March is Women’s History Month and while we support celebrating the achievements and contributions of all women, it’s all too often that Latinas are under-represented in coverage of this very special month of recognition. Powerful Latinas throughout history (with the exception of a select few) are often left off of the many lists that circulate in celebration of women this time of year, but as we all know, representation matters and learning about the bold and beautiful Latinas that came before us and seeing them heralded in the media is both uplifting and empowering.
We’re talking about the women we want our own children to grow up looking up to and being inspired by. We all love Selena, Rita and Frida, but right now, we want to highlight some brave, brilliant, trailblazing Latinas that haven’t fully made it into the pop culture consciousness. These are the incredible Latinas whose legacies we are making a concerted effort to teach our kids about.
While Dominican author Julia Alvarez is undeniably a very successful author, her work still isn’t widely spoken about in non-BIPOC literary communities despite the fact that her breakout novel How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents was published thirty years ago. The coming-of-age story melded history and culture so well, accurately expressing both actual events and the deep feelings and emotions that coincided with them. Julia has gone on to pen a number of novels, poetry books and even books for children, and is the recipient of both the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award and the National Medal of Arts, which she received from President Obama in 2013.
Britannica for Kids offers a great guide on Alvarez for kids and students.
Puerto Rican nationalist Lolita Lebrón stormed the U.S. House of Representatives back in 1954 in order to draw attention to the island’s fight for independence from the United States. She was subsequently sentenced to 56 years in prison, of which she served 25. Whether we agree with her methods or not, Lolita’s bravery and loyalty were admirable, as was her willingness to risk her life for the good of the whole. Once released from prison Lolita continued her activism albeit more peacefully. Her actions were once again brought to light after the January 6, 2021 Capitol riots after which Donald Trump supporters went home relatively unscathed after their attack, yet Lolita many years prior lost decades of her life in prison. Her battle cry, translated from Spanish still resonates with Puerto Ricans today. “I did not come to kill anyone; I came to die for Puerto Rico,” she famously proclaimed.
Project Eñye has a five-minute video on Youtube featuring Lolita’s granddaughter talking about Lolita’s life.
Long hailed as the “Queen of Salsa,” Celia Cruz’s career spanned more than 60 years and yielded 23 gold albums, three Grammy awards, four Latin Grammy awards and the National Medal of Arts as well as a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award from the Grammys. Beyond that, she is largely credited with making salsa music popular in the United States, and served as a powerful inspiration for Afro-Latinx individuals both stateside and throughout Latin America.
Engineer, musician, and former astronaut Ellen Ochoa was the very first Latina to go to space. Half Mexican Ellen embraced her culture openly even at a time when many Latinos and Mexican immigrants were living in the shadows of America. Today, she continues to work steadfastly to inspire and empower Latino and other children under-served and under-represented through community outreach and school appearances. She remains one of the few Latinas of prominence in the STEM field.
Scholastic has a biography of Ellen Ochoa’s life suitable for kids 3rd grade and up.
Afro-Latino Soledad O’Brien had a long and successful career as a news anchor, but in the hopes of inciting some change and holding her peers in the media accountable, she left large media companies behind and founded Soledad O’Brien Productions. The company’s mission is “uncovering and producing empowering untold stories that take a challenging look at often divisive issues of race, class, wealth, opportunity, poverty and personal stories.” Not only that, but Soledad and her husband run a non-profit called PowHERful Foundation that helps young girls get to college and actually graduate.
Kiddle has a bio for Soledad O’Brien just for kids.
Dolores Huerta is a labor leader whose work goes all the way back to the 1950s. With a mission of achieving equal rights for farmworkers and migrant laborers, Dolores founded the National Farmworkers Association along with Cesar Chavez and later co-founded United Farm Workers and the Dolores Huerta Foundation. Along the way, she connected with feminist Gloria Steinem and began to use her role to support the feminist movement and fight against gender discrimination as well.
American History for Kids has a page dedicated to facts about Dolores Huerta.
Julia de Burgos
Credited with thinking far ahead of her time, Afro-Puerto Rican poet and author Julia de Burgos was also a Puerto Rican nationalist. Born fewer than 50 years after slavery was abolished in Puerto Rico, Julia wrote extensively about her experience as an Afro-Latina and her pride not just in her culture, but in her color as well. She was a vocal feminist and eventually became the editor of a progressive newspaper Pueblos Hispanos.
Kiddle has a breakdown of Julia de Burgos life along with kid-friendly images.
After coming to the United States from Colombia at age 17 with $300 to her name, aerospace engineer Diana Trujillo worked her way up to NASA and in February 2021 acted as flight director for the historic landing of the Perseverance rover on Mars. Diana, who is the first Latina immigrant woman to be accepted into NASA, actually designed the rover’s robotic arm and delivered NASA’s first Spanish language planetary landing broadcast during the event. She professes to feel a deep responsibility to her country and is vocal about her desire to help inspire women and Latinas to pursue their dreams in the field of STEM.
Listen to Diana Trujillo talk about her work for NASA in a Youtube video featuring Mars footage.
The first Latina U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Nuyorican Sonia Sotomayor is a major advocate of women’s rights, criminal justice reform, and immigration reform. Her honor worked her way from her childhood in the projects to an Ivy League education at Princeton and Yale, and eventually to Washington D.C. In 2021 she made history once again when she presided over the swearing-in of the country’s first woman and first Black and Southeast Asian vice president during the presidential inauguration.
Listen to this read-aloud from Mr. Alicea’s Arcade of Knowledge on Youtube of the book Sonia Sotomayor: A Judge Grows in the Bronx by Jonah Winter.
Sylvia Rivera was a pioneer LGBTQ activist who took part in the historic Stonewall uprising back in 1969. Sylvia worked tirelessly for the rights of low-income, gay and trans individuals, often bucking mainstream organizations and calling out flaws in their work, while working at the community level herself. Sylvia who was of Puerto Rican descent was also a founding member of both the Gay Liberation Front and later the Gay Activists Alliance, and helped start STAR, one of the first trans youth shelters in New York City.
Check out the children’s book Sylvia and Marsha Start a Revolution! by Joy Michael Ellison with illustrations, a reading guide, and teaching materials.