Celia Cruz, Lupe Serrano & More Latinas Who’ve Made History

Trailblazers Celia Cruz, Gabriela Mistral, and Lupe Serrano are some of the Latinas who've made history through their work

Latina history makers

Photos: (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)/ Flickr Creative Commons Credit: Kent G Becker National Institutes of Health,

There are many Latina changemakers from our communities in Latin America and the U.S. that deserve recognition this Women’s History Month and year-round. From Dr. Antonia Novello, the first woman, person of color, and Latina to be appointed U.S. Surgeon General and Celia Cruz, the first Afro-Latina to appear on a U.S. quarter, there are many mujeres who’ve made their mark. That’s why we decided to put together this list of just a few of the times that Latinas have made a big impact, changed the course of history, or achieved success unlike ever before. If we are to celebrate all women for Women’s History Month, it has to include our history too. This is by no means an exhaustive list but a select round-up of groundbreaking Latina changemakers. Read on to learn more about 12 times that Latinas made history.

Claudia Paz y Paz prosecuted a head of state for genocide in national court

Times Latina made history
Photo: DW

Claudia Paz y Paz has made history many times in her life. From 2010 to 2014, she served as Guatemala’s first female Attorney General, many years after growing up during the Guatemalan civil war. Based on what she saw and experienced, she was inspired to study law and seek justice on behalf of her people for the war that had torn them apart and left millions of Indigenous Mayas dead, injured, or traumatized. However, she became most well-known for being the first Guatemalan law official to ever prosecute a national head of state for the crime of genocide and crimes against humanity. On May 10, 2013, she successfully convicted President Efrain Rios Montt, as well as three other former generals, sentencing him to 80 years in prison for his crimes in collaboration with her prosecuting team. Though he was later allowed a retrial, which never transpired, Paz y Paz was instrumental in showing the world the horrific crimes that he had committed in her country and doing the work to bring justice to the victims. In 2015, she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize and has continued to play a big role in catching criminals and drug traffickers to make Guatemala safer.

Felisa Rincón de Gautier became the first female mayor of Puerto Rico

Times Latina made history
Photo: National Women’s History Museum

Felisa “Doña Fela Rincón de Gautier was a Puerto Rican woman who spent much of her early life as a seamstress and a student interested in fashion. However, in the 1930s, she became much more politically involved as a member of the Liberal Party, becoming an advocate for women’s suffrage on the island. In 1932, she was the fifth woman in P.R. to register to vote and worked hard to guarantee higher numbers by canvassing in San Juan. When she saw the conditions of the city slums, she was motivated to become a politician to create changes through policy. In 1938, she helped found the Popular Democratic Party, where she ran for mayor and won, becoming the first female mayor in Puerto Rico and subsequently, the entire Americas. She was re-elected four times, working throughout her entire tenure to improve the lives of the poor through food drives, building hospitals, schools, and housing, and preserving the original architecture.

Felicitas Méndez spearheaded the case that led to California becoming the first state to end segregation in school.

Times Latina made history
Photo: St. Mary’s College of Maryland

Felicitas Méndez was an immigrant and civil rights activist from Puerto Rico who changed the course of history, as well as the prospects of her daughter Sylvia’s future. In the 1940s, she and her family lived in Westminster, a city in Orange County in California, where the schools were segregated. Felicitas’s children were forbidden from enrolling in the local school because of their ethnicity, prompting her and her husband, a Mexican field worker, to fight against this injustice. And on March 2, 1945, they, along with several other Latinx families, filed a lawsuit against Westminster and won their case on February 18, 1946. During the case, Latinx students were able to prove that they were fluent in English and didn’t need any specialized instruction, which was the original reason for segregation. While this was a landmark case in its own right, it would later pave the way for the historic case of Brown vs. Board of Education, which desegregated schools all across the U.S. about seven years later. In 2011, her daughter Sylvia was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest civilian honor in the nation —in recognition of her and her parents’ role in the Westminster v. Mendez case.

Dr. Antonia Novello became the first woman, person of color, and Latina to be appointed U.S. Surgeon General

Antonia Novello
Photo: National Institutes of Health

Dr. Antonia Novello made a huge impact on public health throughout her life. Originally from Puerto Rico, she always knew that she wanted to go to medical school and become a doctor after suffering from a mysterious medical condition that could only be fixed with surgery. She knew then that she wanted to help other sick kids as well. After medical school, she worked in various public and private pediatric practices for almost two decades. In 1990, however, all her hard work finally paid off when former President George Bush appointed her as the Surgeon General of the United States, becoming the first women, person of color, and Latina to receive the honor. In this role, she made huge strides in addressing underage substance abuse, vaccinations, and health care for marginalized communities including Latines. She was also instrumental in addressing the AIDS epidemic during the ’90s and helping destigmatize the disease.

Lola Rodríguez de Tió wrote the revolutionary lyrics to Puerto Rico’s national anthem “La Borinqueña”

Times Latina made history
Photo: 1989 Exhibition

Lola Rodríguez de Tió was a history-changer who went against the grain in many ways from the beginning. As a teenager, she wore her hair short against social norms, one of the few women in the day to do so. Then, after marrying her husband, she released a book of poetry that sold an extraordinary 2,500 copies, which led to her becoming the first Puerto Rican-born female poet to gain fame across all of Latin America, especially Cuba. Her fame increased in 1868 when she wrote new, revolutionary lyrics to the popular song “La Borinqueña.” Originally written by Francisco Ramírez Ortíz and set to music by Catalan Félix Astol Artés, the original lyrics had a more romantic quality because it was about a relationship between a man and his lover. To counter this, Tío used the familiar melody to rewrite the song with lyrics that would motivate people to support a revolution and rebel against Spain, including the opening “Wake up, Puerto Rican / they have given the signal! / Wake up from that dream / it’s time to fight!” After the island became a colony of the U.S., the lyrics were considered too radical and subversive, and the government decided to have the song rewritten. Still, it remains a popular fixture of Puerto Rican culture and was even featured in the 2021 version of West Side Story.

Eva Perón founded Argentina’s first large-scale female political party, the Female Peronist Party

Times Latina made history
Photo: Brittanica

Eva Perón was an Argentine political leader who became much more than just the wife of Argentine President Juan Perón. She initially started as an actress with experience in radio. However, when her husband originally ran for president, she was a crucial force in his campaign, delivering speeches and gaining the admiration of the working-class people. Ultimately, she was instrumental in helping him win the election. During her husband’s presidential term, she served as an unofficial health and labor minister, helping labor unions, guaranteeing women’s suffrage, and building thousands of hospitals, schools, and senior homes. One of her most historic moves was in 1949 when she formed the country’s first-ever large-scale female political party, the Female Peronist Party, where she served as the first president. With the help of other party members, she was able to provide classes in cooking, sewing, knitting, and embroidery for its female-only membership. She also pushed for more female leadership in government, helping many women get elected into positions of power.

Virginia Brindis de Salas became the first Black woman in Latin America to publish a book

Times Latina made history
Photo: Public Domain

Afro-Uruguayan poet Virginia Brindis de Salas began publishing her work in anthologies and journals like Nuestra Raza and became one of the few Uruguayan female poets to be published and thus a leading Afro-Latina poet in her home country. She rose to fame when she published her debut collection Pregón de Marimorena in 1946, becoming the first-ever Black woman in Latin America to publish a book. In this book and throughout all of her work, she wrote about the history of slavery and her experiences being Black in Uruguay, especially as a Black woman, and being poor. In 1949, she published “Cien Cárceles de Amor” (“One Hundred Prisons of Love”), broken up into four sections that each highlight a different type of African-derived music: “Ballads,” “Calls,” “Tangos,” and “Songs.

Lupe Serrano became the first Latina principal dancer of the American Ballet Theatre

Latinas Who've Made History
Photo: Public Domain

Lupe Serrano, born Guadalupe Martínez Desfassiaux Serrano, was a Chilean ballerina who could dance on pointe by the time she was four years old. When her family moved to Mexico, she joined the Mexico City Ballet where she quickly became a celebrity, touring all over the country in the company’s productions. She also toured throughout Central America and the Soviet Union. She made history in 1953 when she joined the American Ballet Theater, becoming the company’s first Latina principal dancer. She ended up dancing with the company for over 20 years, taking on many leading roles in their productions.

Chita Rivera became the first Latina to receive a Kennedy Center Honor

Times Latina made history
Photo: The Kennedy Center

Chita Rivera was an actress, singer, and dancer of Puerto Rican descent who made history on the Broadway stage. Starting in her early 20s, Rivera debuted on Broadway on 1950s in Guys and Dolls, and went on to play the roles of Anita in West Side Story and Velma Kelly in Chicago in the first productions of both musicals. Over the course of her career, she received many accolades including two Tony Awards and ten more nominations. In 2002, she received the Kennedy Center Honor, the first Latina and Latin American person to receive the award. The Kennedy Center Honor is a prestigious annual award that recognizes a performer’s lifetime contributions to the arts.

Gabriela Mistral became the first Latin American author to receive a Nobel Prize in Literature 

Times Latina made history
Photo: Public Domain

Chilean poet, diplomat, and educator Gabriela Mistral, born Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, first wrote and published poetry when she worked as a schoolteacher. In order to keep teaching, she used a pen name when she shared her work in public and her talent was undeniable. She won writing contests and went on to publish several books of poetry receiving world-wide acclaim. She made history on December 10, 1945 when she won the Nobel Prize in Literature, becoming the first Latin American and the fifth woman in history to ever receive the award. She was presented with the award by the King of Sweden and was praised for her lyricism and emotional themes including nature, love, motherhood, sorrow, travel, and Latinidad. She became an international symbol of Latin American literature and today is featured on the 5,000 Chilean peso.

Sylvia del Villard founded the Afro-Boricua El Coqui Theater

Times Latina made history
Photo: Courtesy of Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute

Sylvia del Villard was a Black Puerto Rican woman with many talents including activism, acting, ballet, and choreography. She was well-known for adapting African dances into poetry and advocating for Afro-Puerto Rican visibility in the mainstream. In 1968, she made history by founding the Afro-Boricua El Coqui Theater, becoming one of the first Black women to lead a theatrical organization. Together with the troupe, she received international recognition for her work in preserving and celebrating Afro-Puerto Rican culture, including the Pan-American Association for the Festival of the New World. They were also able to perform outside of P.R. including universities across the U.S. and other countries across the globe. In the ’70s, local residents in San Juan took her to court and had her theater closed for her “disruptive,” African-centric productions. However, del Villard never stopped fighting to raise awareness for Afro-Puerto Rican culture and fight for equity and justice for her community, becoming a symbol of resilience and cultural pride.

Celia Cruz became the first Afro-Latina to appear on a U.S. quarter

Times Latina made history
Photo: U.S. Mint

Celia Cruz is known for many things: being one of the best-selling Latin American music artists with over ten million records, releasing 70 albums over 50 years, and winning multiple Grammy and Latin Grammy awards. Born in Cuba, she later defected to Mexico and the U.S. where she made a name for herself in Latin music. For her work, she won many significant awards including the National Medal of Arts from the U.S. and Colombia, as well as multiple lifetime achievement awards. On July 24, 2023, she again made history when the U.S. Mint honored her through their American Women Quarters Program, releasing a quarter with her likeness dressed in a rumba dress. The design also features her signature slogan “¡AZÚCAR!”. She became the first Afro-Latina to appear on U.S. currency, recognizing the life and accomplishments of this extraordinary talent and adding her story to the overall history of this country.

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Antonia Novello Celia Cruz chita rivara Eva Peron Featured Gabriela Mistral History History made Latina changemakers Women's History Month
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