Happy National Hispanic Heritage Month! In this week’s blog, we’re discussing five phenomenal Hispanic-American women who’ve made history and whose accomplishments deserve to be celebrated. We hope you’re as impressed by their stories as much as we are!
An adopted Horduran who was raised in Brookline, Massachusetts, Raffi Freedman-Gurspan is an activist as well as a nonprofit and government professional who became the first openly transgender White House staffer in American history. She served as Senior Associate Director for Public Engagement and the White House’s primary liaison for the LGBTQ+ community—and was also the Outreach and Recruitment Director from 2015–2017. To this day, she remains an appointee, named by Barack Obama, on the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.
In previous years, she was the Director of External Relations and, prior to that, the Policy Advisor for the Racial and Economic Justice Initiative at the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE). She has also been an LGBTQ+ Liaison for Somerville, Massachusetts; acted as Legislative Director in the Massachusetts House of Representatives; participated in the work of the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition; and was a course research assistant for Boston University’s Women’s Studies Program. At present, Freedman-Gurspan is Deputy Director for the All on The Line campaign of the National Redistricting Action Fund. She’s also a board member of SMYAL, a service provider based in Washington that works with LGBTQ+ youth. This (very busy) woman does it all.
A dual citizen of the US and Mexico, Sandra Cisneros is a writer, performer, and so much more. Her writing transforms the lives of the working class into technicolor dreams. Her novel The House on Mango Street has sold over six million copies, has been translated into over 20 languages, and is required reading at elementary and high schools as well as universities across the United States.
Cisneros has won countless awards, including NEA fellowships in both poetry and fiction, the Texas Medal of the Arts, a MacArthur Fellowship, and several honorary doctorates as well as national and international book awards, including Chicago’s Fifth Star Award, the PEN Center USA Literary Award, and the National Medal of the Arts award—presented to her by President Obama in 2016. Most recently, she received the Ford Foundation’s Art of Change Fellowship, was recognized among The Frederick Douglass 200, and won the PEN/Nabokov Award for international literature. She has also founded two nonprofit organizations, including the Macondo Foundation, “where writers, artists, thinkers, scholars, and critics can come together and inspire and challenge one another in order to incite change in our respective communities.”
Dolores Huerta was a champion for farmworkers. While working with the Stockton Community Service Organization (CSO) in 1955, Huerta met César Chávez, the Executive Director (featured in our Hispanic Heroes: Los Hombres blog!). Huerta founded the Agricultural Workers Association and, along with Chávez, resigned from the CSO in 1962 to create the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA). She successfully secured Aid for Dependent Families and disability insurance for California farmworkers, and also helped to enact the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, granting California farmworkers the right to organize. The United Farm Workers of America (UFW) is a labor union that was born of the merger of the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, led by organizer Larry Itliong, and the NFWA. The UFW led successful peaceful protests and boycotts, including the first National Boycott of California Table Grapes out of New York.
Nonviolence was an incredibly vital element to the movement, but even still, Huerta was assaulted by a police officer in San Francisco in 1988 while protesting George H. W. Bush’s policies. The officer beat Huerta with a baton, breaking four of her ribs and rupturing her spleen. As a result of the outrage that followed, the San Francisco Police Department reformed several policies, and Huerta’s case was settled out of court. She then took a leave of absence from the union to turn her focus to women’s rights. She traveled around the US, encouraging Latina women to run for office through the Feminist Majority’s Feminization of Power: 50/50 by the Year 2000 Campaign. The campaign resulted in a significant increase in the number of female representatives at the local, state, and federal levels. She also served as National Chair of the 21st Century Party, founded in 1992, on the principles that women make up 52% of the party’s candidates and that officers must reflect the ethnic diversity of the nation.
Huerta is now 90 years old and continues to advocate for the causes closest to her heart. She founded the Dolores Huerta Foundation and, as president, still speaks at schools and conferences around the country about public policy, women’s rights, and social justice. There are five elementary schools and a high school named after Dolores Huerta, and she has received several awards, including the Eleanor Roosevelt Humans Rights Award from President Clinton in 1998, Ms. magazine’s One of the Three Most Important Women of 1997, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the highest civilian award in the United States, awarded to her by President Obama in 2012.
Sonia Sotomayor is a Puerto Rican federal trial court judge who became the first Hispanic and third woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. Sotomayor grew up in a working-class family in the Bronx, and despite her father’s death when she was only nine years old, she was a bright and driven student. Her hard work and good grades earned her a scholarship to Princeton University. While there, Sotomayor served as co-chairman of the Puerto Rican activist group Acción Puertorriqueña. In her activism efforts, she accused the Princeton administration of discriminatory hiring and admission practices, especially against Puerto Ricans. After the president of the University was dismissive of her claims, Sotomayor filed a complaint with the federal government to fight “an institutional pattern of discrimination.” This was only the beginning of Sotomayor’s crusade for a more just world.
Sotomayor graduated with her bachelor’s degree in 1976 and went on to Yale Law School the following year. Her article, "Statehood and the Equal Footing Doctrine: The Case for Puerto Rican Seabed Rights," was published in the Yale Law Journal in 1979; she was also the editor of the publication. While at Yale Law, Sotomayor co-chaired the Latin American and Native American Students Association. After graduating with her Juris Doctor, she was hired at the age of 25 by Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau. She successfully prosecuted several high-profile cases, including the Tarzan murder case. In 1984, Sotomayor joined the New York City law firm Pavia & Harcourt, which focused on intellectual property rights and copyright litigation. She made partner just four years later in 1988.
In 1991, the George H. W. Bush administration nominated Sotomayor to the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, in which she served from 1992–1998. She’s credited with saving Major League Baseball from the 1995 strike (Silverman v. Major League Baseball Player Relations Committee, Inc.). In 1997, President Bill Clinton nominated her to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. She served from 1999–2009, heard more than 3,000 cases, and wrote approximately 380 majority opinions. When David Souter retired in early 2009, President Obama nominated Sotomayor to take Souter’s seat in the Senate; she was confirmed on August 6, 2009. The first case she heard was Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission; her disagreement with the majority in the case set a precedent for her reputation as a tough but liberal judge. She fought for the protection of affirmative action programs, ruled in the majority that upheld the Affordable Care Act (twice), and voted to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states in Obergefell v. Hodges. Though Sotomayor is known to be brash toward lawyers who step into court improperly prepared, she’s also incredibly warm toward jurors and hardworking attorneys.
Vilma Martínez, a civil rights attorney, was the first woman to serve as US Ambassador to Argentina. Martínez specialized in federal and state court commercial litigation while she was a partner at Munger, Tolles & Olson, where she advised companies on equal employment opportunity policies and diversity and inclusion initiatives. She also served as president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, in addition to being a litigation associate at Cahill, Gordon & Reindel in New York; a staff attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund; and President of the Los Angeles Harbor Commission.
Prior to her ambassadorship, Martínez served as chair of the Board of Regents of the University of California from 1984–1986, and as a regent from 1976–1990. She also served on President Clinton’s Advisory Committee for Trade Policy and Negotiations from 1994–1996. In 2009, President Obama appointed her as US Ambassador to Argentina, and she’s also served as a member of the Inter-American Dialogue since 2014.
Martínez has been a speaker at colleges and universities across the country, including Harvard Law School, Yale University, University of Notre Dame, Stanford University, and the University of Texas at Austin (the school where she earned her bachelor’s degree). She has received many honorary degrees and awards, the most significant of which being the Order of May—the highest possible award for a foreign national—presented to her by the President of Argentina when she completed her ambassadorship in 2013.
These amazing Hispanic-American women have made their marks on history and deserve every bit of recognition they can get. We thank you for your contributions!
We hope you’re enjoying celebrating National Hispanic Heritage Month with us! If you liked learning about these ladies, check out our Black History Month Heroes of History for more incredible individuals you should know about.
- Netroots Nation: Raffi Freedman-Gurspan
- Sandra Cisneros
- Dolores Huerta Foundation
- Oyez: Sonia Sotomayor
- The Dialogue: Vilma Martinez