To be Latino is to belong to a unique community that’s far more diverse than most people realize. Some speak Spanish; some do not. Some are Black; some are white; some fall somewhere in between. Some are immigrants; some are American-born. And many, like myself, are multicultural.
Growing up Filipina and Mexican meant that I didn’t have many role models who looked like me. I wasn’t sure that other Mexipinas even existed. Further complicating my identity issues is the fact that I don’t speak Spanish well, and I don’t speak Tagalog at all. Not seeing examples of other Asian Latinos in books or on TV only exacerbated these isolating feelings.
Fortunately, when it comes to cultural representation in entertainment, politics, and beyond, we’ve made some noteworthy progress in recent years. We’re seeing more TV shows like Jane the Virgin and Vida that tell the stories of traditionally marginalized communities. And people of color – specifically women of color – are running for office in record numbers to help create change at all levels of government.
Yet as it turns out, Asian Latinos, specifically, have been making their mark across a range of disciplines and industries – they’ve just been overlooked and underappreciated for their contributions throughout history. Here, we honor a few of those individuals whose lives and legacies should be celebrated for years to come.
This Cuban-Chinese ballet dancer is one of the most renowned male ballet dancers of his time. Chang began studying ballet when he was 9 years old, ultimately joining the National Ballet of Cuba. He later became a principal dancer with the English National Ballet, where he danced major roles including The Sleeping Beauty Prince, The Nutcracker Prince, and Romeo and Mercutio in a production of Romeo and Juliet. Chang has won several awards and has choreographed both traditional and modern works. Most recently, he was the artistic director of the Espinosa Dance Project and launched his own group, the Yat-Sen Chang Dance Company, in 2013.
Franklin Chang Díaz
When it comes to space exploration, Franklin Chang Díaz is quite the superstar. The Costa Rican-Chinese astronaut is a veteran of seven NASA Space Shuttle missions, which — as of 2018 — makes him the record holder for the most spaceflights (he shares this accolade with fellow astronaut Jerry L. Ross). He was also the first Latin American immigrant NASA selected to go into space. From 1993 to 2005, Chang Díaz served as director of the Advanced Space Propulsion Laboratory at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. Although he retired from NASA in 2005, Chang Díaz’s legacy continues to be recognized thanks to his induction into the NASA Astronaut Hall of Fame.
Kamala Lopez wears many hats. While she’s perhaps most well-known for her work as an actor, Lopez — who’s Venezuelan-Indian — is also an activist, director, and producer. In 2016, she released Equal Means Equal, a film documentary that explores gender inequality within the United States. Throughout the film, Lopez unmasks the inadequacy of the laws currently in place that claim to protect women, while making the case for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Just last year, Lopez spoke in front of the United Nations about gender parity and equal pay. She was also appointed to the UN’s Equal Pay Platform of Champions.
Helen Mack Chang
After her sister Myrna Mack was murdered for highlighting the Guatemalan army’s abuse and displacement of the Ixil and K’eqchi’people during the country’s civil conflict, Helen Mack Chang made it her life’s mission to get justice for Myrna’s death. Eventually, her work paid off and all those responsible for the murder – including army and police officers – were imprisoned. Mack Chang went on to establish the Myrna Mack Foundation, which provides support for human rights issues in Guatemala. In 2010, she was appointed by then-Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom to lead investigations into police corruption and to recommend policy changes.
This Mexican-Japanese botanist studied in Japan but moved to Mexico, where he and his wife became naturalized Mexican citizens. Matuda had a prolific career: He described 185 new plant species throughout this lifetime. He was widely lauded for his contributions to the field of botany, and he has the recognitions to prove it. In 1956, a species of cactus native to Mexico was named in his honor. The genus Matudina in the sunflower family is also named after him, along with two species of frogs and one species of alligator lizard. A bust of Matuda is on display at the botanical garden of the Cosmovitral in Toluca, Mexico.
Born to Japanese parents in Bolivia, Pedro Shimose began his writing career as a journalist for the newspaper Presencia. He then moved into the world of poetry, crafting poems that were often politically inspired and that touched on issues like national identity. In 1972, Shimose was awarded the Casa de las Américas Prize for the book Quiero escribir, pero me sale espuma. In total, he’s published seven poetry books, in addition to El Coco se llama Drilo, a collection of short stories. Shimose currently lives in Spain, and is a member of the Bolivian Academy of Language and the Spanish Association of Art Critics.
Arlen Siu — who was Nicaraguan-Chinese — was among the first martyrs of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. While regarded as a talented singer and songwriter when she joined the Sandinistas as an 18-year-old, it was her activism that left the largest mark on her legacy. The musician-turned-activist was just 20 years old when she was killed during a military ambush. Despite that tragedy, her artistic and written works have continued to inspire both the Sandinista and the Nicaraguan women’s movements. The cities of Managua and El Rama have neighborhoods named after her, and a park in León also carries her namesake.
This Peruvian-Japanese artist faced challenges very early on life. She was orphaned as a young child, and had to quit school to support herself and her siblings. Eventually she got bit by the creativity bug and enrolled in art school, where her unique style was quickly noticed. In 1960, she traveled to Paris to study at the Sorbonne and the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Her work from this period features a dark tone and minimalist aesthetic. Best known for her skill as a painter and printmaker, Tsuchiya’s work often reflected upon Peruvian myths and legends, while also addressing contemporary issues like gender and identity. Her art has been exhibited internationally as part of the small Peruvian Surrealist movement in the 1970s.