Influential Latinos and Influential Hispanic Figures in the US
A list of 10 influential Latinos and influential Hispanic figures in the US who dedicated their lives to ensuring dignity, fair treatment, and equal access for the Hispanic community.
Latinos are one of the fastest-growing populations in the United States, and they have a long and rich history in this country. In fact, Latinos were in the US before the US even came to be.
However, after the US was colonized by Europeans, the Hispanic population had to fight for their basic rights, often in a land that was once their native territory.
Here we have put together a list of the top 10 influential Latinos in the US who dedicated their lives to ensuring dignity, fair treatment, and equal access for the Hispanic community. Find below:
- Influential Latinos throughout History
- Present day Influential Hispanic figures
Influential Latinos Throughout History
Latino contributions to history are often overlooked. This is a list of influential Latinos you may not have learned about in your history books, but definitely should have.
1. Cesar Chavez
Cesar Chavez was a civil rights activist who dedicated his life to helping farmworkers in the United States improve their living and working conditions.
He used his life savings to found the National Farm Workers Association and helped farmworkers advocate for higher pay and better conditions through organizing and negotiating fair contracts with their employers.
Chavez knew the migrant worker life well. He dropped out of school after 8th grade to join his family working in the fields full time. After serving in the Navy for two years, he went back to the farms and searched for ways to make a difference.
He was soon joined in his fight by Dolores Huerta who continues to fight for social justice and change today. You can read more about her story in the present-day influential Hispanics section below.
2. Sylvia Rivera
Sylvia Rivera spent her life advocating for the rights of transgender people, especially those of color.
Sylvia was born in 1951. She was assigned male gender at birth and named Ray. However, her childhood was incredibly difficult. Due to the absence of both parents, she was raised by her grandmother.
When she began experimenting with makeup and women’s clothing at a young age, she was beaten and bullied. She later struggled through homelessness, substance abuse, and sexual exploitation.
Yet, meeting Marsha P. Johnson changed her life. Together she and Marsha battled for gay rights and did everything in their ability to make a difference for the community. They participated in the Stonewall Inn Uprising in 1969 and formed Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). Today, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project exists to continue her legacy.
The Sylvia Rivera Law Project provides free legal services for gender non-conforming individuals of color and/or low income.
3. Roberto Clemente Walker
Roberto Clemente was one of the first Latino baseball icons in the US. He spent his major league baseball career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He won 12 Gold Glove awards and is still the golden standard for outfielders in the baseball world.
However, Roberto Clemente became an influential Hispanic figure not only because of his baseball stats but also because of his resistance to the media’s attempts to white-wash his culture.
He was frequently ridiculed for his Spanish accent and segregated for being “black”.
Media also attempted to change his name to Bob or Bobby Walker, mixing up the order of his surnames.
Instead of giving in to the pressure, he proudly spoke up for Latinos and used his influence to create change.
4. Ruben Salazar
Ruben Salazar is known as one of the most influential Latino journalists of the 20th century. He was born in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico but moved to El Paso, Texas with his family when he was a baby.
He spent much of his career working for the Los Angeles Times and covering the Chicano community. Unfortunately, his career had a tragic, early ending.
While covering the Chicano Moratorium in East Los Angeles, Salazar went to the Silver Dollar Bar and Cafe in East Los Angeles. Sheriffs were on the way to a call nearby. They let off a tear gas projectile into the bar that inadvertently hit and killed Salazar.
5. Octaviano Larrazolo
Octaviano was a lawyer from New Mexico who became the first Hispanic Senator in US History.
Although his term was short, only three months long, it opened doors for other Hispanic-Americans.
He was known as the “silver-tongued orator” because of his eloquent speeches in both English and Spanish.
In 1910, he delivered a speech that was influential in New Mexico, allowing Spanish to be used for business transactions.
He was also known as a leader who would unapologetically defend Hispanic civil rights, regardless of whether his political party agreed with his stance or not.
6. Esteban Torres
Esteban Torres served 8 terms as a US Congressman. He dedicated his life to fighting poverty and ensuring that the immigrant community was treated with dignity and respect.
His passion to advocate for the immigrant community began at a very young age when his father was deported back to Mexico and Torres never saw him again.
Torres stood unwaveringly by his childhood commitment. He founded the East Los Angeles Community Union, one of the largest anti-poverty organizations in the US.
He was also a representative of the UN and the director of the White House Office of Hispanic Affairs. Although his request was initially denied, he pushed to make the country’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, a month-long event, instead of just a week.
He used his influence to help pass the US Immigration and Reform Act, which granted over 3 million people legal status.
Present-Day Influential Hispanics
These influential Latinos continue to make their voices heard and advocate for the Hispanic community today.
7. Sonia Sotomayor
Sonia Sotomayor was the first Hispanic American Woman to serve as a Supreme Court Justice. She was born in the Bronx, New York in 1954. She decided she wanted to become a lawyer at the age of ten. She graduated valedictorian of her high school and went on to attend Princeton University and Yale Law School.
After graduation, she began working with Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau. Although she was young, people quickly realized that she couldn’t be pushed around. She won many big cases but is most well known as the judge who saved Major League Baseball.
On May 6, 2009, Sotomayor was nominated as Supreme Court Justice by President Obama, and the Latino community rejoiced along with her.
8. Ellen Ochoa
Dr. Ellen Ochoa is not only an experienced astronaut, but she was also the 11th director of the Johnson Space Center.
She was the first Hispanic director and only the second female director in its history. She also became the first Hispanic woman to go into space in 1963.
She has been recognized for her dedication to the space program by receiving NASA’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the Presidential Distinguished Rank Award.
She serves on several boards to help the advancement of science and the space program.
9. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez
In 2019, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez became the youngest woman, and the youngest Latina, to serve in US Congress.
She was born in the Bronx, New York but grew up about a half-hour away, in Yorktown. Her parents made the move to provide their children with better educational opportunities.
Even as a young girl, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez was struck by the vast difference between the educational opportunities available in her community compared to those of her cousins living in the Bronx, just miles away.
She studied Economics and International Relations at Boston University but was compelled to dedicate her life to public service after volunteering with the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016 and joining the indigenous communities in their fight against the new pipeline in Standing Rock, South Dakota.
In 2018, Ellen shocked the political world when she beat out Jim Crowley, who had been in Congress since 1999, for a congressional seat. Her campaign consisted purely of volunteers and donations.
In the years she has served in US Congress, she continues to be a voice and a reflection of the people she serves.
10. Dolores Huerta
Dolores Huerta is known for forming the National Farm Workers Association alongside Cesar Chavez and tirelessly working to correct economic injustice while breaking down gender barriers at the same time.
She grew up in a small mining community in New Mexico. Her father won a seat in the New Mexico legislature while her mother offered low-income families affordable, or free, housing in her 70-room hotel.
Dolores grew up watching her mother’s community activism and that sparked an interest in Dolores to do the same.
She began her professional career as a teacher but quickly grew tired of seeing her students come to class hungry and without shoes on their feet. She knew she wanted to do more. She joined the Stockton Community Service Organization where she was introduced to Cesar Chavez. When the two realized that they shared a passion for organizing farmworkers they joined forces to fight for the basic human rights of the farming community.
Today, she continues to advocate for women’s rights, the working poor, and the rights of children.
As part of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, she travels across the US, fighting for legislation that supports equality. She also empowers individuals to create the change they hope to see in their own lives. Due to her dedication, she has received numerous awards, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and even has four schools named after her.
Influential Latinos and Hispanic Figures History & Present Day
Hispanic History is a long and proud one, filled with influential people and moments that have shaped the world we know today.
From politicians to revolutionaries, these are only a handful of the many Latinos who have made their mark on history.
What are some other influential Hispanics throughout history that we didn’t mention? Let us know in the comments below.
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