Whether it’s through grassroots organizing or artistic self-celebration, Hispanic activists have been working for decades to create better lives for those who share their heritage and culture.
Activists who originate from Spanish-speaking countries have a vast history of fierce activism for their communities, pushing social progress and creating tangible change. But we rarely hear of their contributions, leaving their impact largely uncelebrated even if it’s widely felt.
During Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, it’s essential to take time to recognize the pioneers of progress for Hispanic communities.
Though certainly not an exhaustive list, here are 11 influential Hispanic activists past and present who have been powerful trailblazers for their community and have left an indelible mark on the world.
1. Gloria Anzalda
A noted feminist theorist and author, Gloria Anzalda paved the way for a more intersectional feminism, especially inclusive of Chicana women. A Mexican-American native of Texas, Anzalda was invested in academia and scholarship from a very young age, fighting segregation throughout her own education and early career as a teacher. In her early activism, she was involved in the farmworkers movement and the Mexican American Youth Organization, though she was vocally critical of the male focus in both.
Along with feminist scholar Cherre Moraga, Anzalda co-edited the highly-influential book This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, one of the first books to place women of color at the center of the feminist conversation. Perhaps her most famous solo work, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, was released a few years later, documenting Anzalda’s life as a Chicana-Tejana lesbian feminist. Through countless essays, books and poetry, Anzalda who died in 2004 documented Chicana struggle and resilience in a way that still impacts Hispanic women and feminism today.
2. Joan Baez
A Chicana folk singer who uses her music as an avenue for social change, Joan Baez has long been a force for equity and justice in entertainment. Early in her prolific music career, Baez declined to play any segregated venues, only playing black colleges when touring the South.
For more than 50 years, Baez has been a fierce advocate for a wide range of social justice topics, including nonviolence, civil rights and environmental causes. Her lyrics are a constant nod to this activism, even including notable protest hymns like “We Shall Overcome” on her early albums. Baez has received wide recognition for her activism, often performing to benefit activist causes. Now 75 years old, Baez still uses her music as a form of activism, releasing more than 30 albums in several languages, including Spanish.
3. Cesar Chavez
A noted Mexican-American civil rights activist, Cesar Chavez was instrumental in securing union rights for migrant farm workers during the 1960s. As a young boy, he dropped out of school to help support his family through field work. After a stint in the U.S. Navy, Chavez returned to the fields with determination to better the lives of workers like him. He began organizing, forming the National Farmworkers Association, which is now known as the United Farm Workers of America, to advocate for improved working conditions and wages.
Chavez was a champion of nonviolent protesting, using tactics like marching, fasting and boycotting to assert farmworkers’ needs. In 1968, Chavez orchestrated a boycott that resulted in a collective bargaining agreement guaranteeing field workers the right to unionize. Chavez was also a champion of broader human rights, including an early supporter of gay rights and an opposer of the Vietnam War.
Chavez died in 1993, but his legacy lives on in many of the labor protections we see today.
4. Berta Cceres
Berta Cceres, an award-winning Indigenous environmental activist from Honduras, is best noted for leading a grassroots campaign opposing a proposed dam on the Gualcarque River. The campaign was a success, protecting the river which is considered sacred by the Lencas the Indigenous tribe Cceres belonged to while also protecting the tribe’s access to water, food and medicine. She was also cofounder of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, which supports and advocates for the needs of Indigenous communities in Honduras.
As a result of her passionate activism, Cceres received death threats for years from those who refused to accept Indigenous rights, especially regarding land ownership and the environment. Cceres died on March 3, 2016, after at least two assailants broke into her home and shot her to death. Her death sparked worldwide outrage, bringing attention to the high rates of environmentalist deaths in the country and the world.
5. Juan Felipe Herrera
Best known for his success as a prolific poet, Jose Felipe Herrera uses much of his poetry to unapologetically celebrate his Hispanic heritage. Authoring collections like 187 Reasons Mexicanos Cant Cross the Border and Border-Crosser with a Lamborghini Dream, much of Herrera’s award-winning poetry powerfully tackles social issues and cultural identity.
Herrera has also written short stories, young adult novels and childrens literature. As the son of migrant farmers, Herrera has long been an activist on behalf of migrant communities and Indigenous peoples.
He is currently U.S. poet laureate, a position he’s held since 2015.
6. Sylvia Mendez
As the daughter of a Mexican immigrant and a Puerto Rican immigrant, Sylvia Mendez was expected to go to a segregated school for Mexican students as a child. But when Mendez was in the third grade, her parents sued the all-white Westminster School District after they denied entry to Mendez and her siblings. The landmark case, Mendez v. Westminster, was settled in 1947, successfully desegregating public schools in California.
The case was the first ruling in the U.S. to rule in favor of desegregation, becoming an example for future cases like Brown v. Board of Education. After successfully completing her education, Mendez worked in nursing for 30 years. She’s gone on to become a civil rights activist in her own right, speaking publicly on her historic case and advocating for Hispanic student rights in the U.S.
7. Lizzie Velsquez
As a Latina motivational speaker and a rare disease advocate, Lizzie Velsquez has made strides in advocating for people who have both disability identities and Hispanic heritage. Velsquez was born with a rare congenital condition, which has resulted in many health impacts and physical symptoms for the 27-year-old, including the inability to gain weight.
Due to her appearance, Velsquez was relentlessly bullied as a child. That bullying followed her online, once given the horrific title of “World’s Ugliest Woman” in a YouTube video that circulated widely. But the anti-bullying advocate has turned her struggle into triumph, touring the globe as a powerful voice against bullying. A film of her life, titled A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velsquez Story, has also made waves at film festivals around the world.
8. Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales
Often considered one of the founders of the Chicano Movement of the 1960s, Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales helped organize Mexican Americans in the fight for equality, including the right to unionize, access to education and voting rights. As an activist, Gonzales founded Crusade for Justice, a civil rights and cultural organization that advocated for the rights of Hispanic Americans.
He is perhaps most widely known for his poem “Yo Soy Joaqun” or its English translation “I Am Joaqun” which confronts cultural multiplicity and the oppression of Chicano Americans in the U.S.
Gonzales was also a talented boxer prior to his activist career, winning the Golden Glove championships in his youth. He died in April 2005, but leaves behind a legacy of Chicano empowerment and pride.
9. Raffi Freedman-Gurspan
One of the most vocal advocates for the LGBTQ community in U.S. government, Raffi Freedman-Gurspan has a history of powerful activism, especially for transgender people of color. Freedman-Gurspan, who is a Latina and Indigenous transgender woman, now serves as the primary liaison for LGBTQ issues for the White House the first openly trans member of staff at the White House. Throughout her time at the White House, Freedman-Gurspan has advocated for policy shifts supporting trans inclusion in government and beyond.
She has a long history of activism that precedes her political career. Previously, she served as a policy adviser for the National Center for Transgender Equality, where she led racial and economic justice initiatives focused on low-income and transgender people of color. A notable name in the policy space for Latinx queer people, Freedman-Gurspan accomplished all of this before turning 30.
10. Sandra Cisneros
A poet, short story writer, novelist and essayist, Sandra Cisneros is often noted one of the most influential Latinas in the literary space today. In her early career, Cisneros taught at-risk youth, mentoring them in creative writing. As she began to devote her career to her own literary work, that activism continued to grow.
Her work, which explores the lives of the working class, has become a catalyst for conversation around Hispanic culture and identity. Her most notable work, The House on Mango Street, has sold more than 6 million copies worldwide, powerfully depicts coming of age as a Latina navigating poverty and misogyny. Cisneros lives in central Mexico, where she continues her literary work.
11. Sophie Cruz
When she was 5 years old, Sophie Cruz had as much spunk as a seasoned activist, working for change by reaching one of the most powerful leaders: the Pope. As the daughter of undocumented immigrants, Cruz notably gave Pope Francis a letter during his 2015 visit to the White House, outlining her fears of deportation and the devaluing of immigrant contributions around the globe.
The little girl hand-delivered the letter along with a hug to the Pope, writing: “I want to tell you that my heart is very sad, because Im scared that one day ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is going to deport my parents. I have a right to live with my parents. I have a right to be happy.”
Now 6 years old, Cruz has gone on to be a voice for the children of undocumented immigrants around the globe and a vocal supporter of immigration reform.