June has been designated as National Caribbean-American Heritage Month since 2006 in the U.S. While it is certainly a lesser known month of recognition than Hispanic Heritage Month or Black History Month, it’s still significant and worth celebrating. With Latin American countries including Puerto Rico, (which is a US territory), Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic all being in the Caribbean, this is an opportunity to highlight public figures from a sector of Latin America that many know very little about.
With the nearest island in the Caribbean to the United States being geographically located just 50 miles east of Miami, Florida, it’s no surprise that there are so many individuals of Caribbean descent living in the United States, and that there have been for most of the country’s history. About 4.4 million Caribbean immigrants live in the United States as of 2017, and of course, that number doesn’t include the many descendants of Caribbean immigrants who were born and raised in the U.S. Needless to say, throughout the years, Caribbean-Americans have made some major contributions to American society. From scientific achievements to politics and entertainment, people of Caribbean descent living in the U.S., have made a mark in American history. Even our current Vice President, Kamala Harris whose family is from Jamaica, has Caribbean roots!
This list is by no means exhaustive, but we want to take a moment to celebrate 13 notable and influential Caribbean-Americans from Latin America from both the past and the present. They make us so proud!
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor
Born in New York in 1954 to Puerto Rican parents Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor became the first Latina to serve in the Supreme Court of the United States in 2009, marking a significant moment not just for the Latinx community, but for women in America as well. In 2021, she made history once again by presiding over the swearing in of America’s first female, Black and Southeast Asian Vice President, Kamala Harris.
Also born in New York, Puerto Rican musician Marc Anthony seems to break records at every turn in his career. Predominantly known as a salsero, he’s also had success as an English crossover artist and as an actor in Hollywood. Among his many achievements, he holds the record for most #1 tropical songs on the Billboard charts, holds three Guinness world records and is a three-time Grammy winner and six-time Latin Grammy winner, amongst a slew of other awards.
Born in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, Dr. Antonia Novello serves as the U.S. Attorney General from 1990 until 1993 under President George Bush, and was not only the first person of Latin American descent to hold that position, she was also the first woman in American history to do so.
A pioneer for Latinas in the entertainment industry, the legendary Rita Moreno was born in Humacao, Puerto Rico, in 1931. She initially came to fame when she starred as Anita in the classic film West Side Story, earning herself an Oscar and becoming the first Latina to win the coveted Academy award for Best Supporting Actress. During her decades-long career, Rita played many roles on television, film and on stage, eventually becoming the third person in history to obtain EGOT status (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony). She most recently starred as the sassy grandma Lydia in One Day at a Time and is also in the West Side Story remake out later this year.
Puerto Rican triple threat Jennifer Lopez will go down in history as one of the most successful and influential Latinas and Caribbean Americans of all time. Born in the Bronx, New York, she dropped out of college to pursue her passion in the entertainment world, working her way from backup dancer as a Fly Girl to one of the biggest celebrities in the entire world. She now has her own production company, named Nuyorican Productions naturally, that recently inked a major deal Netflix.
Cuban-American Alejandro Mayorkas was appointed Secretary of Homeland Security by President Joe Biden in February 2021. Formerly a lawyer and law enforcement official, he is the first Latino and the first immigrant ever to hold this position. Between 2013 and 2016, he held the position of Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, during which he led the development and implementation of DACA.
Another Puerto Rican from New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became a household name when in 2018 she became the youngest person ever elected into the U.S. House of Representatives. An activist, staunch progressive and co-sponsor of the Green New Deal plan to combat climate change, AOC has often been a controversial and divisive figure in American politics, but she’s maintained a strong base of supporters and was re-elected to congress in 2020. She is undoubtedly one of the most powerful Latinas in politics today.
Born in Connecticut to Puerto Rican parents Miguel Cardona became the 12th Secretary of Education in the history of the United States in March 2021, under President Biden. Miguel lived in the projects as a child and grew up speaking Spanish, not learning English until he entered kindergarten. Prior to being sworn in as the Secretary of Education, he was the Connecticut Education Commissioner after spending years a teacher, a principal and an administrator for public schools in his home state
Julia Alvarez is prolific author and poet, born in New York to parents from the Dominican Republic, who returned to the island with her family as an infant where she spent most of her childhood. When she was 10, her family fled their homeland when her father was identified as a member of a group attempting to overthrow dictator Rafael Trujillo. Best known for her books How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents and In the In the Time of the Butterflies, has received numerous literary awards, including the Pura Belpré and Américas Awards, the Hispanic Heritage Award and the F. Scott Fitzgerald Award, and was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama.
An icon in the LGBTQ community, Nuyorican Sylvia Rivera was an activist who dedicated her life to meeting the needs of low-income gay and transgender individuals in New York City. She participated in the historic Stonewall uprising in 1969 and later co-founded both the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance, as well as helped open STAR, one of the first shelters for trans youth in New York.
New York Times bestselling author Elizabeth Acevedo was born in New York to Dominican parents, and has translated her lived experience as a Caribbean-American into a successful career as a poet and novelist. In just a few short years she has earned the National Book Award and the Carnegie Medal, among others, and has garnered much acclaim in the literary world. Her third book, Clap When You Land is set to be adapted into a television series and her second book, With the Fire on High, is being adapted into a film.
Though Latinos dominate in the world of Major League Baseball these days, that wasn’t always the case. Afro-Boricua right fielder Roberto Clemente paved the way. He played for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960 and became the first Latino and the first Caribbean to win a World Series. Roberto was a philanthropist and died delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame posthumously in 1973, also making him the first Latino and the first Caribbean to earn that honor.
Iconic singer Gloria Estefan is arguably Cuba’s most famous singer in the U.S. having dominated the music scene with Miami Sound Machine and the massive success of their song, “Conga” in 1985. The 63-year-old was born in Havana, Cuba and she’s gone on to tell more than 75 million worldwide, making her one of the best-selling female artists of all time. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom on December 2017 and she’s also heading back to the big screen as the matriarch in the upcoming Father of the Bride remake co-starring fellow Cuban-American, Andy Garcia.