Picture of Jovita Idár, Sylvia Rivera, & Julia Alvarez.

3 Hispanic Americans You Should Know

In this article we highlight three individuals who fought for representation, inclusion, and justice. Their work has contributed to the enrichment of American identity and culture and cultivated a more just society.

Here at Facing History, we see awareness months as opportunities to deepen our knowledge of and attention to the histories and contemporary experiences of historically marginalized communities. We also recognize that focusing on celebrating these communities for only one particular month can further marginalize the very experiences we are hoping to elevate. With this in mind, what follows is an invitation to engage with important themes raised during Hispanic Heritage Month throughout all of the months of the year.

September 15th through October 15th marks National Hispanic Heritage Month in the United States. This month, we encourage our educators, students, and all in our community to take this opportunity to reflect on the myriad contributions Hispanic and Latinx people have made to American culture and history. 

Today, Hispanic and Latinx Americans make up nearly 20% of the U.S. population and their impact and influence on American life cannot be underestimated. American history is full of Hispanic and Latinx people and communities standing up for the preservation of our country’s highest ideals.

In this article we highlight three individuals who fought for representation, inclusion, and justice. Their work has contributed to the enrichment of American identity and culture and cultivated a more just society.

To learn about more Hispanic & Latinx leaders, activists, and changemakers, explore this list of free teacher resources, including two streamable documentaries, two on-demand webinars, and a bundle of lessons designed to help educators bring the richness of Hispanic and Latinx life and history into focus in the classroom. 

Jovita Idár

Perhaps best known for standing up to U.S. Rangers after writing a scathing rebuke of president Woodrow Wilson’s decision to send U.S. military troops to the southern border in 1914, Jovita Idár was a writer, advocate, and organizer at a time of monumental change. Born in 1885 in the border town of Laredo, Texas, she was steeped in the worlds of journalism and political activism from a young age. In the early part of the twentieth century Idár and her family were at the forefront of the fight for civil rights for Mexicans and Mexican Americans. 

In 1911 she worked to help organize the First Mexican Congress, which was convened in an effort to discuss and address social, economic, and political injustices Mexicans and Mexican-Americans were facing. Following her work with the First Mexican Congress, Idár established La Liga Feminil Mexicanista (The League of Mexican Women) as a way for Mexican women to come together and provide education, mutual aid, and social consciousness raising to others in their communities. 

Throughout her life she demonstrated unyielding commitments to her family, her community, civil rights, the freedom of the press, and a preservation of the Mexican-American voice.  Learn more about Jovita Idár in this mini-biography from the National Museum of Women’s History and this article from The New York Times’ series Overlooked.

Sylvia Rivera

Sylvia Rivera was a leading activist for transgender rights within the LGBTQ+ movement whose work spanned more than three decades. 

Born in New York City in 1951 to a Puerto Rican father and a Venezuelan mother, Rivera was assigned male at birth and named Ray. While Rivera had a strong sense of her identity from an early age, her childhood was rife with struggle.  

On her own at the age of 11, Rivera found community and a sense of safety as a teenager by becoming involved in activist circles. In 1963 Rivera befriended Marsha P. Johnson, and together they began organizing and fighting for more respect and representation for trans people within the gay rights movement. Both Johnson and Rivera were intimately involved in the Stonewall Inn uprising on June 28, 1969. Rivera, only 17 years old at the time, refused to back down, remaining steadfast in her commitment to upholding the rights of gay persons fighting for freedom. In 1970 Rivera helped establish the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR). STAR was a unique community space which served both as a gathering place for individuals to safely organize and discuss the specific issues facing the transgender community as well as a safe housing provider for members of the trans community.

Since her death in 2002 her activism has been honored and celebrated in many important ways and her legacy continues through the work of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. Her work in the Black Libertation movement, the peace movement, and the transgender rights community still reverberate today. Learn more about Sylvia Rivera in this episode of the Making Gay History podcast and this mini-biography from the National Women’s History Museum.

Julia Alvarez

Award-winning poet and author Julia Alvarez is an important voice in American culture, writing about identity, assimilation, social class, and post-colonialism.

From a very early age, Alvarez experienced the turbulence of political upheaval. Born to Dominican parents in New York City in 1950, Alvarez spent her early years living in the Dominican Republic until her family was forced to flee back to the United States due to her father’s involvement in the attempt to overthrow the Dominican Republic’s dictator, Rafael Trujillo.

 Upon her return to the U.S., Alvarez struggled with questions of identity, culture, language, and self-expression. Through poetry and storytelling she was able to find and establish her unique voice. With her first book of poems, Homecoming, published in 1984, she also gave voice to many underrepresented people and the experience of migration in the United States in the mid-twentieth century. 

Her work has garnered extensive international attention and influenced many authors who have followed in her wake. To learn more about Julia Alvarez read this mini-biography from the Chicago Public Library or listen to this interview with her on NPR’s Code Switch podcast.

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