Javascript is not enabled.

Javascript must be enabled to use this site. Please enable Javascript in your browser and try again.

Skip to content


Latino American Icons


Latino American Icons


En español | Congress recently approved the creation of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Latino.


While a site for the museum has not yet been chosen, Smithsonian officials announced the institution’s 19 inaugural members of the board of trustees. They’re a diverse group of Latino leaders with wide-ranging expertise, including chef and humanitarian José Andrés, actress Eva Longoria and Alberto Ibargüen, president and CEO of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the former publisher of the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, among others.


But who will be featured in the National Museum of the American Latino?  We asked experts to name the most inspiring and influential Americans who have Hispanic roots. Here are 10 of their top picks.



Roberto Clemente (1934 — 1972)

Baseball Hall of Fame right fielder and humanitarian; born in Puerto Rico


By Manny Sanguillén, Major League catcher and Clemente’s teammate


When you’re a famous ballplayer, life is filled with all kinds of temptations. One of the reasons why Roberto Clemente was such an amazing athlete was that he never abused his body. He took care of himself, and that’s how he won the Gold Glove Award for 12 consecutive seasons. Roberto was the best of friends. He taught me about baseball and life in general. He spent most of his time off-season doing charity work, delivering food and supplies to countries in need. He’d traveled with his wife to Nicaragua and was mortified by the poverty there. “I want to help out the poor,” he told me. On December 31, 1972, he was flying back to Managua when his plane crashed. I later heard that it had been overloaded with goods. I’d like to think he never felt the crash, that he went straight to heaven. When I found out about the accident, I dived into the waters near where it had been, trying to find his remains. I wasn’t surprised when the Pittsburgh Pirates retired his uniform — number 21.


People always ask me if his death devastated me. Even today, I think of him as somebody who is still alive. In a way, he has never left.


—As told to Ernesto Lechner



Selena (1971 — 1995)

Tejano singer, songwriter, actress and fashion designer; born in Texas to parents of Mexican heritage


By Joe Nick Patoski, journalist and author of the biography Selena: Como la Flor


She was called the queen of Tejano music, the regional sound created by Mexican Americans in Texas. But Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, who would have turned 50 this year, was more than just a dynamic performer and businesswoman. Proud of her Native American features, she made herself a role model for millions of young girls.


Selena’s aspirations crashed in 1995 when she was shot and killed by the woman she then considered her best friend. Selena’s posthumous English-language album, Dreaming of You, has sold more than 3 million copies. And her legacy, since her untimely passing, has only grown. She opened the door for a generation of female entertainers of color. Selena: forever young, forever beautiful, forever ascendant.



Anthony Quinn  (1915 — 2001)


Academy Award–winning actor; born in Mexico; immigrated to the U.S. as an infant


By Edward James Olmos, Emmy Award–winning actor and Oscar nominee


Anthony Quinn could do everything. When he played Zorba in Zorba the Greek, people really thought he was Greek. He influenced a lot of us in the industry. His honesty and truth were key. You have to hit a level of truth, of being authentic, for characters to come to life. Yes, you need to know the technique of acting, but the way you use that technique has to come from deep inside.


What many people don’t know is that Anthony once put his career on the line to save some boys he didn’t even know. In 1942, despite a lack of evidence, 21 Mexican American teens were put on trial in Los Angeles for murder in the unexplained death of a teenage boy, and most of the defendants were convicted. Anthony worked really hard to bring awareness to the plight of these children. He was called a communist because of it — he risked his brand in a big way. But he was compelled to do it because of the injustice against the kids. And he helped to get those convictions overturned.


—As told to Elizabeth Llorente








Ynés Mexía (1870 — 1930)

Pioneering botanist and land conservationist; born in the U.S. to a Mexican diplomat and his wife


By Bill McKibben, environmentalist and author of books including The End of Nature


It is perhaps too clever by half to call a botanist a late bloomer, but Ynés Mexía fits the label perfectly. After an early life best described as tempestuous (she moved around North America following her parents’ divorce), she ended up in Northern California, where she started hiking into the mountains with the Sierra Club. At 51, she enrolled in college, studying botany, and in her mid-50s, she undertook her first real botanical expedition, into Mexico, as part of a Stanford team. But she was soon operating on her own, and on a spectacular scale.


Mexía collected plants from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska’s Mount McKinley; she emerged from one 2½-year journey with 65,000 specimens. She fell off a cliff, broke bones, ate poison berries by mistake. But she survived. And altogether, she collected almost 150,000 plants, 500 of which were new to science — and 50 of which bear her name. “I decided that if I wanted to become better acquainted with the South American Continent,” she wrote in the Sierra Club Bulletin, “the best way would be to make my way right across it.”



Oscar de la Renta (1932 — 2014)


Pioneering fashion designer; born in the Dominican Republic; immigrated to the U.S. at age 30  


By Carolyne Roehm, fashion designer and onetime assistant to de la Renta, who became her mentor


Oscar was not only a Renaissance man and a couturier but also the essence of a true gentleman. The modern, everyday woman captivated him. To dress her, he bucked trends and forged his own path, which was a marriage between old and new.  


The epitome of the American dream in his own life, he brought sophistication and class to the landscape of American fashion, especially evening wear. His clients — who ranged from First Ladies to actresses to notable women at the top of their fields — exuded elegance, femininity and confidence. His clothes were frilly and flirty, though never vulgar.  


And he was the most fun boss you could ever have. The greatest lesson Oscar taught me, when I was young and shy, was to let it rip. He told me, “Be bold. Be out there.”


—As told to Elizabeth Llorente



Johnny Pacheco (1935 — 2021)


Musician and cofounder of Fania Records, the influential label known as the Latin Motown; born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New York City  


By Bobby Valentín, bandleader



I met Johnny Pacheco around 1960, when I was getting started in New York. Even then, he had a vision and wanted to stir things up. The energy he projected was electrifying. He was funny and charismatic, dancing and leading his first bands. The other musicians were great but looked like mummies onstage. Pacheco was Juilliard trained and was also a natural entertainer. And by recording classic albums with the best singers of his time — including Celia Cruz — and founding the Fania label with attorney Jerry Masucci, Pacheco emerged as the main architect of the ’70s salsa explosion. It was a cultural movement that began in New York but shook the entire world and changed the history of Latin music.


I was one of the first artists he signed to Fania, and I toured the world with him as bass player with the Fania All Stars. Every time we got together, it was like being part of a family. Pacheco never changed; he remained affable and good humored until the last day of his life. After I set up my own record label and moved to Puerto Rico, he would stay with me whenever he visited the island. It hurt so much when he passed. I felt like part of my own essence was gone. He was an amazing human being — a visionary musician and producer. His legacy is just monumental.


—As told to Ernesto Lechner









Helen Rodríguez-Trías (1929 — 2001)


Physician, educator, advocate for women’s health in the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Middle East; born in New York to Puerto Rican parents


By Carmita Guzmán, cofounder of Taller Salud, a women’s health collective



Helen spoke up for people who were disenfranchised; that was front and center for her. She saw health care, including reproductive health care, as a human right. Wherever Helen went, she left her imprint. Whether it was Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx or the Pacific Institute for Women’s Health in California, she changed, for the better, the way things were done.


I first met Helen in 1974, when I went to work with her on the Committee to End Sterilization Abuse. She fought for new guidelines for sterilizations, which were performed disproportionately on poor and minority women, often misled or coerced into the procedures. Those guidelines eventually became law, protecting the futures of so many vulnerable women. And I know many doctors who, as medical students, benefited from her compassionate teachings and live by her example today. Helen believed in educating people about their rights, so they could fight for and obtain them.


—As told to Elizabeth Llorente



Lupe Serrano (born in 1930)


Celebrated prima ballerina and ballet teacher; born in Chile; immigrated to the U.S. at age 20


By Kevin McKenzie, artistic director, American Ballet Theatre


Before meeting Lupe in person, I had seen her perform onstage. She had a mystique about her that enchanted me. She represented the coexistence of artistry and technical proficiency, and it was evident how devoted she was to the authenticity of character. As a dancer, she was a true artist in that respect.


During her professional career, she became the bridge between two eras of classical ballet, and she was the first Hispanic principal dancer ever to dance with American Ballet Theatre in New York City.


She was unapologetic about how she felt about certain roles, and she always sought the humanity in a role.


Ballet technique, the foundation and grammar of the language, was something Lupe excelled in — she is the quintessential ballerina in that regard, an absolute icon. In performance, she was known as a technician with great skill and artistry; in the studio, she was a citizen who was advocating for the truth of the form.


—As told to Mario Alberto Zambrano





Dolores Huerta (born 1930)


American labor leader and human rights activist; cofounder, with Cesar Chavez, of United Farm Workers; New Mexico native


By Carlos Santana, rock musician and activist



When you hear “Dolores Huerta,” you immediately think hope and courage. She has no fear of doing something no one has done before. In the 1960s and ’70s, she and Cesar Chavez demanded humane working conditions for farmworkers and the right for them to organize. Dolores used strikes and boycotts to face down agribusiness giants.


Dolores’ mission is to establish equality, fairness and justice but also to help people believe in their own superpowers. The chant that she created — and that stays with everybody, including Barack Obama — is “¡Sí se puede!”: “Yes, it can be done!” She is able to ignite people to believe in their own self-worth.  


To achieve what Dolores has, you have to be strong, with a tenacity of spirit. I want to put Dolores in the highest light so everyone in this world, especially women, can be empowered by her indomitable will. She’s unmatched in her energy, and she uses it to organize on behalf of women, Latinos and LGBTQIA people, and for better education and health for all.


I have never met a person with more perseverance, combined with gentleness and class and dignity. She’s a machete. And she’s a beam of light.


—As told to Julia Lobaco






Oscar Hijuelos (1951 — 2013)


Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist; born in New York City to Cuban immigrants


By Carolina Garcia-Aguilera, author of 10 books, including the Lupe Solano mystery series



Although he wrote about the lives and struggles of immigrants, there is a universality in Oscar Hijuelos’ novels, especially in the way he described the difficulties of family life. But if his characters had their troubles, their stories were also tales of opportunity and hope. His best-known work, The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, details the lives of two musical brothers whose careers overlap with those of real mambo musicians of the 1950s, such as Tito Puente and Desi Arnaz. In 1990 the novel became the first by a Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize.


One of Hijuelos’ earlier books, The Fourteen Sisters of Emilio Montez O’Brien, was my favorite. His descriptions of a matriarchal home spoke to me and my experience as a Cuban immigrant in a way other books had not. I am grateful to Hijuelos both for sharing his vision of our stories in his detailed and sometimes musical, sometimes magical, prose and for opening the door for other Hispanic writers, like me, to find an American audience.



More Hispanic Heritage Month Content

Read More

More Hispanic Heritage Month Content

Read More