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1973: 10 Events That Shaped Hispanic America

A snapshot from 50 years ago highlights political, art and entertainment moments in the lives of U.S. Latinos

spinner image A snapshot of who marked the lives of Latinos in America in 1973.

The U.S. Hispanic population numbered 63.7 million in July 2022, according to the latest census data. At 19.1 percent of the country’s total population, Latinos make up nearly one in five people in the United States and are the nation’s largest ethnic minority, wielding $3.2 trillion in economic clout in 2021, according to a new report by the Latino Donor Collaborative. 

Fifty years ago, there were less than 10 million people of Hispanic origin in the United States. The U.S. census didn’t start asking about Hispanic ancestry until 1970, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus would not be founded until 1976. Clearly, a lot has changed since then.

Let’s travel 50 years back in time and take a look at what was happening in the world of U.S. Latinos in 1973.

1. Changes in bilingual education

spinner image Men watch as President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Bilingual Education Act in 1968.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Bilingual Education Act in 1968; it was passed by Congress the same year.
Alamy Stock Photo

Despite great progress in the 1960s toward ending discrimination and segregation in public schools, the influx of immigrants — mainly from Mexico — resulted in large numbers of students who were not proficient in English and, as a result, did not obtain a solid education. The 1968 Bilingual Education Act was passed to provide federal funds to make teaching more effective, but in the years that followed, budget cuts made it hard to implement quality educational programs.

Education policies were amended in 1973 to expand access to bilingual education, and Congress passed the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, which provided a framework for bilingual instruction as part of government-funded education.

2. Miguel Piñero writes 'Short Eyes'

spinner image Miguel Piñero sits on the rooftop of a building with the New York City skyline in the background
Miguel Piñero on the rooftop of the building where he lived. The native of Gurabo, Puerto Rico, lived in New York City from childhood until his death at age 41 in 1988.
Ira Berger / Alamy Stock Photo

Puerto Rican playwright Miguel Piñero wrote Short Eyes, a gritty play based on his experiences as an inmate in New York prisons. It won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and an Obie Award in 1974. While Latinos in the United States were gaining visibility, the Latin American literary boom continued with outstanding works by Argentine writer Julio Cortázar (his fourth novel, Libro de Manuel, later translated to English as A Manual for Manuel) and Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru (the fiercely satirical Pantaleón y las Visitadoras, published in English as Captain Pantoja and the Special Service).

3. Roberto Clemente elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame

spinner image A statue of Roberto Clemente shows him in motion after an at-bat at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Statue of Roberto Clemente at PNC Park in Pittsburgh. Clemente played for the Pirates from 1955 to 1972.
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

On Dec. 31, 1972, Puerto Rican baseball star Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash as he was en route to Nicaragua to deliver humanitarian aid. He was 38 years old. A few months later, Clemente was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame, the first Latino player to receive this honor. The number of Latinos in Major League Baseball continued to rise over the decades; currently, 30.2 percent of MLB players are of Hispanic origin.

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4. Miami is declared a bilingual city

spinner image Maurice Ferré, at the microphone, addresses his supporters in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.
Maurice Ferré, at the microphone, addresses his supporters in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.
Tony Gutiérrez/AP

With its sizable Cuban community, Miami was officially declared a bilingual city in 1973. That same year, Maurice Ferré — a Puerto Rican–born politician and University of Miami graduate — became the city’s first Hispanic mayor. He remained in office until 1985. Today, 72 percent of Miami’s population is of Hispanic origin, and 67 percent speak Spanish at home.

5. César Chávez fights for farmworkers

spinner image César Chávez, leader of the United Farm Workers, protests in a grocery store parking lot in Los Angeles on July 7, 1973.
César Chávez, leader of the United Farm Workers, protests in a grocery store parking lot in Los Angeles on July 7, 1973.

During the Great Depression, the family of César Chávez , the future founder of the United Farm Workers union, lost their farm in Arizona and were forced to work in the fields of California. This experience inspired Chávez to advocate for farmworkers’ rights in the United States, using aggressive but nonviolent tactics. In 1968, he staged a 25-day hunger strike to protest violence against farmworkers. He went on another hunger strike in 1972, and in 1973, he organized a boycott of lettuce and grapes. This led to the passage of the historic California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975.

6. Death of Tito Rodríguez

spinner image Tito Rodríguez
Puerto Rican singer, songwriter and bandleader Tito Rodríguez left an indelible mark on Afro-Caribbean music.
Michael Ochs Archives/Stringer/Getty Images

On Feb. 28, 1973, just days after appearing in Madison Square Garden with his fellow musician Machito, Puerto Rican singer and bandleader Tito Rodríguez died of leukemia. He was only 50. Born in Santurce, Puerto Rico, and blessed with a stunningly versatile voice that allowed him to perform both boleros and dance tunes, Rodríguez was a major figure in New York City’s golden age of mambo in the 1950s, with the Palladium Ballroom at the epicenter. His musical legacy includes dozens of outstanding recordings.

7. Chicano art thrives

spinner image A colorful, untitled mural by artist Charles Felix is pictured at the Estrada Courts housing project in Los Angeles
Untitled mural hand-painted by artist Charles Felix at the Estrada Courts housing project on Olympic Boulevard, east of downtown Los Angeles. The mural was painted in 1973.
Robert Landau/Alamy Stock Photo

Chicano art continued to develop and gain momentum in 1973. In East Los Angeles, the artists of the Asco collective expressed their disgust at the deaths of soldiers in the Vietnam War, and they drew inspiration from Dadaism and the Arte Povera movement of 1960s Italy. Farther north, in San Francisco’s Mission District, the Mujeres Muralistas (Women Muralists) created colorful murals throughout the city, with themes showcasing Latin culture and the social changes of the decade.

8. Salsa is here to stay

spinner image Members of the Fania All Stars
Members of the Fania All Stars.
Courtesy of Fania

In New York City, the salsa movement hit full stride with Fania Records and its superstar lineup. An electrifying blend of Afro-Caribbean dance rhythms with American funk, R&B and rock, salsa drew strength from its stylistic diversity: the rough, streetwise sound of Willie Colón with Héctor Lavoe; Johnny Pacheco’s reverence for Afro-Cuban rhythms; the progressive sound of Roberto Roena; and the youthful passion of Ismael Miranda.

9. Latin talent shines in film and television

spinner image Raquel Welch and Michael York on the set of 'The Three Musketeers.'
Raquel Welch and Michael York on the set of “The Three Musketeers.”
Sunset Boulevard/Getty Images

Latino actors gradually began carving out a presence in Hollywood. Raquel Welch, of Bolivian ancestry, appeared in the lavish remake of The Three Musketeers directed by Richard Lester, a role that garnered her a Golden Globe for best actress. Ricardo Montalbán appeared alongside John Wayne in The Train Robbers, a Western filmed in Mexico. And production began on the television sitcom Chico and the Man, starring Jack Albertson and Freddie Prinze, which premiered in 1974 with a theme song written and performed by José Feliciano.

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10. Death of Pablo Picasso

spinner image Pablo Picasso in his Paris studio
Pablo Picasso in his Paris studio.
Bettmann/Getty Images

On April 8, 1973, Pablo Picasso, the genius of modern painting and sculpture and cofounder of cubism, died in France at the age of 91. The night before, he and his second wife, Jacqueline, dined with friends. In all, Picasso created more than 400 portraits of Jacqueline, his wife of 12 years. After his death, she was unable to cope with his absence and died by suicide in 1986 at age 59. Picasso’s death sparked renewed interest in his work — the scope of which few artists in history have matched — and, to this day, new exhibitions continue to pay homage to the artist.

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