspired by Gente-fied, a web series about gentrification in East LA. In 2016, she was one of four women to win the Feminist Majority Foundation’s Eleanor Roosevelt Award and during her speech, she said, “When you talk about the immigration issue, immigration is a feminist issue as well, and we need to start thinking about it as such.”


Roxane Gay

Haitian-American writer Roxane Gay focuses on race, identity, and women’s rights in her works, which notably address contemporary feminism. Her 2014 bestselling book Bad Feminist, explores how feminism has both negatively and positively affected her life with essays examining her upbringing as a Haitian-American woman, as well as the influence of pop culture. In 2017 she released Difficult Women, a collection of fictional short stories about women who’ve endured traumatic experiences or who don’t abide social norms and how that can be depicted as “difficult.” During her TedTalk, she said, I am a bad feminist and a good woman. I am trying to become better in how I think and say and do — without abandoning what makes me human.” She doesn’t identify as Latina but we acknowledge that Haitians exist within the definition of what it means to be Afro-Latinx

Martha P. Cotera

Born in 1938, Martha P. Cotera is one of the most influential activists for Chicano rights and the Chicana Feminist movement of the 1960s and 70s. She’s also a librarian and writer whose most notable works include Diosa y Hembra: The History and Heritage of Chicanas in the U.S. published in 1976, which was meant to elevate the histories of Chicana women in response to the misogyny in Chicano movements. “A popular myth and often-used excuse for not producing curricula relevant to Mexican American women is that ‘there is no literature available.’ Literature and information abound, undiscovered and unculled,” she writes. Cotera then published The Chicana Feminist in 1977, a series of essays reflecting on her own experiences and analysis of feminism within the Chicano/a movement and how racism and classism are prevalent within the women’s movement.


Lorna Dee Cervantes

Award-winning Chicana poet and activist Lorna Dee Cervantes is considered one of the greatest Chicana poets. Born in San Francisco in 1954 to Mexican and Native American parents, she was not allowed to speak Spanish and this absence is something she explores in her poetry. Her writing examines the cultural differences of her roots as well as gender and classism. Her 1981 debut poetry collection Emplumada won the American Book Award in 1982 for its exploration of what it’s like being a Chicana coming of age with themes including identity, language, and abuse. In 2006, she released another landmark collection, Drive: The First Quartet,  showcasing women as survivors and leaders.

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