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Most Influential Hispanic Americans

Hispanic Heritage Month is in full swing as thousands take a moment to reflect and reminisce about the hundreds of Hispanic Americans who have made great strides in all areas of life. Whether it’s breaking racial and gender barriers, giving back to their communities, introducing sounds and beats never heard before, celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month not only honors the cultures and contributions of Hispanic and Latino Americans but also educates others on the history and accomplishments of Hispanics past and present. Hispanic Americans have made some of the most influential contributions to our Western culture and way of life. As the Hispanic population continues to grow at staggering rates to 111.2 million by 2060, it’s safe to say that their impacts and presence won’t cease anytime soon. 

With this continued trend, experts are finding new ways to quantify the diversity within Latino populations as well as how their unique qualities contribute to the United States as a whole. From earning more than 50 seats in Congress to achieving some of the highest awards in the music and science industries, it’s clear that Hispanics, and their monumental strides toward success and history-making, will continue for generations to come. And that’s something worth celebrating. 

To commemorate Hispanic Heritage Month, read about some of the most influential Hispanic Americans since the 1850s. 

Octaviano Larrazola (1859-1930)

First Hispanic U.S. Senator

Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1859, Octaviano Larrazola’s story begins like many. Immigrating to the United States as a child and raised in New Mexico, Octaviano was known for being a gifted public speaker and avid reader. As a young man, Octaviano pursued education and became a teacher and principal advocating for educational equality for his Spanish-speaking students. Devoted to the cause of civil rights, Octaviano reformed several policies including recognizing Spanish as a legitimate language to conduct public business. His commitment to the rights of Spanish speakers continued and led him to be elected into the New Mexico State House of Representatives in 1927. Later that same year, Octaviano ran for an open Senate seat which he won. He served as a U.S. senator until his death. Octaviano’s legacy lives on as more than 160 Hispanic Americans have served in the House of Representatives and 11 served as Senators. 

Jovita Idár (1885-1946)

Mexican-American Journalist and Suffragist

Raised in South Texas, Jovita Idár grew up watching her father, a civil rights advocate and newspaper owner, talk and write about the issues faced by Mexican-Americans in the late 1880s. After obtaining a teacher’s certificate from the Holding Institute Methodist school in 1903, Jovita immediately began teaching Mexican-American students while simultaneously working for her father’s newspaper La Crónica, a well-known source of news and activism for Mexican-American rights. Witnessing issues involving the racial and poor conditions Mexican- Americans were facing in Texas, Jovita found herself writing an article that would change her life forever. After publicly condemning President Woodrow Wilson’s decision to send U.S. troops to the border, Texas Rangers were quickly dispatched to Jovita’s home with orders to shut down the paper. Refusing to back down, the Rangers left but still managed to close the paper. Nevertheless, her continued efforts did not stop as she found other ways to write about the issues experienced by women and Mexican-Americans until her death in 1946. 

Gabriela Mistral (1889-1957)

First Latin American Nobel Prize winner in literature

Lucila de María del Perpetuo Socorro Godoy Alcayaga (or Gabriela Mistral) was no stranger to pain and poverty growing up in Chile. Known as the daughter of a dilettante poet, Gabriela began writing poetry during her time as a schoolteacher. Having fallen in love with a railway worker, who eventually committed suicide, Gabriela was struck by grief and used poetry as her outlet. Having the strength to continue on with her life, Gabriela taught elementary and secondary school for many years until her poetry career began to take flight. Becoming a well-known poet both in Latin America and the United States, Gabriela was an active member of various cultural committees including the League of Nations, and as a Chilean consul in Naples, Madrid, and Lisbon. Gabriela’s poetry was heard around the world and earned her several honorary degrees from the Universities of Florence and Guatemala as well as becoming a Spanish professor at universities including Columbia University, Middlebury College, Vassar College, and at the University of Puerto Rico. Her poetry and humanitarian efforts inevitably won her a Nobel Prize in 1945, making her the first Latin American Nobel Prize winner in literature. 

Caesar Chavez (1927-1993)

American Labor and Civil Rights Activist

Known to many as one of the greatest civil rights organizers for Latino Americans, Caesar Chavez’s understanding of the struggles faced by Latino Americans started during the Great Depression. After losing their family farm in Arizona, Caesar and his family moved to California and became migrant workers. Some time later, he enrolled in the U.S. Navy. Shortly after returning home from World War II, Caesar became an organizer within the Community Services Organization (CSO) in California before being promoted to general director. However, after seeing the harsh conditions migrant workers were undergoing, Caesar resigned and founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962 where he led a five-year strike with fellow Californian grape pickers leading to a nationwide boycott of California grapes. Caesar’s efforts led to legislative action and allowed for migrant workers to have more labor rights. His successful marches and boycotts inspired other peaceful movements including those of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. After his death, his wife accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom in his honor.  

Richard Cavazos (1929-2017)

First Hispanic United States Four-Star General

Born into a Mexican-American family, Richard Cavazos spent his childhood learning from his father, a World War I veteran-turned rancher in Kingsville, Texas. Despite growing up in an era of intense racism, Cavazos pursued his education and attended Texas Technological College (now Texas Tech University) on a football scholarship. Cavazos became actively involved in the school’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program resulting in his decision to join the Army in 1951. Serving during the Korean War, Cavazos exemplified what it meant to be a leader and soldier as he led his troops to various victories and saved hundreds of lives. Cavazos was appointed brigadier general in 1976 and then four-star general in 1982, making military history as the first First Hispanic United States Four-Star General. 

Alberto Gonzales (1955)

First Hispanic United States Attorney General

Alberto Gonzales was exposed to traditional Mexican-American values from a very young age while growing up in San Antonio, Texas. Being raised by his father, who worked in construction, and his stay-at-home mother, Alberto knew he needed to get an education if he was going to become someone successful later in life. Working diligently in high school and college, Alberto earned his Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from Harvard Law School in 1982. After holding a private law practice from 1982 until 1994, Alberto joined the political sphere and was named general counsel to the Texas Governor George W. Bush. Shortly after, Alberto rose up the ranks including being named Secretary of State of Texas, appointed to the Texas Supreme Court, offered to become a White House counsel, and later served as the first Hispanic U.S. Attorney General under President George W. Bush. Although his career came under constant criticism, Alberto continues his mission of educating other Latino scholars as the Dean of Belmont University College of Law.

Gwen Ifill (1955-2016)

American Broadcaster

Born in the middle of the hustle and bustle of New York City, Gwen Ifill always knew she wanted to get on TV. As a starting Panamanian- and Barbadian-American journalist, Ifill began her career as a reporter for the Baltimore Evening Sun and the Boston Herald American. She later went on to become chief political correspondent for NBC News, where she broadcasted on some of the largest stories including the presidential elections in 2004 and 2008. As an advocate for Afro-Latinos and race relations, Gwen also wrote best-selling books including The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama. Over the course of her life, Ifill received more than 20 honorary doctorates and honors including from the National Press Club. 

Sonia Sotomayor (1954)

First Hispanic Supreme Court Justice

As a young girl, Sonia Sotomayor knew she needed to work hard to get out of the Bronx, New York neighborhood she lived in. Earning her undergraduate degree from Princeton University and her law degree from Yale University, Sonia quickly got involved in the justice system. Spending time as the assistant district attorney for New York County, Sonia served in various roles including being a judge in the U.S. District Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. In 2008, she was nominated by President Barack Obama to join the Highest Court in the Land, making her the first Hispanic Supreme Court Justice. Sotomayor has been outspoken about how her unique experience as a Latina has contributed to her work as a judge. 

Ellen Ochoa (1958)

First Hispanic Female in Space

Having been born and raised in sunny California, Ellen Ochoa always had her head in the clouds. Born to Mexican-American parents, Ellen was told that if she ever wanted to become someone, she needed to go to school. And she did just that. Earning her doctorate degree in engineering from Stanford University, Ellen Ochoa worked diligently as a research engineer at NASA before she was selected to become an astronaut in 1990, making her the first Hispanic female in space. After spending over 1,000 hours in orbit and serving in various directorship roles within NASA, Ochoa was named the 11th director of the Johnson Space Center, the first Hispanic director in its history. 

José Ramón Andrés Puerta (1969)

Spanish-American Chef and Humanitarian

Cooking is more than just the meal itself, it’s about the love being poured into the dish by the person preparing it. For José Ramón Andrés Puerta, this rings true. Known as one of the most world-renowned chefs, Jose’s love for food began as a young 21-year-old arriving in New York City with just $50 in his pocket. Starting as a cook in Manhattan, Jose quickly rose up the ranks and began making a name for himself alongside some of NYC’s biggest stars. In 2003, Jose opened his first restaurant and made his mark across the northeast. Winning numerous awards including several James Beard Awards, Jose also founded several other restaurants including the World Central Kitchen, where he has provided food insecurity relief during crises like the 2010 Haiti earthquake, for Puerto Rico during the Covid-19 pandemic, and Ukrainian war efforts. To this day, Jose continues to inspire celebrities and food service workers to make a difference.

ACU Online is proud to celebrate the wonderful contributions Hispanic Americans have made in our diverse and rich communities across the country. We honor these men and women for their impactful efforts and champion the continuation of recognizing future Latinos for generations to come

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