The month between September 15th and October 15th is Hispanic Heritage Month. While most understand the meaning of the annual celebration, few know the truly remarkable names that make this time so special. From activists to athletes to scientists, Hispanic men and women have taken part in practically every facet of American society and changed it for the better. While both celebrating tradition and embracing innovation, Hispanic culture has brought yet another perspective to the American eye and continued to push the boundaries of what’s truly possible. These are just some of the many Hispanic figures that have changed this country and world for the better.
Probably the most obvious and well-known of the bunch is Cesar Chavez, a prolific activist for Latin American civil rights. Born in Arizona, Chavez’s mission was solidified when his Mexican American family moved California to become farm workers. Considering this was during the height of the Great Depression, Chavez was quickly shown the necessity for the fight toward farmer rights, which he would later face. He then moved to San Jose to work with lumber, and soon set up the first Community Service Organization chapter, which would largely serve as a social group for California Latinos. After meeting fellow activist Dolores Huerta, the two then went on to establish the National Farm Workers Association and became some of the most recognizable figures in Latin American civil rights at the time. Despite later criticism over his handling of his role as leader of the organization, he is still widely regarded as one of the most important and influential leaders in Hispanic rights and was even awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1993.
Born in Puerto Rico in 1934, Clemente made the island’s professional league at 18, only two years after having joined the amateur team for the first time. He then played in the minor leagues in Montreal, Quebec, and was scouted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in the same year. During training in Richmond, Virginia, Clemente was immediately called up to the majors in that year’s rookie draft. Wearing the now iconic number 21, he became the first Latin American to win a World Series as a starting right fielder in 1960. In 1972, Clemente tragically died in a plane crash, and the MLB renamed the Commissioner’s Award to the Roberto Clemente Award in his honor. He was then inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, becoming the first Latin American player to receive the honor.
Eventually to become the first Hispanic American woman to go to space, Ellen Ochoa was born in Los Angeles in 1958. The descendant of recent Mexican immigrants, Ochoa went on to receive her physics degree from San Diego State University, and then her masters and doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University in 1985. After years of research work, NASA selected Ochoa to become an astronaut in 1991. Two years later, Ochoa boarded the space shuttle Discovery on a nine-day mission to study the Earth’s ozone layer. Since that time, she completed three subsequent space missions. After then becoming the first Hispanic American director of the Johnson Space Center, Ochoa continues to advocate for women to pursue and thrive in STEM studies.
These are only three of more well-known Hispanic figures that have drastically changed the course of history for our country. There are countless others that may not make headlines, but that nonetheless are leaving their footprint on the world for the better. This month is a commemoration of those leaders just as much as it is for the famous ones, and Hispanics and non-Hispanics alike can and should continue to celebrate the diversity, tradition, wisdom, and beauty that Hispanic culture brings to people and to the world.