Latin American Herstory

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Everyone knows that girls rule and boys drool. Or something to that effect. And there’s a month that embodies this astute theory. March is Women’s History Month, so it’s time to cast a spotlight on some noteworthy Latinas who have inspired us and revolutionized history. The Frida Kahlo types have already been renowned and praised worldwide, and rightfully so, her brutally honest and reflective work has transformed both the Mexican and international art scene.

Now, we are going to draw attention to other historically important women who paved other significant paths for us and contemporary women who continue their legacy. So take notes, because you’re about to get a little bit of a herstory lesson.



Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is remembered for being a huge nerd. In a good way. She was born in New Spain, what used to be Mexico under the Spanish Empire, in 1648. By age 3, Sor Juana learned to read and write. Unfortunately for her, this passion for literature would stay with her for the rest of her life. I say unfortunately because at the time Mexico was heavily controlled by the Catholic Church, which frowned upon women being versed and independent. The church continued to frown and frown on poor Sor Juana, until 1694 when she willingly, and publicly, renounced her thirst for knowledge and sold away her thousands of books. It is believed that Sor Juana chose to repent because she considered it a better alternative than being censored by the church. Although the church won that battle, our favorite bookworm won the war. Today she is celebrated as the first great poet of Latin America.

This passion for literature has been echoed by the likes of hugely successful Latin American writers Isabel Allende and Julia Alvarez. Chilean journalist and novelist, Isabel Allende, has sold over 56 million copies of her novels, making her one of the most successful Latin American writers ever. Her father was the cousin of Chilean President Salvador Allende, famous for being the first democratically elected Marxist president. She was forced to flee Chile when dictator Augusto Pinochet overthrew him. Allende was hired to translate romance novels from English to Spanish. Instead she would spice things up and alter the dialogue to make the heroines sound more intelligent and independent. When this was discovered she was fired. She went on to write various novels, including the tremendously successful La Casa de los Espíritus. Allende is famous for incorporating historical events and personal details into her writing, The genre she is often lumped with, magical realism (originally linked to Gabriel García Marquez), allows her female protagonists to use unusual means to overcome turbulent situations.

Julia Alvarez (on the right) is also a commercial and critical success in the world of writing. The Dominican-American author is responsible for the popular and acclaimed novels, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent and In the Time of the Butterflies. Like Allende, her novels consist of female protagonists struggling against difficult situations. Alvarez’s past is also colored with violence, as she too was forced to leave her homeland to escape dictatorship. Her father was part of a failed plot to overthrow Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1961. Her novels often center on themes of alienation and conforming in a strange place.



Julia Alvarez tells a partly fictionalized account of the Mirabal sisters and their fight against Trujillo in In the Time of the Butterflies. Patria Mercedes Mirabal, Maria Argentina Minerva Mirabal, and Antonia Maria Teresa Mirabal, were the three sisters that fought against Trujillo and created an underground movement, The 14th of June Movement, to try and remove him from power. “Las Mariposas” became their codename among those in the movement. As they grew older and married, the sisters were repeatedly jailed and tortured for their suspected rebel activity. On November 25, 1960, Trujillo sent men, their identities still unknown, to intercept the sisters as they returned home from visiting their jailed husbands. Minerva, Patria and Maria Teresa along with their driver, were dragged out of their car and beaten to death in an abandoned sugar cane field. Their car was pushed off a cliff to simulate an accident. One, Belgica Adela Mirabal- Reyes, also known as Dede, survives the three sisters. Dede still lives in Salcedo, Dominican Republic, where she runs the Museo Hermanas Mirabal. The museum is the preserved home where the three sisters lived during the last 10 months of their lives. The importance of Las Mariposas is still felt today, the anniversary of their death, November 25th, now marks International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. The United Nations General Assembly established this in 1999, in honor of the Mirabal Sisters.

Another one of the original female badasses of Latin America was Policarpa Salavarrieta, and she did much more than just have a really long name. Salavarrieta was a spy for the revolutionary forces in Colombia as they were revolting against Spain during the early 1800s. She was born in Guaduas and eventually moved to Bogota, where she became politically active in the struggle against Spain. Posing as an ordinary seamstress, La Pola, as she is now known, gained access inside the homes of the Spanish Royalists. Once inside, she would eavesdrop on conversations, collect intelligence and information to give to the revolutionary forces. She did this until the capture of her lover, Alejo Sabarain, lead to hers. She was sentenced to die as a traitor, death by firing squad, with Sabarain and five other prisoners. Being a woman, La Pola was spared the humiliation of having her dead body paraded on the streets of Bogota as a warning to other revolutionaries. Today, La Pola is praised as the heroine of Colombia.

Women have continued to play an integral part in politics and human rights all throughout Latin America to this day. A noteworthy example from Argentina is La Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo, which began in Argentina during the infamous Guerra Sucia. During 1976 and 1983, thousands of people suddenly “disappeared,” including liberals, journalists, and union officials. The mothers of the disappeared children began to congregate in la Plaza de Mayo, in downtown Buenos Aries, in front of the presidential palace. They wore white scarves on their heads,embroidered with their missing children’s names. This type of protest is unique because the women silently marched. Their silence along with their constant presence was the fight they were putting up.

Using music as her weapon, Mercedes Sosa brought social issues to everyone’s attention. She was one of the main faces of the nueva canción movement in Argentina, tackling music about the oppressed, a means to bring awareness to their struggles. Sosa brought la nueva canción to Europe and the U.S., achieving great success. She won a total of six Latin Grammys. In New York she sold out Carnegie Hall and played Lincoln Center. Her message lives on through her music.



Sister musician Celia Cruz also gained a lot of success worldwide. Labeled the Queen of Salsa, she left Cuba during the ’50s and never returned due to Fidel’s rise to power. Cruz won seven Latin Grammys and has 23 gold albums to her name.

Continuing in the field of arts, Cuban Prima Ballerina Assoluta, Alicia Alonso, gained worldwide fame during the 1950s for her dancing, especially her portrayals in “Carmen” and “Giselle.” Although she is largely forgotten in U.S. ballet circles after returning to Cuba under Castro’s rule to operate her own ballet company, she continued to be influential in Canada and other parts of the world. When she was 19 she suffered a detached retina, which somehow never impaired her dancing. She compensated for her partial blindness by using stage lights to guide her movements and her partners.

Rita Moreno is not only famous as a Puerto Rican actress and singer, but for also being one of the few performers in history to win an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony (yes, she EGOTed). Her role as Anita in Westside Story in 1961 catapulted her to stardom. Moreno is still active, and can be seen guest starring in different shows.

Another Latin actress, María Félix (pictured on the left), remains an icon in Mexico. It is rumored she never gained commercial success in the U.S. because she refused small parts that were offered to her. In her later years, she would become known as La Dona. She was the go-to for a talented and beautiful female lead during the golden years of Mexican cinema.



Today, Latin women are still making strides to uplift our communities. Maria Teresa Kumar (right) is the co-founder of Voto Latino, along with Rosario Dawson. Voto Latino is a bi-partisan organization that engages and encourages Latinos to make their voice heard in U.S. politics. With the Latino population quickly rising in the U.S., the importance of Kumar’s work is difficult to ignore.

Continuing to prove that Latinos are a force to be reckoned with, Sonia Sotomayor has been the first Latina to be appointed to the Supreme Court of the United States, and only the third woman in history. Growing up in the Bronx and raised by her Puerto Rican mother, Sotomayor has come a long way from humble beginnings. Her nomination to the Supreme Court caused uproar among conservative Republicans that opposed her. Aside from this, her nomination was a welcome and forward-thinking choice. She continues to work from the highest bench in U.S. law, inspiring Latin women everywhere.



And while we’re enlightening ourselves, get out some more flash cards and do some extra reading, you nerds. These are the honorary mentions, more women whose spirits are akin to those mentioned in detail above.

Dolores Huerta: Cofounder of United Farm Workers of America (with César Chavez), she has worked tirelessly her whole life to ensure rights for farm workers and has been extremely successful in organizing communities.

Rigoberta Menchú: From Guatemala and most well known for her plight to preserve indigenous rights in Guatemala during their Civil War. In 1992 she received the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts.

Omara Portuondo: A Cuban singer and dancer, she has had enormous success and a career spanning half a decade, best known for her work with the Buena Vista Social Club. She is still a staple in the Cuban music scene.

Carolina Herrera: Venezuelan fashion designer, she has become a household name and her designs have been worn by countless celebrities. She is also involved in human rights work, campaigning to end hunger in developing and less-developing countries.


Regardless of what background and obstacles we face, we have these examples to show us that hard work will get us anywhere we want. Just because it’s a tired cliché doesn’t mean it ain’t true.

*Cue Spice Girl’s “Girl Power”*