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By Joel Foster

10 Unsung Hispanic Heroes That Changed History

Sunday marks the end of Hispanic Heritage Month, a time when we reflect on the accomplishments and progress of Hispanic culture around the world.

You might wonder why Hispanic Heritage Month runs from September 15 to October 15, rather than the beginning of the month. There’s actually an interesting reason behind the timing. September coincides with the independence of four Latin American nations: Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Other Latin American countries also celebrate their independence around that date, with Mexico celebrating on September 16, Chile on September 18, and Belize on September 21.

To honor Hispanic Heritage Month, here are some lesser-known heroes that brought positive change to their communities:

1. Octaviano Larrazolo – 1st elected Hispanic US senator

Born in 1859 in Allende, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, Octaviano Larrazolo would go on to influence US thinking on Hispanic issues. Larrazolo came to Arizona in 1875 with Reverend J.B. Salpointe, who taught Larrazolo theology. Larrazolo taught in Tucson for a year before eventually settling in Las Vegas, New Mexico and became involved with the state’s Democratic Party. Working his way up the political chain, Larrazolo was elected Governor of New Mexico in 1918. He was then elected to the Senate in 1928, becoming the first Hispanic to accomplish such a feat. Sadly, Larrazolo fell ill soon after taking office and died just six months into his term. But the unfortunate end didn’t prevent Octaviano Larrazolo from making his permanent mark on Hispanic and US history.

2. Sylvia Mendez – Paved the way for school desegregation in the US

Sylvia Mendez was born in 1936 and grew up at a time when Hispanics were sent to “Mexican schools” and not allowed to attend schools designated for “Whites Only.” Realizing the white schools had access to better books and other educational benefits, Sylvia’s aunt wished for her family to attend a white school. The aunt was told that her lighter-skinned children could attend the school but the eight year-old Sylvia could not because her skin was darker.  After Sylvia was denied enrollment to the white school, her parents sued the California public school system. After years of litigation, Sylvia was finally allowed to attend and became the first Hispanic to enroll in a “Whites Only” school. The case paved the way for the more well-known Brown v. Board of Education case less than ten years later. In 2011, President Obama awarded Mendez with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.

3. Hector P. Garcia – Helped bring recognition to Hispanic World War II Veterans

Hector P. Garcia led a long, decorated career as a US Army officer who served in World War II, earning six Bronze Stars for his efforts. But perhaps his bravest mission involved putting his name on the line for a fellow fallen soldier. In 1945, Army Private Félix Longoria was killed by a Japanese sniper in the Philippines. Longoria’s body was returned to his native Three Rivers, Texas, where his family sought to use a funeral chapel in the town. However, Longoria’s family was rebuffed when the funeral director stated that “the whites won’t like it” if the service were held at the chapel. After hearing about Longoria’s story, Garcia lobbied then-President Lyndon B. Johnson to correct the situation. Johnson eventually heard about Garcia’s efforts and agreed that  Longoria be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. 

4. Dolores Huerta – Co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union

Huerta is perhaps the best known on the list, as she’s considered one of the most important labor activists in US history. In 1960, Huerta founded the Agricultural Workers Association (AWA), where she set up voter drives and lobbied politicians to provide pensions and public assistance for non-citizen migrant workers. Alongside Cesar Chavez and Gilberto Padilla, Huerta co-founded the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). While Chavez served as the charismatic leader, Huerta played an equally valuable role organizing and negotiating with businesses to provide fair treatment for workers. In 1965, Huerta oversaw the merging of the AWA and the NFWA to create the United Farm Workers. This group went on to organize the famous strike by California grape pickers that led to 26 companies agreeing to improve working conditions. Throughout the past four decades, Huerta continued her fight to improve the often-overlooked plight of migrant farm workers. Last month, a documentary film about Huerta’s life, titled Dolores, was released in US theatres.

5. Sor Juana Inês de la Cruz – 17th century feminist writer and thinker

Certainly the oldest on the list, Sor Juana Inês de la Cruz was a crusader for women’s rights at a time when the issue wasn’t even on the public’s radar. She was born circa November 12, 1651 in San Miguel Nepantla, Tepetlixpa, Mexico and showed early signs of extreme intelligence, such as learning to read at the age of three. Inês de la Cruz studied to be a nun at an early age, mainly so she could devote her life to studying without the disruptions of a “fixed occupation.” She spent the rest of her life in Mexico City, where she composed poetry and prose in a variety of genres. This included comedy and scholarly works, which was unusual for a nun at the time. Inés de la Cruz is perhaps best known for her work, Respuesta a Sor Filotea, which argued for educational access for women. Her stature rose in the 20th century, coinciding with the popularity of the feminist movement. Today, her image appears on Mexican currency and she is considered the first feminist author of the New World.

6. Nydia Velazquez – 1st Puerto Rican elected to Congress

Velazquez holds the honor of being the most current women on the list as she still serves in the US House of Representatives, a position she’s held for fifteen years. Velazquez was born to a family of poor sugarcane farmers, who became self-taught political activists. She recalls a childhood where politics were always discussed at the dinner table, usually focused on worker’s rights. After being the first in her family to graduate high school, Velazquez arrived on the mainland, eventually receiving her MA in political science from New York University. After returning to Puerto Rico to teach for a few years, Velazquez came back to the mainland and began her political career. She worked herself up from the bottom, starting as a representative’s aide. She soon secured a seat on the New York City Council and within eight years, was elected to Congress. Velazquez continues to advocate for human and civil rights for the Puerto Rican people to this day.

7. Ellen Ochoa – 1st Hispanic to leave Earth’s atmosphere

In 1993, Ochoa became made history when she served on a 9-day mission into space aboard the shuttle Discovery. This was far from Ochoa’s humble beginnings in La Mesa, California, where she lived with her single mother and three brothers. From an early age, Ochoa thrived in school and eventually earned her doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University in 1985. This led to a research position at Sandia National Laboratories and the NASA Ames Research Center. In 1990, NASA chose Ochoa to become an astronaut, serving as a crew representative for flight software and robotics. Three years later, Ochoa became the first Hispanic to reach space, as part on a mission to study the Earth’s ozone layer. In 2011, the city of Cleveland celebrated Ochoa’s accomplishments during Hispanic Heritage Month.

8. Ralph Lazo – The only non-Japanese American to voluntarily stay in World War II internment camps

17-year old Ralph Lazo grew up around a group of Japanese-Americans in his Los Angeles neighborhood and formed a tight relationship with the community. When he heard that his neighbors were being forced into World War II internment camps, Lazo volunteered to take a train along with some of his Japanese-American friends. This led them to the Manzanar Internment camp in California, where Lazo finished high school and was voted Class President. His advocacy on behalf of Japanese Americans led to the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, where the US officially apologized for the internment camps.

9. Rodolfo Gonzalez – Poet and champion of the Chicano movement

Rodolfo Gonzalez grew up in a tough Denver neighborhood during the Great Depression, which took an especially heavy toll on Mexican Americans. His father instilled a sharp sense of history from his native Mexico and encouraged his son to take pride in his heritage. After becoming a successful professional boxer, Gonzalez retired in 1955 to write poetry. In the 1960s, he composed the poem, “I Am Joaquin,” which many view as the first spark in the Chicano movement. The poem discusses Gonzalez’s idea of the Chicano, which represented a combination of conflicting Indian, European, Mexican and American identities. Gonzalez devoted the rest of his life to teaching cultural identity, focusing on building self esteem among discriminated people.

10. Juan Felipe Herrera – First Chicano Poet Laureate

Herrera grew up in a family of migrant workers who traveled throughout California, taking work where they could and often living in tents. Eventually settling in San Diego, Herrera graduated from high school and received a scholarship to UCLA. He later earned a master’s degree from Stanford and an MFA from the renowned Iowa Writer’s Workshop. As his career flourished, his experiences as a poor campesino continued to influence his writing. In 2015, Herrera was named poet laureate, one of literature’s most distinctive honors. He became the first Chicano to receive the award.

We encourage you to explore these inspiring individuals more in-depth. Their stories form a tapestry of human achievement, linked through our unique cultural heritage. Let their stories inspire you to progress forward and thrive.

By Joel Foster