From sports to science to government and the arts, Hispanic leaders have shared their talents and visions to set the bar high in all spheres of American life. At 62.1 million strong, Latinos now make up 19 percent of the U.S. population — nearly one in five of all Americans — and have often made history along the way. Here are some firsts to remember.
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PHOTO BY: Abaca Press / Alamy Stock Photo
1947: The first challenge to racial segregation in schools
Growing up in California in the 1940s, Sylvia Méndez remembers walking past the tidy stucco elementary school for white children on her way to the ramshackle “Mexican school” for dark-skinned children like her. Her father, a Mexican immigrant named Gonzalo Méndez, was so infuriated at the unequal treatment of his children that he rallied other Mexican families, hired an attorney and launched a legal battle that would eventually abolish segregation in public schools not just in California, but in the entire nation. The 1947 ruling in Mendez v. Westminster — argued successfully by an up-and-coming lawyer named Thurgood Marshall — would pave the way for the Supreme Court’s landmark 1954 ruling declaring racial segregation in schools unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. Eight-year-old Sylvia Méndez, meanwhile, would go on to excel in academics and enjoy a 30-year career in nursing. She would also continue to share her family’s experience and become an advocate for advancing civil rights. In 2011, President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
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PHOTO BY: MAYELA LOPEZ
1981: The first Latino astronaut
One of Franklin Chang-Díaz’s earliest memories is of lying inside a very large cardboard box with his friends and cousins and pretending to count down and blast off into space. Chang-Díaz, who was born in Costa Rica and whose father was of Chinese descent, grew up during the Cold War and was fascinated by space exploration. To pursue his dream, he headed to the United States in his teens, eventually earning a Ph.D. in plasma physics from MIT and applying to NASA’s Space Program, where he became the first Hispanic astronaut in 1981. In his 25-year career at NASA, Chang-Díaz equaled the record seven space shuttle flights, helped build the International Space Station and logged more than 1,601 hours in space, including 19 hours and 31 minutes in three spacewalks. Upon retiring from NASA in 2005, Chang-Díaz, who envisions a day when humanity will live and travel throughout the solar system, founded the Ad Astra Rocket Company, where he is developing a plasma rocket engine that claims 10 times the performance of a chemical rocket while using one-tenth the amount of fuel.
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PHOTO BY: Richard Mackson/Getty Images
1981: The first major league pitcher to win both the Rookie of the Year Award and the Cy Young Award in the same season
In 1981, U.S. baseball fans would be introduced to one of the game’s great pitchers, whose prowess ignited Fernandomania from the moment he first stepped onto the mound at Dodger Stadium. Twenty-year-old Mexican pitcher Fernando Valenzuela went on to win the National League Rookie of the Year Award and the Cy Young Award, the first pitcher in major league history to win both during the same season. Nicknamed El Toro (“the bull”), Valenzuela went on to help the Los Angeles Dodgers clinch the 1981 World Series against the New York Yankees — and best all National League pitchers to win the 1981 Silver Slugger Award. That was just the beginning. Fabulous Fernando would continue to confound batters with his signature screwball pitch throughout a 17-year career in the majors.
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PHOTO BY: CHRYSTYNA CZAJKOWSKY
1990: The first Hispanic and first woman to be appointed U.S. surgeon general
A childhood spent combating a congenital disease left Antonia Novello determined to become a doctor and help children and families who, like hers, could not afford the medical care they needed. Eventually, that path would lead her to join the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. As a congressional fellow, Novello — born Antonia Coello in Fajardo, Puerto Rico — helped draft federal legislation to establish the national registry for organ matching, as well as the health warnings added to cigarette packages. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush appointed her the United States’ 14th surgeon general, the nation’s top health official, making her the first woman and the first Hispanic to hold that position. During her tenure, from 1990 to 1993, Novello continued to focus on the health of women, children and minorities, launching initiatives to combat underage drinking and smoking as well as domestic violence, and to prevent the neonatal transmission of AIDS. In 2014, Novello retired from her position at the Florida Hospital for Children in Orlando, but she remains active, most recently meeting with all living former U.S. Surgeon Generals at the White House in 2021 to discuss expanding COVID-19 vaccine access and information to communities of color.
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PHOTO BY: Don Bartletti/Getty Images
2003: The first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama
Before Lin-Manuel Miranda, before Hamilton, there was Nilo Cruz, and there was Anna in the Tropics, the first play by a Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 2003. The play, which at the time had not been staged in New York, won on the strength of its script alone. Set in 1929 in Ybor City, Florida, where many Cuban immigrants had settled to work in the growing cigar industry, the play is built on the tradition of the lector at the cigar factories who, while workers hand-rolled each cigar, would read to them, anything from news to novels to nonfiction. In Anna in the Tropics, the lector reads Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, with unintended consequences for the cigar-rolling workers. In addition to his Pulitzer, Cruz, a Cuban American, has won many other prestigious awards for his work that often reflects Cuban, Latin American, Spanish and U.S. Latino themes.
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2006: The first Latina brigadier general in the U.S. Marine Corps
When Angela Salinas took over as CEO of the Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas in 2015, she was uniquely qualified to serve as a role model for girls and young women, inspiring them to be leaders and serve their country and communities. Not only was the Texas native of Mexican ancestry once a Girl Scout herself, but in 2006 she became the first Hispanic female brigadier general in the U.S. Marine Corps (USMC) before being promoted to major general in 2010. When Salinas retired in 2013 after a 39-year career in the military, she was the highest-ranking woman in the USMC. “Serving in the Marines ignited in me a passion for wanting to do something greater than myself. And that was the foundation for the next 39 years of my life,” she told PBS. As of August 2022, Salinas is also a member of the Veterans Justice Commission, an initiative by the Council on Criminal Justice to examine why so many military veterans end up in the criminal justice system.
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PHOTO BY: Robert Laberge/Getty Images
2014: The first Latina driver to compete in a NASCAR national series in the United States
Introduced to auto racing at the age of 24 in her native Venezuela, Milka Duno soon started competing professionally and today has eight major motorsport wins to her credit. Besides becoming the first Latina driver to compete in a NASCAR national series in 2014, Dono is also the first Latina driver to compete in multiple U.S. racing series, including the Indianapolis 500 and the IndyCar, ARCA, Rolex and American Le Mans series. A former model, Duno is a qualified naval engineer with four master’s degrees. In 2004, she created the Milka Way program to inspire children to achieve academic excellence.
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PHOTO BY: Gregg DeGuire; Getty Images/Sid Hastings; Alamy Stock Images
2015, 2022: The first Hispanic Poets Laureate of the United States
As the son of migrant farmworkers in California, Juan Felipe Herrera had a childhood that was nomadic, restless and kaleidoscopic, all words that have also been used to describe his body of work as a poet, novelist, author of books for young adults and children, nonfiction writer and performance artist. But there was one constant in his early life: his mother’s voice, reciting poetry in Spanish and singing songs from the Mexican Revolution. Her voice, he said, inspired his own. In 2015, Herrera’s stature in Chicano and American literature led the Library of Congress to name him the nation’s 21st poet laureate, making him the first Latino to hold that position and the first whose body of work blends English and Spanish. Seven years later, in 2022, Ada Limón became the first Latina to be named poet laureate. Born in Sonoma, California, and of Mexican ancestry, Limón is the author of six critically acclaimed poetry collections. As the 24th poet laureate of the United States, she has said that she’d “like to explore how poetry can reconnect us to the natural world and help us to repair our relationship to the planet.”
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2016: The first U.S. journalist to anchor both English- and Spanish-language newscasts on two broadcast networks simultaneously
When journalist José Díaz-Balart started hosting his own weekday morning show, José Díaz-Balart Reports, in English on MSNBC on September 27, 2021, it was just the latest step in a career that has the versatile anchor moving deftly between English- and Spanish-language newscasts at NBC, Telemundo and CBS. It was, in fact, at CBS that Díaz-Balart first made history, in 1996, when he became the first Cuban American to host a network news program in English (This Morning). In 2016, the bilingual anchor — winner of four national Emmys, an Alfred I. duPont–Columbia University Award and a George Foster Peabody Award — again made history when he took over NBC Nightly News Saturday while continuing to anchor Noticias Telemundo, making him the first U.S. journalist to anchor both English- and Spanish-language newscasts on two broadcast networks simultaneously. Now, as host of José Díaz-Balart Reports and NBC Nightly News Saturday, and as he continues to helm special news coverage for Telemundo and on Peacock, Díaz-Balart is the only anchor to host national news programs on both cable and broadcast television in both English and Spanish.
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PHOTO BY: ABC
2021: The first actresses to win an Oscar for separate performances of the same character
In 1962, Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno made history when she became the first Hispanic woman to win an Academy Award for best actress in a supporting role for her portrayal of Anita in West Side Story. Sixty years later, history was made yet again when another Latina, Ariana DeBose, who is of Puerto Rican ancestry, was awarded the Oscar for playing the same character in Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake. Adding to the list of firsts, DeBose also became the first Afro-Latina and LGBTQ woman of color to win the Academy Award for best supporting actress. Thanking “the divine inspiration that is Rita Moreno” in her acceptance speech, DeBose also referred to their shared character: “Now I see why Anita says ‘I want to be in America’; because even in this weary world that we live in, dreams do come true.”
Virginia R. Cueto is executive editor of AARP’s Spanish-language website and heads the organization’s translation services team. Before joining AARP in 2008, she helmed various publications and digital properties at The Washington Times, Televisa Publishing and Hispanic Publishing Group, among others.