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20 Hispanic & Latina Women to Know

By YWCA Minneapolis
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Hispanic and Latino/a/x Heritage Month is observed every year from September 15 to October 15 — the start date is on or close to the independence anniversaries of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico and Chile. To celebrate this month, we are uplifting 20 Latina/x and Hispanic women leaders, artists and activists. Read on to learn about 20 women whose leadership, innovation and creativity have made and continue to make vast contributions to our history.

We use the term “women” in this blog and also acknowledge and validate the spectrum of gender identification and the breadth of language used by and among women/womyn/womxn/femmes.

Gloria Arellanes

Gloria Arellanes is a political activist known for her involvement with the Chicano Movement, the Brown Berets, and has been an instrumental figure in the development of Chicana Feminism. She was the first female minister of the Brown Beret. The Brown Berets were known for advocating for education and employment improvements, speaking against police brutality and establishing a community clinic. Gloria later resigned from the organization due to what she called gender inequality within the movement.

Emilia Gonzalez Avalos

Emilia Gonzalez Avalos is a Mexican immigrant. Born in Mexico City, raised in Irapuato and Minnesota, she joined her father in Minnesota years after he left their town looking for a better future for his family. Family separation, border consciousness and transnational economy shaped Emilia to become an immigration activist, intersectional feminist and advocate for human rights. Emilia is alumna of the Hubert H. Humphrey Public Policy Fellows Program, the Roy Wilkins Community Fellows and Emerging Leader Fellow with America Votes. She currently serves as the executive director of Navigate MN.

Joan Baez

Joan Baez is a legendary folk singer, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and a human rights activist. She is known for her anti-war advocacy spanning decades, from the Vietnam War to the Iraq War. Joan was also involved in the Civil Rights Movement where she sang “We Shall Overcome” at the March on Washington in 1963.

Dolores Cacuango

Dolores Cacuango, also known as Mamá Doloreyuk, was an influential figure in the fight for Indigenous and farmers’ rights in Ecuador. Frequently considered as one of the first activists of  Ecuadorian feminism, her advocacy focused on education, protection of native lands and government reform in recognition of Indigenous rights. Cacuango was also imprisoned for her activism. Her activism and contributions are frequently labeled as “radical” and used as an excuse to discredit and undermine the importance of her works.

Ilia Calderón

Ilia Calderón is a Colombian-born Emmy award-winning journalist who made history by becoming the first Afro-Latina to co-anchor Univision’s news show. Recently, on March 15, 2020 she co-hosted the eleventh Democratic Presidential Debate on CNN. She is the author of a book titled, “My Time to Speak: Reclaiming Ancestry and Confronting Race.”

Luz María Frías

Luz María Frías is an attorney who is known for her advocacy around issues of race and gender equity. Luz was YWCA Minneapolis’ president and CEO from 2016 to 2019. Currently, she is one of the cohosts of MPR’s podcast Counter Stories and in July 2020, Luz was appointed Deputy Attorney General of the state of Minnesota.

Maria Regan Gonzalez

Maria Regan Gonzalez became the first mayor of color in Richfield and the first Latina mayor in the state. Gonzalez grew up with two cultures with her native-Minnesotan father and mother who immigrated from Mexico. She has been working on her master’s degree in public health, while at the same time working full time at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota.

Ambar Cristina Hanson

Ambar Cristina Hanson, MPA, is the community relationship officer at Mortenson Family Foundation. Previously, Ambar worked as chief external relations officer at Hiawatha Academies. Ambar moved to Minnesota from the Dominican Republic 22 years ago and since moving to the U.S., Ambar has been dedicated to advocating for immigrant communities and communities of color to have equal opportunities and access to higher education, jobs that provide livable wages, health, housing and safety.

Mary Hernandez

Mary Hernandez an immigrant from Mexico, has lived in Shakopee, MN for the past 20 years with her family and has earned a reputation as a strong advocate for the residents of the community. She is the co-founder of the nonprofit organization Esperanza, co-founder of the Shakopee Diversity Alliance, a member of the St. Francis Regional Medical Center Board of Directors, an at-large member of the Shakopee Community Education Advisory Council, and former cultural liaison for the Shakopee School District. Mary has also volunteered with the FISH network and Isaiahmn.org as she fights for racial and economic equality for all Minnesotans.

Dolores Huerta

Dolores Huerta was born in New Mexico in 1930. After earning a teaching certificate, Huerta was a lead community organizer with the Stockton Community Service Organization. In 1955, she met fellow organizer and leader César E. Chávez. Seven years later, they built the National Farm Workers Association (now United Farm Workers) where she led lobbying and negotiating efforts for laborers. She was a key leader in labor, civic engagement and civil rights organizing and has led lawsuits, national boycotts and campaigns. As the president of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, she continues to advocate for civil rights.

Maria Isa

Maria Isa is a local Twin Cities’ singer, songwriter, actor, rapper, activist and cohost of the podcast Latina Theory. She has appeared on Broadway and received grand reviews. Her artistic work has been featured in numerous national network shows.

Frida Kahlo

Frida Kahlo was a Mexican painter who was internationally renowned for her powerful and symbolic art. Kahlo was always interested in medicine, science, politics and art. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, her travels in Mexico and the United States honed her artistic style, which was influenced by Mexican folk culture and mexicanidad. Several of her paintings were of herself, “the subject I know best” as she said. Kahlo has become an iconic figure in art, as one representation of Chicana feminism and Mexican indigeneity.

Carmen Maria Machado

Carmen Maria Machado is one of the most acclaimed young names in science fiction and horror fiction. Renowned for her inclination in subverting genre tropes and her ability to integrate heavy real-world subject matter into her works, Machado is sure to continue breaking boundaries for queer authors. The New York Times listed her book, “Her Body and Other Parties,” as a member of “The New Vanguard,” one of “15 remarkable books by women that are shaping the way we read and write fiction in the 21st century.”

Rita Moreno

Rita Moreno is a Puerto Rican performer whose career began at age 11 dubbing Spanish language versions of films in the United States. She made her Broadway debut just before turning 14 and went on to star in numerous films and television shows, despite having to fight the stereotypes that followed Hispanic and Latina talent. You may have seen her most recently in the remake of the television series One Day at a Time. She is the first Latina woman and one of few performers to hold an EGOT title, having obtained Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

In 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez became the youngest woman ever to serve in the United States Congress at the age of 29. The Puerto Rican Bronx native has been a vocal advocate for a more equitable U.S. and has continued to lead efforts for tuition-free public colleges and universities, guaranteed living wage for all Americans and Medicare-for-all. In her short time as a US Representative, she has brought over $4.3 billion in federal funding to support healthcare, affordable housing, transportation, retirement security, and combating opioid addiction in her district.

Dr. Ellen Ochoa

Dr. Ellen Ochoa is a veteran astronaut and engineer and was the 11th director, first Hispanic director, and second woman director of the Johnson Space Center at NASA. In 1993, she became the first Hispanic woman to go to space and has been in space four times (for a total of nearly 1,000 hours). Ochoa is the namesake of a handful of schools, the recipient of NASA Space Flight Medals, Outstanding Leadership Medal, Exceptional Service Medal and Distinguished Service Medal.

Patricia Torres Ray

Patricia Torres Ray born in Colombia and represents Senate District 63, which includes south Minneapolis in Hennepin County and Richfield. She is the first Hispanic American to be elected to the Minnesota Senate and the first minority woman to run as Lieutenant Governor in Minnesota.

María Jesús Alvarado Rivera

María Jesús Alvarado Rivera was a journalist, teacher and activist from Chincha, Peru. She is regarded as the “first modern champion of women’s rights in Peru” and spent her life committed to empowering women through establishing and expanding educational programs, access to work and political representation. Her essay “El Feminismo” was the first revolutionary essay of the twentieth century in Peru, and her lectures are regarded as one of the first examples of public feminist discourse in Peru. Rivera’s advocacy work focused on progressive models of childhood and adult education, sexual health awareness, reintegration programs for sex workers and land rights for the Indigenous.

Julia Salazar

New York State Senator Julia Salazar is part of a progressive wave of young women fighting for a more equitable world. She has advocated for tenant rights, sex workers’ rights, criminal justice reform, equal protection for women and immigration justice. She currently serves as Chair of New York’s Committee on Women’s Health. Committed to ending the harm caused by mass incarceration, Senator Salazar has been vocal in demanding reforms to the justice system. She also co-sponsored the historic NYS Dream Act and the “Green Light” bill, granting access to NYS drivers’ licenses regardless of immigration status.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Sonia Sotomayor was born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents in 1954. After watching the television show Perry Mason, Sotomayor decided at age 10 to become a lawyer. In 1991, she was nominated to the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York by the George H.W. Bush administration and 18 years later in 2009 she was nominated as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court by President Barack Obama, becoming the first Hispanic and Latina Justice and the third woman to serve on the High Court.

This list is just a handful of the amazing Hispanic and Latina/x women who have shaped our culture and changed the world for the better. Learn more about the history of Hispanic Latinx Heritage Month and how to celebrate it this month.

Learn More about YWCA Racial Justice and Public Policy