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Be Proud of Your Past, Embrace the Future: 8 Latinx Pioneers to Learn About This Latinx Heritage Month

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Vital Strategies

This Latinx Heritage Month, Vital Strategies is celebrating the rich histories, cultures and contributions of Latinx people. Our team has compiled a list of eight trailblazers whose activism, intellectual and artistic achievements influenced the Americas and the world. From fighting for desegregated schools to organizing for labor rights to documenting and sharing Latinx histories and experiences, they helped advance the rights of Latinx people, women and people of color, paving the way for a better future for all.  

Latinx Heritage Month is celebrated from September 15 to October 15 to pay homage to the resilience of Latinx and Indigenous people against colonialism and discrimination. It offers an opportunity to teach and learn about the indelible mark that Latinx people and Latin American cultures have made on U.S. society and on the world.

Latinx Heritage Month is officially designated in the U.S. as Hispanic Heritage Month, but we use the term Latinx to encompass all people of Latin American origin, including Indigenous people and other populations that do not speak Spanish; it is also a gender-neutral term that is inclusive of those with diverse gender identities.

When her children were turned away from a school because of their ethnicity and the color of their skin, Mendez mobilized other parents and launched a class action lawsuit challenging school segregation. The landmark Mendez v. Westminster decision, which was decided in favor of Mendez and the other parents, paved the way the integration of all California public schools that same year. It also set precedent for the supreme court decision that was delivered seven years later in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that the segregation of public schools was unconstitutional across the U.S.

Huerta co-founded the United Farm Workers (UFW) with Cesar Chavez (previously known as the National Farm Workers Association). With the UFW, Huerta organized workers, negotiated contracts, advocated for safer working conditions, and unemployment and health care benefits for agricultural workers. She was the driving force behind the nationwide grape boycotts in the late 1960s that led to the first farmworker union contracts, and later led a consumer boycott of grapes that resulted in the ground-breaking California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975. The law granted workers in California the right to collectively organize and bargain for better wages and working conditions, and was the first law of its kind in the U.S. Throughout her long career, which continues to this day though Huerta is well into her 80s, she also worked to improve workers’ legislative representation and to have more Latinx people and women elected to political office.

Born to a poor family and raised by her grandmother, Rodriguez worked hard to put herself through primary and secondary school, and eventually went on attend and graduate from medical school. For the following decade she treated the poor— often offering services and medicine for free. She later obtained a specialized degree in gynecology, obstetrics and pediatrics from the University of Paris. Upon returning to the Dominican Republic, she continued to work with poor patients; treating their illnesses, delivering babies, and offering medical counsel. She also began to provide and advocate for birth control and family planning. By the 1930s, when the Trujillo dictatorship was establishing a stronghold in the Dominican Republic, Rodríguez became active in the small but burgeoning women’s movement. It was during this time that she began to show signs of mental illness. When Trujillo’s campaign ordered agents to find and detain the “mentally impaired,” she was mercilessly interrogated, and died shortly after. Her legacy as a pioneer in medicine lives on.

As an Afro-Latinx women, Curtis yearned to see lives represented wholly, which led her to study the intersections of Blackness, identity, diaspora, gender and belonging. She is a Fulbright scholar and earned a doctorate in anthropology, later going on to join the curatorial staff of the Smithsonian Institution where she researches, collects, exhibits and promotes Latinx- and Black-centered narratives to more accurately represent the history and culture of the Americas. Curtis’ work helps to tell important stories and narratives that are not necessarily recorded in history books or taught in classrooms.

Upon moving to New York City from Puerto Rico, Schomburg was active in the liberation movements of Puerto Rico and Cuba, later turning his focus to the liberation of Black Americans. When he was a child, Schomburg had been told by a teacher that people of African descent had no history or achievements. He then dedicated his life to discovering and unveiling the accomplishments of people of African descent. Schomburg founded the Negro Society for Historical Research, and was elected president of the American Negro Academy.  He was an avid collector of materials on Africa and its diaspora, amassing over 10,000 documents. Today, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of The New York Public Library has collected more than 10 million items and is one of the leading research centers on Africa and the diaspora.

Hotesse enlisted in the military in 1942, and was the only Dominican-born member in the Tuskegee Airmen— the first Black military aviators in the U.S. armed forces. His squadron never flew in combat, but he took part in the fight for civil rights at home. At the Freeman Army Airfield in Indiana, Black and white officers were segregated in separate officer clubs, even though this was against military regulations. Hotesse and other Black officers entered the whites-only club in peaceful protest and were placed under arrest for breaking rules. This act of resistance is viewed as an important milestone in ending segregation in the military, and as a model for the tactics of civil disobedience employed during the later Civil Rights Movement. Hotesse died during a training exercise at only 26, but his contributions underscore the importance of Latinx and Black service people during World War II and the ways in which their service and resistance provided a foundation for the Civil Rights Movement.

When Anzaldúa recognized the lack of written material for and about Mexican American and Latinx culture, she produced numerous works including “This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color,” which was one of the first books to center women of color in the mostly-white feminist conversation at the time. What is probably her most well-known book, “Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza,” documented Anzaldúa’s life as a Chicana-Tejana lesbian feminist. Through her essays, books and poetry, Anzaldúa documented Chicana struggle and resilience in a way that has had a lasting impact on Latinx women and feminism.

Juan Rodriguez: First non-native resident on the island of Manhattan

Rodriguez is considered the first non-native resident of what would eventually become New York City, predating the Dutch settlers by 12 years. Rodriguez was Afro-Dominican, born to a mother of African descent and father of European descent, therefore he is also considered the first Latinx person, person of African descent, person of European descent, first merchant, and first Dominican person to settle in Manhattan. He had been hired to serve as the translator on a Dutch trading voyage to the Native American island of Mannahatta. Arriving in 1613, Rodriguez soon came to learn the Algonquian language of the Lenape people and married into the local community. When his ship returned to The Netherlands, Rodriguez stayed behind, setting up his own trading post and living on as part of the native community.