Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15- October 16)
Many Influential Hispanic Americans have help frame America
Born in Arizona to a Mexican American family, Cesar Chavez grew up around the people he later helped through his activism. The defining moment in Chavez’s life came when his family moved to California during the Great Depression to become farm workers, cementing his fight for farmer’s rights.
After receiving an honorable discharge from the Navy, Chavez worked as a lumber handler in San Jose, where he helped set up a chapter of the Community Service Organization, a pivotal civil rights organization for Latinos in California.
Chavez made the CSO his full-time job after he was laid off, meeting fellow activist Dolores Huerta while traveling to chapters around the state of California. The two would go on to found the National Farm Workers Association, later the United Farm Workers labor union, becoming primary figures for Latin American civil rights.
The activist is regarded as an important civil rights leader and posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom the year after his death in 1993. He was 66.
In just a few short years, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become one of the major leading voices for Hispanic Americans in politics.
Also known by her initials AOC, Ocasio-Cortez was born in 1989 in the Bronx, New York to a Puerto Rican mother and a Bronx-born father of Puerto Rican descent.
After graduating college in 2011, Ocasio-Cortez returned to the Bronx and later campaigned for Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 democratic primary. She visited Flint, Michigan, and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota after the general election, where she attended the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and decided to run for office.
Ocasio-Cortez eventually challenged Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley, the first to do so since 2004, and pulled off a surprise primary win in June 2018. Through a grassroots campaign, she became the youngest person elected into the House of Representatives during the midterm elections that year.
“I’m hoping that this is a beginning,” Ocasio-Cortez said at her victory party in 2018. “That we can continue this organizing and continue what we’ve learned.”
A pioneer of the game, Roberto Clemente paved the way for Hispanic Americans in Major League Baseball.
The prolific right fielder was born in 1934 in Puerto Rico, joined the island’s amateur baseball league when he was 16 and made the professional league two years later at 18.
Another two years and Clemente was off to Montreal, Quebec, to play in the minor leagues in 1954. That same year, the Pittsburgh Pirates scouted him during training in Richmond, Virginia and Clemente was called up to the majors by November of that year in the rookie draft.
Clemente, wearing the iconic number 21, went on to become the first Latin American and Caribbean to win a World Series as a starting player in 1960.
The athlete died in a plane crash in 1972 while on his way to Nicaragua to deliver aid to earthquake victims when he was 38. In his honor, the MLB renamed the Commissioner’s Award to the Roberto Clemente Award, given to the player who all-around exemplifies sportsmanship and community outreach. He was also inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, making him the first Latin American and Caribbean honoree.
Dominican American writer Julia Alvarez has been enchanting readers with her words since the early 1990s.
Alvarez was born in New York City in 1950 before her family moved to the Dominican Republic when she was a baby. They stayed there throughout Alvarez’s childhood until her father’s involvement in a failed attempt to overthrow the militant dictator forced the family to flee to the United States in 1960.
The traumatic event has since made its way into several of Alvarez’s works, including the poem “Exile” in which she recounts the night her family fled. She went on to become one of the most critically revered Latina writers and has published poems, novels and essays throughout her career.
Ellen Ochoa made her mark by becoming the first Hispanic American woman to go to space with a nine-day mission in 1993.
Ochoa was born in 1958 in Los Angeles, California, years after her paternal grandparents immigrated from Mexico. She first obtained her physics degree from San Diego State University and later her masters and doctorate from Stanford University’s department of electrical engineering by 1985.
Through her impressive research work, NASA selected Ochoa in 1991 and she became an astronaut in July of that year. Two years later, Ochoa made history on board the Space Shuttle Discovery on a mission to study the Earth’s ozone layer. She later completed three more missions.
Ochoa became the first Hispanic American director of the Johnson Space Center in 2013, only the second woman to take the helm. After retiring with 30 years of service, Ochoa continues to advocate for women in STEM.
“I think we need all the best and brightest people working in science and engineering fields, and that is certainly not limited to men or white men or anything like that,” she told NBC News in 2019.
Senator Marco Rubio has made his mark in politics as a leading member of the Republican Party.
A Miami native, Rubio was born in 1971 to Cuban immigrants who fled the Batista regime in 1956, two years before Fidel Castro took over through the Cuban Revolution. Though Rubio obtained citizenship through his birth, his parents didn’t become naturalized citizens until after his birth in 1975.
Rubio went to Tarkio College in Missouri for one year on a football scholarship in 1989 before returning to Florida and later transferring to the University of Florida. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in political science in 1993 there and later earned his law degree from the University of Miami in 1996.
His career in politics started just three years later when he won a run-off election in the fight for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives. He rose through the ranks and became House Speaker in 2005, the first Cuban American to do so.
The politician announced his intention to run for U.S. Senate in 2009 and was elected the next year during the midterm elections. Rubio later entered the Republican presidential primary race in April 2015, becoming one of the first Hispanic Americans to have aspirations of the highest office.
A Bronx native of Puerto Rican descent, Sonia Sotomayor became the first Hispanic American to serve as a member of the Supreme Court.
Sotomayor was born in 1954 in the New York City borough, where she grew up in a predominantly Catholic and Puerto Rican community. She quickly made education a priority through her mother’s insistence after her dad died when she was 9 years old.
"I was going to college and I was going to become an attorney, and I knew that when I was ten. Ten. That's no jest,” she told the NY Daily News in 1998.
The future judge went on to graduate valedictorian from high school and earned a full scholarship to Princeton University. She graduated in 1976 after establishing herself as a student advocate, working hard to ensure Princeton began hiring Latin American faculty. She went on to Yale Law School and graduated in 1979, earning her acceptance to the New York Bar the next year.
After working for over four years as an assistant district attorney in New York and stepping away to work in private practice, Sotomayor was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by President George H. W. Bush in 1991 and to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit by President Bill Clinton in 1997.
Twelve years later, Sotomayor made history when President Barack Obama picked her as his first nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009.
Few Hispanic Americans have made a bigger impact in recent pop culture than Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Miranda was born in 1980 in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City to Puerto Rican parents, who immigrated to New York to pursue academics. Miranda’s mother Dr. Luz Towns-Miranda is a clinical psychologist and his father Luis A. Miranda, Jr. is a Democratic Party consultant and immigrant advocate.
Miranda was raised around musicals and started writing his first title at Wesleyan University in 1999 during his sophomore year. In the Heights, loosely based on his own experiences growing up, would go on to open on Broadway in March 2008. Miranda won his first Tony Award that summer after the show received 13 nominations, earning four wins including Best Musical.
Influenced by his upbringing in the predominantly Latin Washington Heights, and his frequent vacations in Puerto Rico, the musical was heralded for featuring a largely Latin American cast with characters often singing and speaking in Spanish.
But Miranda’s largest mark on culture came when his musical Hamilton opened on Broadway in 2015. Following the life of Alexander Hamilton, Miranda reimagined the beginnings of America told by all actors of color, whose ancestors didn’t have a say in how the country was built. The hip-hop musical quickly became one of the most profitable shows to ever hit Broadway.
Miranda once again won several Tony Awards for the show, including Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Book of a Musical
At 90 years old, Dolores Huerta still stands as a giant in the fight for Hispanic American labor rights.
Born in 1930, the New Mexico native of Mexican descent grew up in a farm worker community in Stockton, California, with her mom and two brothers. She briefly worked as an elementary school teacher after attending college before setting off on the path of civil rights activism.
She joined the Community Service Organization, where she later met fellow activist Chavez. She co-founded the Agricultural Workers Association in 1960 and collaborated with Chavez to found the National Farm Workers Association in 1962.
Her activism continued in California, where she made a name for herself by supporting and leading various strikes for workers' rights. She later stepped away from the union to focus on women’s rights after she was badly beaten by a San Francisco police officer during a peaceful raid, resulting in a long recovery.
Huerta now runs the Dolores Huerta Foundation and has received several accolades, including an inaugural Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights in 1998 under President Clinton and the Presidential Medal of Freedom under President Obama in 2012.
On the Democratic side, Julián Castro has been a rising star in American politics.
Castro is of Mexican descent and was born with his twin brother, Joaquin, in San Antonio, Texas in 1974. His roots in Texas trace back to 1920, when his grandmother immigrated as a child to live with extended family. Castro credits his mother, a Chicana political activist, for his life in public service. He counted her influence as the reason why he and his brother, a U.S. Representative for Texas, are politicians.
“Growing up, she would take us to a lot of rallies and organizational meetings and other things that are very boring for an 8-, 9-, 10-year-old,” Castro told The New York Times in 2012. “What I did get from my mother was a very strong sense that if you did public policy right, and you did well in public service, that it’s a positive influence on people’s lives.”
He graduated from Stanford University in 1996, interning for Clinton administration at the White House between his sophomore and junior year, and later Harvard Law School in 2000.
Castro was elected to San Antonio City Council the next year in 2001 until he ran for mayor in 2005, coming in second by a small margin of votes. He was then successful in 2009 after stepping away to run his own law practice. Castro was re-elected in 2011 and 2013.
He resigned as mayor in 2014 after accepting President Obama’s offer to become the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, in which he served until Obama’s term ended in 2017.
Many milestones have altered the landscape for Hispanics
March 2, 1917
President Wilson signs the Jones-Shafroth Act, granting U.S. citizenship to Puerto Ricans and creating a bicameral legislature in the island territory. With the United States about to enter World War I, it also gives America a stronghold and allows Puerto Ricans to join the U.S. Army. Eventually, 20,000 Puerto Ricans are drafted to serve during the conflict, many charged with guarding the important Panama Canal.
Dec. 7, 1941
Japan attacks Pearl Harbor, drawing the U.S. into World War II. More than 500,000 Mexican Americans serve in the American military during the conflict, with 13 Medals of Honor awarded to Latinos. The 158th Regimental Combat Team, largely composed of Latino and Native American soldiers who fought in the Philippines and New Guinea, is called “the greatest fighting combat team ever deployed in battle” by Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
May 3, 1954
In Hernandez v. State of Texas, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that Mexican-Americans have equal protection under the law. The important civil rights case centers around Pete Hernandez, a farm worker indicted for murder by an all-anglo grand jury in Jackson County, Texas. His attornies argue discrimination, including the fact that no person of Mexican ancestory had served as juror in the county in 25 years, citing the 14th Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously agrees, holding that the amendment protects those beyond "white" or "negro," also covering those of Mexican ancestry.
July 2, 1964
The landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 becomes law, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, and outlawing discrimination based on race, sex, religion, color or national origin. The act also creates the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to enforce federal job discrimination laws. One immediate effect of the act: an end to segregated facilities requiring Black Americans and Mexican-Americans to use only designated areas.
Aug. 6, 1975
President Gerald Ford extends the Voting Rights Act of 1965, with the amended Section 203 mandating that bilingual ballots be provided in certain areas.
Jan. 1, 1994
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) between the U.S., Mexico and Canada takes effect, establishing a North American trade-free zone and lifting tariffs of most goods. It's replaced, in 2020, by the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
March 24, 2011
A report from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that more than half the increase of the total U.S. population between 2000 and 2010 was due to the 43 percent growth of the Hispanic population, hitting 50.5 million in 2010, or comprising 16 percent of the nation's population. Non-Hispanic growth was about 5 percent during that time period.
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