Ten “Lesser-Known” Notable & Influential Hispanic-American Figures

Villa Finale is observing Hispanic Heritage Month with a series of blog posts and videos highlighting different aspects of Hispanic culture in the United States. We begin with a blog post by Villa Finale’s Executive Director, Jane Lewis, who will spotlight influential figures some may not be familiar with.

Jane Lewis

Each year, Americans observe National Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15 to October 15.  National Hispanic Heritage Month commemorates the contributions Hispanic-Americans have made to American society and culture at large, and honors five of our Central American neighbors who celebrate their independence in September. 

The observation started in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week under President Lyndon Johnson and was expanded by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 to cover a 30-day period starting on September 15 and ending on October 15. It was enacted into law on August 17, 1988, upon the approval of Public Law 100-402.

The day of September 15 is significant because it is the anniversary of independence for Latin American countries Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. In addition, Mexico and Chile celebrate their independence days on September 16 and September18, respectively.

The following, lesser-known Hispanic-Americans have played key roles in elevating the experiences, culture and art of Latinos and weaving them into American society through their service and bodies of work. Their service and work have broken barriers, helped tell the civil rights struggles and expanded the understanding of Latinos in the U.S., and added to the many dimensions of the American international culture.

  1. Rudolfo Anaya
Rudolfo Anaya (from Flickr)

Rudolfo Anaya was considered the godfather of contemporary Chicano literature. Noted for his 1972 novel “Bless Me, Ultima”, the themes and cultural references of the story had a lasting impression on fellow Latino writers. It was subsequently adapted into a film and an opera. His father, Martín Anaya, was a vaquero from a family of cattle workers and sheepherders. His mother, Rafaelita (Mares), was from a family of farmers from Puerto De Luna in the Pecos River Valley of New Mexico. The beauty of the desert flatlands of New Mexico, referenced as the llano in Anaya’s writings, had a profound influence on his early childhood.

Anaya’s family relocated from rural New Mexico to Albuquerque when he was in the eighth grade, where he graduated from high school in 1956. This experience later appeared as an autobiographical allusion in his novel “Tortuga.” Following high school, he earned a B.A. in English and American Literature from the University of New Mexico in 1963, after which he went on to complete two master’s degrees.  In 2016, Anaya received the National Humanities Medal for his portrayal of the American southwest and the depiction of the Chicano experience.

2. Macario Garcia

Macario Garcia (from guideposts.org)

Macario Garcia was born in Mexico in 1920 before his family immigrated to Texas in search of a better life. He grew up working as a cotton farmer before World War II broke out, prompting him to enlist. On November 27, 1944, García’s platoon was trapped by enemy fire in Grosshau, Germany. Realizing that his company could not advance because it was pinned down, Garcia went alone and destroyed two enemy emplacements and captured four prisoners. Despite being wounded himself, he continued to fight on with his unit until the battle was over. He became the first Mexican immigrant to receive the Medal of Honor, the United States’ highest military decoration. Just a few years later he was granted American citizenship.

3. Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales

Rodolfo Gonzales (from UNO Grace Abbott School of Social Work’s Facebook page)

Rodolfo Gonzalez grew up in a tough neighborhood in Denver, Colorado, during the Great Depression, which took an especially heavy toll on Mexican Americans. His father instilled a sharp sense of history from his native Mexico and encouraged his son to take pride in his heritage. Considered one of the founders of the Chicano Movement of the 1960’s, 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.

Gonzalez is perhaps most widely known for his poem “Yo Soy Joaquín (“I Am Joaquín”), which confronts cultural multiplicity and the oppression of Chicano Americans in the U.S.  Gonzales was a talented boxer prior to his activist career, winning the Golden Glove championships in his youth. He died in April 2005, leaving behind a legacy of Chicano empowerment and pride.

4. Juan Felipe Herrera

Juan Felipe Herrera (from in.pinterest.com)

Juan Felipe Herrera grew up in a family of migrant workers who traveled throughout California, taking work where they could and often living in tents. Settling in San Diego, Herrera graduated from high school and received a scholarship to UCLA, later earning a master’s degree from Stanford and an MFA from the renowned Iowa Writer’s Workshop. As his career flourished, Herrara’s experiences as a poor campesino continued to influence his writing. The 21st U.S. Poet Laureate and the first Hispanic-American Poet Laureate, Herrera held this esteemed position from 2015–2017. During his time as California’s Poet Laureate in 2012, Herrera created the I-Promise Joanna/Yo te Prometo Joanna Project, which focuses on anti-bullying and advocacy of the arts for children.

5. Dolores Huerta

Dolores Huerta (from doloreshuerta.org)

Born as Dolores Clara Fernandez in northern New Mexico in 1930, Dolores Huerta followed a family tradition of activism. Her father was a farmworker and union activist, while her mother was involved in numerous civic organizations. Huerta found her voice while serving as an organizer for the Stockton (California) Community Service Organization (CSO). It was during this time that she met a fellow organizer, Cesar Chavez. The two bonded and in 1962, they formed the National Farm Worker’s Association (NFWA). Throughout her long career, Huerta has advocated for workers’ rights, women’s rights, and Latinx rights, and continues to do so to this day at age 90. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan was taken from Huerta’s words from NFWA strikes: “Si se puede,” which translates to “Yes we can.”

6. Octaviano Larrazolo

Octaviano Larrazolo (from commons.wikimedia.org)

Born in 1859 in Allende, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, Octaviano Larrazolo would go on to influence U.S. thinking on Hispanic issues. Larrazolo moved to Arizona in 1875 with Reverend J.B. Salpointe, who taught him theology. Larrazolo taught in Tucson for a year before eventually settling in Las Vegas, New Mexico, and becoming involved with the state’s Democratic Party. Working his way up the political chain, Larrazolo was elected Governor of New Mexico in 1918. He was then elected to the U.S. Senate in 1928, becoming the first Hispanic to accomplish such a feat. Larrazolo fell ill soon after taking office and died just six months into his Senate term, but his unfortunate end didn’t prevent Larrazolo from making his permanent mark on Hispanic-American history.

7. Joseph Phillip Martinez

Joseph P. Martinez (from casa-ucberkeley.org)

Joseph Phillip Martinez was the first Hispanic-American to receive a Master of Architecture degree from Harvard University in the 20th century. He was the founding Dean at The New School of Architecture, previously teaching at the University of California at Berkeley. Martinez’s broad professional practice has garnered many awards including a National AIA Presidential Award and a National AIA Citation. He was named by the National Association of Land Grant Universities and Colleges as Alumni of the Century for the University of California San Diego (the only other Hispanic-American honored was Henry Cisneros from Texas A&M University). Martinez’s more than 40 years of professional practice using his Eclectic Design Methodology has resulted in a portfolio of unique works of architecture, earning him recognition as the “Father of Chicano Architecture.

8. Gabriela Mistral

Gabriela Mistral (from latercera.com)

Born as Lucila de María del Perpetuo Socorro Godoy Alcayaga in Chile in 1889, poet and educator Gabriela Mistral was the first Hispanic-American person to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. Although she was no stranger to tragedy, she used her pain to create lasting works of poetry. Throughout her career, Mistral traveled the world as a writer and educator, teaching at Columbia University, Vassar College, and the University of Puerto Rico. She died in New York in 1957, twelve years after winning the Nobel Prize.

9. Ruben Salazar

Ruben Salazar (from en.wikipedia.org)

Ruben Salazar was just an infant when his family immigrated across the border from Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. He would go on to become one of the first Hispanic-American journalists in mainstream media. His work was particularly significant because it focused on injustices being done to those in the Chicano community. Salazar served in the United States army before becoming a journalist for the Los Angeles Times.  In “Who is A Chicano,” Salazar explained the plight of Hispanic-Americans struggling to find identity and equality: “Chicanos feel cheated. They want to effect change. Now.” While covering a protest of the Vietnam War, the Chicano Moratorium in 1970, his life was cut short by a tear gas projectile thrown by the police.

10. Luis Valdez

Luis Valdez (from kazu.org)

Luis Valdez, a director, playwright, actor and writer, received the 2015 National Medal of the Arts for bringing Chicano culture to the American public through works like “Zoot Suit,” which told the trial of Chicanos who were beaten and stripped of their zoot suits in racially-motivated attacks and the award-winning movie “La Bamba,” a biopic about rock ‘n roll musician Ritchie Valens.

Valdez also founded “Teatro Campesino” which created and performed actos or short skits on flatbed trucks, and helped dramatize the struggles of the nation’s farmworkers. First staged during the California grape boycotts organized by Cesar Chávez and Dolores Huerta, the Teatro performed across the U.S. and Mexico. Teatro Campesino is considered an integral part of the Chicano civil rights struggle.