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Cesar Chavez

Famous Hispanic Americans

by Legacy

During Hispanic Heritage Month and throughout the year, we remember and celebrate the contributions of Latinx Americans in a broad range of fields, from the arts to science, education and politics. These Latino and Latina Americans were pioneers and trendsetters, and they remain inspirations to anyone who aspires to achieve greatness.


Delia Fiallo (1924–2021)

Delia Fiallo

Delia Fiallo (Getty Images / AFP / Leila Macor)

Known as the “Mother of Telenovelas,” the Cuban-American romance novelist and screenwriter penned dozens of series including “Kassandra,” “Cristal,” and “Peregrina.” “A telenovela is basically about sentiment,” she told Variety in 1996. “If you don’t make the public cry, you won’t achieve anything.”

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Read the obituary for Delia Fiallo


Johnny Pacheco (1935–2021)

Johnny Pacheco

Johnny Pacheco (Getty Images / WireImage / The Recording Academy / Dimitrios Kambouris)

As a boy, Pacheco immigrated to New York from the Dominican Republic. He went on to found Fania Records, helping to create and popularize the Latin fusion music known as salsa.

Read the obituary for Johnny Pacheco


Joaquin Avila (1948–2018)

Voting rights attorney and activist Joaquin Avila

Joaquin Avila (AP Photo)

Avila devoted his career to increasing election fairness for minority voters. He brought lawsuits that set important voting rights precedents, argued voting rights cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, crafted the California Voting Rights Act of 2001, and served as president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Read Joaquin Avila’s obituary


Elena Verdugo (1925-2017)

Actress Elena Verdugo

Elena Verdugo (Getty Images / Michael Ochs Archives)

As Consuelo Lopez on “Marcus Welby, M.D.,” Verdugo was twice nominated for Emmys. A descendant of one of Los Angeles’s founding families, who was sometimes self-conscious about her Hispanic heritage, Verdugo fought against stereotypes throughout her Hollywood career. When it came to Consuelo, she insisted that the character be intelligent and well-rounded. And her award-winning portrayal elevated the image of Latinas on television.

Read the obituary for Elena Verdugo


Helen Chávez (1928–2016)

Cesar Chavez and Helen Chavez

Cesar and Helen Chavez (Getty Images / Cathy Murphy)

When Helen Chávez,widow of César Chávez, died in 2016, the UFW said, “Her consistent humility, selflessness, quiet heroism, and fiery perseverance were at the heart of the movement that she helped build.”

Read the obituary for Helen Chávez


Oscar Hijuelos (1951–2013)

Oscar Hijuelos

Oscar Hijuelos (Getty Images / NY Daily News / Susan Watts)

The son of Cuban immigrants, Hijuelos was the first Hispanic American to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. His second novel, “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love,” was adapted into a movie in 1992 and a stage musical in 2005. His work explored themes of immigrants adjusting to new cultures.


Jenni Rivera (1969-2012)

Jenni Rivera

Jenni Rivera (Getty Images / Harry How)

Rivera was a Latin music superstar, earning multiple Latin Grammy nominations and being named Billboard magazine’s “top Latin artist of 2013.” Rivera also served as the spokesperson for the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence before her death in a plane crash.

Read Jenni Rivera’s obituary


Jaime Escalante (1930–2010)

Jaime Escalante

Jaime Escalante (AP Photo)

Escalante became a celebrity by being an excellent public school teacher. The success of his Advanced Placement calculus program in a struggling East Los Angeles high school was dramatized in the award-winning film “Stand and Deliver.” Many of his “unteachable” students went on to get college educations.


Bill Melendez (1916–2008)

Bill Melendez

Bill Melendez (AP Photo / Nick Ut)

The Mexico-born animator worked for Walt Disney before helping to bring Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the rest of the Peanuts to life in classics such as “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” Melendez even provided the vocals for Snoopy.

Read Bill Melendez’s obituary


Freddy Fender (1937–2006)

Freddy Fender and the Texas Tornados

Freddy Fender (Getty Images / Hulton Archive / Tim Mosenfelder)

Fender was one of the kings of Tejano music and a rare Mexican-American crossover success on the country music charts. His songs of love and loss struck a chord with listeners, even when they couldn’t understand all of the bilingual lyrics.

Read more about Freddy Fender


Celia Cruz (1925–2003)

Celia Cruz

Celia Cruz (Getty Images)

Cruz recorded 23 gold albums and reigned as the Queen of Salsa throughout the Americas for decades. Born in Cuba, she immigrated to the U.S. after the Cuban revolution and joined the Tito Puente Orchestra in the mid-1960s. She is remembered for her genre-defining vocals and outrageous outfits.

Read more about Celia Cruz


Felicita (1916–1998) and Gonzalo Mendez (d. 1964)

Felicita Mendez, Gonzalo Mendez, and Sylvia Mendez with Barack Obama

Felicita and Gonzalo Mendez, left, and their daughter Sylvia Mendez, right, with President Barack Obama (AP Images)

Before Brown v. Board of Education, Felicita and Gonzalo Mendez sued the Westminster School District in California so that their children, including daughter Sylvia, could go to the school closest to their farm—a school that only accepted “white” children. The case, Mendez v. Westminster, went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1947 with Thurgood Marshall successfully arguing that the segregation of Mexican and Mexican American children into separate schools was unconstitutional. On her first day at her new school, another child told Sylvia she didn’t belong. Sylvia ran home to tell her mother, but Felicita Mendez would have none of it. She told Sylvia, “Que no sabes porque estabamos peleando? … Aren’t you aware what we are fighting for? We are fighting for you so you can feel just as equal, so you could feel just as good as he is.” That was the first time Sylvia realized exactly what her parents had been struggling for.


Hector P. Garcia (1914–1996)

Hector P. Garcia

Hector P. Garcia (AP Photo)

A physician, surgeon, and World War II veteran, Garcia founded the American G.I. Forum to advocate for Hispanic veterans. An immigrant from Mexico himself, he also fought to improve the civil rights of Mexican-Americans. Garcia was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984.


Selena Quintanilla-Pérez (1971–1995)

Selena

Selena (Getty Images)

Texas native Selena was known as the Queen of Tejano music. Her tragic murder cut short a brilliant career that was on the cusp of crossing over into the mainstream. Her posthumous English-language album, “Dreaming of You,” was the first by a Latin artist to top the Billboard 200.

Read more about Selena


Raúl Juliá (1940–1994)

Raul Julia

Raul Julia (Getty Images / George Rose)

Juliá’s celebrated acting career made him one of Puerto Rico’s most famous native sons. The star of Broadway, film and television was beloved as Gomez in “The Addams Family” and nominated for numerous awards for his performances in “Kiss of the Spider Woman” and “The Burning Season.”

Read more about Raúl Juliá


César Chávez (1927–1993)

Cesar Chavez

Cesar Chavez (Getty Images)

Co-founder of the labor union that became the United Farm Workers, Chávez used nonviolent means to improve the lives of thousands of farmworkers. He remains a revered figure in Latino communities, and many schools, parks, and streets bear his name.

Read more about César Chávez


Severo Ochoa (1905–1993)

Severo Ochoa

Severo Ochoa (AP Images)

Spanish-born physician and scientist Ochoa was a pioneer in biochemistry. He shared the 1959 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for his discovery of an enzyme that can synthesize RNA in the laboratory. Exciting new medical treatments like gene therapy were built upon this earlier research.


José Ferrer (1912–1992)

Jose Ferrer

Jose Ferrer (AP Images)

Ferrer was the first Hispanic actor to win an Academy Award for his stunning performance in “Cyrano de Bergerac” (1950). He also won a Tony for the role when it premiered on Broadway. A native of Puerto Rico, he won many lifetime achievement awards for his contributions to theater and film as an actor and director.


Desi Arnaz (1917–1986)

Desi Arnaz

Desi Arnaz (Getty Images)

Best remembered for appearing on camera as Ricky Ricardo on “I Love Lucy,” Arnaz also made significant contributions to television behind the scenes. As the show’s producer, he made the costly decision to shoot on film instead of broadcasting live. These “reruns” have been enjoyed by fans ever since.

Read more about Desi Arnaz


Ana Mendieta (1948–1985)

Ana Mendieta

The art of Ana Mendieta (Getty Images)

Her “earth-body” sculptures were an expression of her experience as a Cuban refugee. Mendieta used her art to explore ideas about the natural world and the female body. Tragically, she died after falling from her New York City apartment window. Her work continues to inspire new generations looking to tell their personal story through art.


Dolores del Río (1904–1983)

Dolores del Rio

Dolores del Rio (Getty Images)

The first Latina star of Hollywood, del Río transcended stereotypes and became an icon of golden-age glamour in silent films and alongside icons like Fred Astaire in “Flying Down to Rio.” After returning to her native Mexican film industry in the 1940s, she was active in unions and instrumental in securing day care for actresses with children.


Roberto Clemente (1934–1972)

Roberto Clemente

Roberto Clemente (AP Images)

A Hall of Fame Major League Baseball player, Clemente is equally remembered for his off-the-field generosity. He died in a plane crash while delivering aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. MLB’s Roberto Clemente Award is awarded annually to an outstanding player who is personally active in charitable causes.


Dennis Chávez (1888–1962)

Dennis Chavez

Dennis Chavez (AP Images)

The first American-born Hispanic person elected to the Senate, Chávez served his native New Mexico from 1935 to 1962. He was a defender of civil rights and while serving as Chairman of the Committee on Public Works, he played a role in the expansion of the interstate highway system during the 1950s.


Ritchie Valens (1941–1959)

Ritchie Valens

Ritchie Valens (Getty Images / Michael Ochs Archive)

Valens was only 17 when he died in a plane crash, alongside Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. But in his brief time as a rock and roll star, he gave us beloved and enduring songs including “Come On, Let’s Go,” “Donna,” and “La Bamba,” adapted from a Mexican folk song.

Read more about Ritchie Valens


Gabriela Mistral (1889–1957)

Nobel laureate Gabriela Mistral

Gabriela Mistral (Getty Images / Corbis)

The Chilean poet was the first Latin American author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature, “for her lyric poetry which, inspired by powerful emotions, has made her name a symbol of the idealistic aspirations of the entire Latin American world.”


Jovita Idar (1885–1946)

Jovita Idar

Jovita Idar (Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

A journalist and civil rights advocate, Idar championed the cause of Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants. She also served as president of Laredo’s League of Mexican Women, an organization dedicated to providing education to Mexican children.

Read more about Jovita Idar in The New York Times

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