15 Influential Hispanic Americans Who Made History

There isn’t an industry in which Hispanic Americans haven’t made their mark in history, with some of the most iconic politicians, singers, actors, athletes and more coming from Hispanic descent.

We’re celebrating 15 of the most notable Hispanic Americans whose influence has touched everything from pop culture to politics:

Rita Moreno

Rita Moreno

Rita Moreno

Photo: Getty Images

Rita Moreno has been a household name for decades, ever since she captivated audiences with her fierce portrayal of Anita in 1961’s West Side Story. Moreno would go on to cement her name in history by winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the role, becoming the first-ever Hispanic American woman to win an Academy Award.

Born Rosa Alverio on December 11, 1931 in Humacao, Puerto Rico, the actress later changed her last name to match her stepfather’s after she immigrated to New York City with her mom in 1936. Moreno made her Broadway debut in Skydrift at age 13, with her career taking off after that.

The pioneering actress went on to star in dozens of film, TV and stage shows through her decades-long career. She became only the third person ever to achieve the coveted EGOT, winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award by 1977. In 2019, she added a P to the achievement with a Peabody Award, one of only three performers to accomplish this feat.

READ MORE: Rita Moreno Was Over Being Stereotyped in Hollywood, so She Quit Making Movies for Seven Years

Cesar Chavez

Cesar Chavez

Cesar Chavez

Photo: Arthur Schatz/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Born in Arizona to a Mexican American family, Cesar Chavez grew up around the people he later helped through his activism. The defining moment in Chavez’s life came when his family moved to California during the Great Depression to become farm workers, cementing his fight for farmers rights.

After receiving an honorable discharge from the Navy, Chavez worked as a lumber handler in San Jose, where he helped set up a chapter of the Community Service Organization, a pivotal civil rights organization for Latinos in California.

Chavez made the CSO his full-time job after he was laid off, meeting fellow activist Dolores Huerta while traveling to chapters around the state of California. The two would go on to found the National Farm Workers Association, later the United Farm Workers labor union, becoming primary figures for Latin American civil rights.

Though Chavez later received criticism from within for his singular control of the union, including times in which he fired those who opposed him, the activist is still regarded as an important civil rights leader and posthumously received the Presidential Medal of Freedom the year after his death in 1993. He was 66.

READ MORE: Martin Luther King Jr. Praised Cesar Chavez For His ‘Indefatigable Work’

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In just a few short years, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become one of the major leading voices for Hispanic Americans in politics.

Also known by her initials AOC, Ocasio-Cortez was born in 1989 in the Bronx, New York to a Puerto Rican mother and a Bronx-born father of Puerto Rican descent. She excelled through high school after her family moved to the suburbs and was in her second year at Boston College when her dad tragically died of lung cancer in 2008.

After graduating college in 2011, Ocasio-Cortez returned to the Bronx and later campaigned for Senator Bernie Sanders in the 2016 democratic primary. She visited Flint, Michigan, and the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota after the general election, where she attended the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and decided to run for office.

Ocasio-Cortez eventually challenged Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley, the first to do so since 2004, and pulled off a surprise primary win in June 2018. Through a grassroots campaign, she became the youngest person elected into the House of Representatives during the midterm elections that year.

“I’m hoping that this is a beginning,” Ocasio-Cortez said at her victory party in 2018. “That we can continue this organizing and continue what we’ve learned.”

Since her arrival in Congress, Ocasio-Cortez’s vocal support of left-leaning ideas, including co-sponsoring the Green New Deal package to combat climate change, has made her a popular figure in progressive politics. She once again won her primary in June 2020, all but ensuring her return to Congress for a second term after the general election in November. 

Roberto Clemente

Roberto Clemente

Roberto Clemente

Photo: Louis Requena/ MLB via Getty Images

A pioneer of the game, Roberto Clemente paved the way for Hispanic Americans in Major League Baseball.

The prolific right fielder was born in 1934 in Puerto Rico, joined the island’s amateur baseball league when he was 16 and made the professional league two years later at 18.

Another two years and Clemente was off to Montreal, Quebec, to play in the minor leagues in 1954. That same year, the Pittsburgh Pirates scouted him during training in Richmond, Virginia and Clemente was called up to the majors by November of that year in the rookie draft.

Clemente, wearing the iconic number 21, went on to become the first Latin American and Caribbean to win a World Series as a starting player in 1960. 

The athlete died in a plane crash in 1972 while on his way to Nicaragua to deliver aid to earthquake victims when he was 38. In his honor, the MLB renamed the Commissioner’s Award to the Roberto Clemente Award, given to the player who all-around exemplifies sportsmanship and community outreach. He was also inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1973, making him the first Latin American and Caribbean honoree.

READ MORE: How Roberto Clemente Lived Life to the Fullest Before Tragically Dying in a Plane Crash

Julia Alvarez

Julia Alvarez Barack Obama

Julia Alvarez (L) and President Barack Obama (R) 

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Dominican American writer Julia Alvarez has been enchanting readers with her words since the early 1990s.

Alvarez was born in New York City in 1950 before her family moved to the Dominican Republic when she was a baby. They stayed there throughout Alvarez’s childhood until her father’s involvement in a failed attempt to overthrow the militant dictator forced the family to flee to the United States in 1960.

The traumatic event has since made its way into several of Alvarez’s works, including the poem “Exile” in which she recounts the night her family fled. She went on to become one of the most critically revered Latina writers and has published poems, novels and essays throughout her career. 

Jennifer Lopez

Jennifer Lopez

Jennifer Lopez

Photo: Michael Becker/FOX Image Collection via Getty Images

“Jenny from the Block” has always paid tribute to her Latin roots throughout her success.

Jennifer Lopez was born in the Bronx, New York, in 1969 to Puerto Rican parents who supported her ambitions to become a singer, taking singing and dancing lessons starting at 5 years old. This changed when Lopez dropped out of college to pursue acting, with her parents strongly opposing her aspirations.

After touring the world with various productions, Lopez made her breakthrough performance in Selena. The 1997 movie, in which she played the beloved Mexican singer Selena Quintanilla, who had been killed just years prior, earned Lopez praise and put her on the fast track to superstardom.

Since then, Lopez has remained one of the most notable Hispanic American figures in the movie and music industry, often earning the status of “triple threat.” She also earned critical acclaim for her role in 2019’s Hustlers, which generated Oscar buzz that resulted in strong opposition to her being snubbed for the awards show.

READ MORE: The Story of Jennifer Lopez’s Iconic Green Jungle Versace Dress

Sylvia Rivera

Sylvia Rivera

Sylvia Rivera

Photo: Netflix/ Courtesy Everett Collection

In addition to being an influential Hispanic American, drag queen Sylvia Rivera is also an iconic figure in the gay and transgender rights movement.

Rivera, born in New York City in 1951 of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent, had a rough upbringing. Her father left the family when she was a baby and her mother later died by suicide when Rivera was just 3 years old. Then still known as Ray, the young child was raised by her Venezuelan grandmother who strongly rejected the beginnings of Rivera’s transgender identity forming.

Rivera was forced to leave home when she was 10, making her way through the rough streets of New York City. She often faced discrimination and violence, compelling her to begin her transgender and gay rights activism.

“We were sick and tired of being put down,” Rivera said in The Question of Equality: Lesbian and Gay Politics in America Since Stonewall. “Things just started happening.”

Rivera and her friend Marsha P. Johnson, both sex workers, made an indelible mark in the advancement of LGBTQ rights. Both are credited with forming the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), later changed to Transgender, which helped house and support LGBTQ youth and sex workers in Manhattan. They also worked with the Gay Liberation Front, founded after the Stonewall Riot in 1969.

Rivera died in February 2002 due to complications of liver cancer. She has since been heralded alongside Johnson as the mothers of the gay rights movement. Rivera was honored as one of the 50 activists included in the Stonewall National Monument, the first national monument dedicated to LGBTQ rights. 

Ellen Ochoa

Ellen Ochoa

Ellen Ochoa

Photo: NASA

Ellen Ochoa made her mark by becoming the first Hispanic American woman to go to space with a nine-day mission in 1993.

Ochoa was born in 1958 in Los Angeles, California, years after her paternal grandparents immigrated from Mexico. She first obtained her physics degree from San Diego State University and later her masters and doctorate from Stanford University’s department of electrical engineering by 1985.

Through her impressive research work, NASA selected Ochoa in 1991 and she became an astronaut in July of that year. Two years later, Ochoa made history on board the Space Shuttle Discovery on a mission to study the Earth’s ozone layer. She later completed three more missions.

Ochoa became the first Hispanic American director of the Johnson Space Center in 2013, only the second woman to take the helm. After retiring with 30 years of service, Ochoa continues to advocate for women in STEM.

“I think we need all the best and brightest people working in science and engineering fields, and that is certainly not limited to men or white men or anything like that,” she told NBC News in 2019.

Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio

Marco Rubio

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Senator Marco Rubio has made his mark in politics as a leading member of the Republican party.

A Miami native, Rubio was born in 1971 to Cuban immigrants who fled the Batista regime in 1956, two years before Fidel Castro took over through the Cuban Revolution. Though Rubio obtained citizenship through his birth, his parents didn’t become naturalized citizens until after his birth in 1975.

Rubio went to Tarkio College in Missouri for one year on a football scholarship in 1989 before returning to Florida and later transferring to the University of Florida. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in political science in 1993 there and later earned his law degree from the University of Miami in 1996.

His career in politics started just three years later when he won a run-off election in the fight for a seat in the Florida House of Representatives. He rose through the ranks and became House Speaker in 2005, the first Cuban American to do so.

The politician announced his intention to run for U.S. Senate in 2009 and was elected the next year during the midterm elections. Rubio later entered the Republican presidential primary race in April 2015, becoming one of the first Hispanic Americans to have aspirations of the highest office.

Though Rubio ended his campaign in March 2016 after placing second in Florida, the Senator did pick up three primary victories in Minnesota, Puerto Rico and Washington D.C.

He pivoted and ran for Senate re-election that year instead, beating out his Democrat opponent Patrick Murphy with 52 percent of the vote. 

Sonia Sotomayor

Sonia Sotomayor

Sonia Sotomayor

Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

A Bronx native of Puerto Rican descent, Sonia Sotomayor became the first Hispanic American to serve as a member of the Supreme Court.

Sotomayor was born in 1954 in the New York City borough, where she grew up in a predominantly Catholic and Puerto Rican community. She quickly made education a priority through her mother’s insistence after her dad died when she was 9 years old.

“I was going to college and I was going to become an attorney, and I knew that when I was ten. Ten. That’s no jest,” she told the NY Daily News in 1998.

The future judge went on to graduate valedictorian from high school and earned a full scholarship to Princeton University. She graduated in 1976 after establishing herself as a student advocate, working hard to ensure Princeton began hiring Latin American faculty. She went on to Yale Law School and graduated in 1979, earning her acceptance to the New York Bar the next year.

After working for over four years as an assistant district attorney in New York and stepping away to work in private practice, Sotomayor was nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by President George H. W. Bush in 1991 and to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit by President Bill Clinton in 1997.

Twelve years later, Sotomayor made history when President Barack Obama picked her as his first nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court in 2009. 

READ MORE: How Sonia Sotomayor Overcame Adversity to Become the United States’ First Hispanic and Latina Justice

Lin-Manuel Miranda

Lin-Manuel Miranda

Lin-Manuel Miranda

Photo: Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb

Few Hispanic Americans have made a bigger impact in recent pop culture than Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Miranda was born in 1980 in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City to Puerto Rican parents, who immigrated to New York to pursue academics. Miranda’s mother Dr. Luz Towns-Miranda is a clinical psychologist and his father Luis A. Miranda, Jr. is a Democratic Party consultant and immigrant advocate.

Miranda was raised around musicals and started writing his first title at Wesleyan University in 1999 during his sophomore year. In the Heights, loosely based on his own experiences growing up, would go on to open on Broadway in March 2008. Miranda won his first Tony Award that summer after the show received 13 nominations, earning four wins including Best Musical.

Influenced by his upbringing in the predominantly Latin Washington Heights, and his frequent vacations in Puerto Rico, the musical was heralded for featuring a largely Latin American cast with characters often singing and speaking in Spanish.

But Miranda’s largest mark on culture came when his musical Hamilton opened on Broadway in 2015. Following the life of Alexander Hamilton, Miranda reimagined the beginnings of America told by all actors of color, whose ancestors didn’t have a say in how the country was built. The hip-hop musical quickly became one of the most profitable shows to ever hit Broadway.

Miranda once again won several Tony Awards for the show, including Best Musical, Best Original Score and Best Book of a Musical.

Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Much like Rubio, Ted Cruz has elevated the representation of Hispanic Americans in Congress.

Cruz was born Rafael Edward Cruz in Calgary, Canada, in 1970 to an American mother and a Cuban father who had been living in Canada for three years. His father initially left the family and moved to Texas, though his parents reconciled and the family relocated to Houston in 1974. They later divorced in 1997.

The future politician graduated valedictorian from his high school and went to Princeton, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in public policy in 1992. Cruz went on to Harvard Law School, earning his degree in 1995.

Cruz quickly entered politics, joining George W. Bush’s presidential campaign in 1999 where he assisted in building Bush’s legal team during the Florida presidential recounts.

After serving as Texas Solicitor General from 2003 to 2008, Cruz stepped away to work in private practice. He returned to public policy when he was elected U.S. Senator of Texas in the 2012 election.

Cruz ran for president in 2016, entering the primary race in March 2015, earning 12 states and receiving 7.8 million votes. He suspended his campaign in May 2016, weeks before the Republican National Convention that made Donald Trump‘s nomination official. 

Dolores Huerta

Dolores Huerta

Dolores Huerta

Photo: Cathy Murphy/Getty Images

At 90 years old, Dolores Huerta still stands as a giant in the fight for Hispanic American labor rights.

Born in 1930, the New Mexico native of Mexican descent grew up in a farm worker community in Stockton, California, with her mom and two brothers. She briefly worked as an elementary school teacher after attending college before setting off on the path of civil rights activism.

She joined the Community Service Organization, where she later met fellow activist Chavez. She co-founded the Agricultural Workers Association in 1960 and collaborated with Chavez to found the National Farm Workers Association in 1962.

Her activism continued in California, where she made a name for herself by supporting and leading various strikes for workers’ rights. She later stepped away from the union to focus on women’s rights after she was badly beaten by a San Francisco police officer during a peaceful raid, resulting in a long recovery.

Huerta now runs the Dolores Huerta Foundation and has received several accolades, including an inaugural Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights in 1998 under President Clinton and the Presidential Medal of Freedom under President Obama in 2012. 

Julián Castro

Julian Castro

Julian Castro

Photo: Scott Eisen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On the Democratic side, Julián Castro has been a rising star in American politics.

Castro is of Mexican descent and was born with his twin brother, Joaquin, in San Antonio, Texas in 1974. His roots in Texas trace back to 1920, when his grandmother immigrated as a child to live with extended family. Castro credits his mother, a Chicana political activist, for his life in public service. He counted her influence as the reason why he and his brother, a U.S. Representative for Texas, are politicians.

“Growing up, she would take us to a lot of rallies and organizational meetings and other things that are very boring for an 8-, 9-, 10-year-old,” Castro told The New York Times in 2012. “What I did get from my mother was a very strong sense that if you did public policy right, and you did well in public service, that it’s a positive influence on people’s lives.”

He graduated from Stanford University in 1996, interning for Clinton administration at the White House between his sophomore and junior year, and later Harvard Law School in 2000.

Castro was elected to San Antonio City Council the next year in 2001 until he ran for mayor in 2005, coming in second by a small margin of votes. He was then successful in 2009 after stepping away to run his own law practice. Castro was re-elected in 2011 and 2013.

He resigned as mayor in 2014 after accepting President Obama’s offer to become the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, in which he served until Obama’s term ended in 2017.

Castro was one of the first democrats to announce his 2020 presidential campaign, making it official in January 2019. A year later, Castro suspended his campaign and endorsed Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Gloria Estefan

Gloria Estefan

Gloria Estefan

Photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images for Keep Memory Alive

Singer Gloria Estefan is often synonymous with Latin music in the United States.

Born in Cuba in 1957, Estefan’s family fled to Miami during the Cuban Revolution in 1959. Her father enlisted in the military shortly after they immigrated and took part in the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba, where he was captured by his own cousin and held prisoner for two years.

While performing in a church ensemble in 1975, Estefan first met her future husband Emilio Estefan, who had recently formed a band in Miami. She and her cousin were invited to join his band and renamed it Miami Sound Machine, leading to hits like “Conga,” “Anything for You,” “Rhythm Is Gonna Get You,” and “Hot Summer Nights.” The band’s name was dropped in 1989, with Estefan embarking on a successful solo career ever since.

Estefan married Emilio in 1976 and the couple welcomed two children, Nayib and Emily. Her lengthy career has earned her three Grammy Awards and a Presidential Medal of Freedom under President Obama in 2015, as well as the Kennedy Center Honors in 2017. The musical On Your Feet, telling the story of her and Emilio’s life, premiered on Broadway in 2015. 

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