What started off as a day to highlight women’s contributions to history on February 29, 1909 has evolved into a month-long event. Since 1987, March has designated Women’s History Month in the United States. The Women’s History Project successfully petitioned Congress to expand the event – which was a weeklong celebration at the time – to the entire month of March. Unfortunately, the month doesn’t always shine a light on our heroines (or don’t move past the groundbreaking Sonia Sotomayor and Dolores Huerta), so we put together a list to rectify that. This Women’s History Month, we want to acknowledge the women who have paved the way for the next generation.
Here are eight Latinas who made important contributions to United States history.
Puerto Rican Felicitas Mendez was a Civil Rights pioneer. During the 1940s, she lived on a farm in Westminster, California with her husband and three children. Like any parent, Felicitas wanted her children to receive the best education possible. However, when a relative tried to enroll her 8-year-old daughter, Sylvia Mendez, in an all-white school, she was turned away.
“My father asked my Aunt Sally to take us to the school to be enrolled … to a school that was close to the farm,” Sylvia told Center for Puerto Rican Studies in 2012. “And my aunt’s last name was Vidaurri. Vidaurri because one time the French people had occupied Mexico and my uncle’s name was Vidaurri because he was part French. Aunt Sally went to the school with [my brothers] Gonzalo, Geronimo, and I and my cousins. My cousins were very light-skinned, and they told her, ‘Well, you can leave your children here, but you’ll have to take your brother’s kids to a Mexican school.'”
This act inspired Felicitas and her husband, Gonzalo, to rally the Latino community to file a lawsuit against the school for segregating children. When Gonzalo felt dejected, it was Felicitas who pushed him to move forward. In 1946, Jude Paul J. McCormick ruled in favor of Mendez and his co-plaintiffs. This allowed the Mendez children to attend an all-white school, and also ended de jure segregation in the state of California. The Mendez v. Westminster case helped plant the seeds for the Brown v. Board of Education.
Librarian, writer, and puppeteer Pura Belpré became the first Puerto Rican the New York Public Library (NYPL) hired. Her career began in 1921, where she served as the Hispanic assistant at the 135th Street branch in Harlem. The library recruited her as part of its effort to hire young women from ethnically diverse backgrounds – a choice that ended up changing libraries in the city. Belpré – who is credited with bringing “Spanish to the shelves” – led the charge for the library’s outreach within the Puerto Rican and Latino communities.
In 1929, NYPL transferred her to the 115th Street branch because of the increase of Puerto Ricans settling in the area. While there, she implemented bilingual story hours and programs based on Latino-specific holidays, such as Three Kings Day.
As a children’s librarian, storyteller, and author, she enriched the lives of Latino children through her pioneering work of preserving and disseminating Puerto Rican folklore. She received the New York Mayor’s Award for Arts and Culture in 1982. After her death that same year, the Association for Library Service to Children – a division of the American Library Association – created the Pura Belpré Award to celebrate her outstanding legacy. The award is presented to Latino writers and illustrators whose work best portrays our cultural experiences in a work of literature aimed at children or youth.
Virginia "Ginny" Montes
Honduras-born Virginia “Ginny” Montes became the first Latina to serve as a national officer for the National Organization for Women (NOW). The women’s right advocate worked with NOW for 13 years. In 1993, Montes led the organization’s defense of Lani Guinier – a law professor whose nomination to head the Clinton Administration’s Justice Department’s civil rights division was recanted after conservatives criticized her for papers she had written on how Blacks could increase their impact during elections.
Montes also conducted leadership training for NOW, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Women’s Political Caucus, and many other groups. She fought for civil rights groups in Southern states and she also pushed for the redrawing of districts so that people of color could be more adequately represented.
Denise Oliver, Connie Cruz, and Iris Morales of the Young Lords
The Young Lords Organization came to existence in the 1960s. Heavily influenced by the Black Panther Party (and oftentimes aligned with), the group provided community services, such as free breakfast for children in local churches. But it also protested racism and raised consciousness about colonialism.
Denise Oliver, Connie Cruz, and Iris Morales pioneered the Young Lord’s feminist movement as well as the first women’s caucus. The trio exposed the organization’s form of sexism and machismo and established a platform for women of color to thrive and grow. Eventually, Denise Oliver was promoted to a spot on the Central Committee and continues pushing feminism. In 1970, the Young Lords of New York officially integrated feminism into its national agenda, making it one of the first multiracial groups to do so.
The women of the Young Lords didn’t get the recognition they deserved, which is why Iris Morales wrote Through the Eyes of Rebel Women: The Young Lords, 1969-1976. “I reached out to former members,” she wrote in her book. “This might be the last chance for a first-hand women’s account,’ I [told them], ‘an opportunity to expand the historical narrative about the Young Lords.’ Our experiences varied depending on when, where, and why we joined, and the particular work we did. Only a few women had written about their involvement, and memories were rapidly fading. I wanted to document the story as we had lived it, through it’s ups and downs from the early formative days in New York City through its demise.”
Colombia-born journalist Ilia Calderón made history very recently. She became Univision’s first Afro-Latina to co-anchor an evening news show. She started her career in Colombia and joined the team at Univision in 2007 – first as a co-anchor for the weekend edition of Primer Impacto and eventually for the weekday edition in 2009.
In 2011, she began hosting Noticiero Univision: Edicion Nocturna. Calderón has received prestigious recognitions, including an Emmy Award. She has earned the respect and admiration of audiences across Latin America and the United States for her direct journalistic style, thorough coverage of major news events, and incisive interviews with global celebrities and important political leaders.
Veteran NASA astronaut Ellen Ochoa is the first Latina to go to space and the 11th director (the first Latina) of NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. Before she became an astronaut, Ocha worked as a researcher at the Energy Department’s Sandia National Lab and the NASA Ames Research Center. She has spent a total of approximately 1,000 hours in space aboard four different missions. Four schools bear her name: two in her home state of California, one in Texas, and one in Washington. She applied to be an astronaut three times before being accepted by NASA in 1990.
Now that she’s no longer off in space, she supervises 13,000 employees and ensures that shuttles are safe. “Being an astronaut, and part of a team is really rewarding, and now I have a different perspective,” she said. “The end goal is still the same – carrying out exciting and challenging missions in space.”
A second-generation Mexican-American, Linda Chavez-Thompson served as a union leader elected executive vice president of the American Federation of Labor & Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) at the 1995 convention and was re-elected for another term in 2005. She was the first person to hold the post of executive vice president, and the first Latina, and person of color to be elected to one of the federation’s three highest offices.
As executive vice president of the federation, Chavez-Thompson represented the labor movement as a member of the board for several national organizations, including the Institute for Women’s Policy Research and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. In 2001, she became president of ORIT, the Inter-American Regional Organization of Workers, which is the Western Hemispheric arm of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.
Transgender activist Sylvia Rivera worked tirelessly for justice and civil rights. The Puerto Rican and Venezuelan Rivera helped pave the way for the LGBT rights movement with her involvement in the Stonewall Riots in New York City. After the riots, Rivera became part of the gay rights movement – which didn’t welcome the transgender community. She used her status to help gender non-conformists, the homeless, and people of color. She and another activist, Marsha P. Johnson, founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) and opened a shelter for homeless transgender youth.