15 Latina Activists Who Inspire Me

This story was originally published on March 18, 2016.

To me, Women’s History Month always feels a little contrived—it goes without saying that women around the world make remarkable contributions to their communities every single day, week, and month that deserve to be celebrated. Activism takes many forms. Out of the countless Latinas who have impacted my life and politics, I’ve put together this list of activists who inspire me. In honor of Women’s History Month, here are 15 women who have dedicated their lives to unwavering advocacy and trailblazing.

1. María Jesús Alvarado Rivera (1878 –1971, Peru)

Regarded as the “first modern champion of women’s rights in Peru,” María Jesús Alvarado Rivera was a journalist, teacher, and activist from Chincha Alta, Peru.  Alvarado Rivera spent her lifetime dedicated to empowering women through the establishment and expansion of educational programs, access to work, and political representation. Her advocacy focused on progressive models of childhood and adult education, sexual health awareness, reintegration programs for sex workers, and land rights for the indigenous. Alvarado Rivera was an international figure and her lectures are considered the first examples of public feminist discourse in Peru. In addition to establishing the first women’s committee, Alvarado Rivera also successfully campaigned for nine years to change legislation preventing women from holding directorial positions in public welfare. Her radical activism was increasingly met with opposition and she spent three months in solitary confinement before being exiled to Argentina for 12 years where she continued to teach and write. Upon her return to Peru, Alvarado Rivera continued efforts for women’s voting rights and witnessed the change in 1955.

2. Dolores Cacuango (1881 – 1971, Ecuador)

Dolores Cacuango was a native rights leader and revolutionary in Ecuador at the turn of the nineteenth century. While in servitude to a hacienda owner at the age of 15, the stark contrast between quality of life between the rich and poor sparked Cacuango’s calling to action. Her advocacy focused on education, the protection of native lands, and government reform in recognition of indigenous people. In 1944, she led an assault against a military base and founded the Ecuadorian Federation of Indians in collaboration with representatives from a variety of tribes. Despite her own lack of formal education, she spent 18 years directing one of the first schools for indigenous children with instruction in Spanish and Quechua before it was closed down by the military junta in 1963. Reportedly the result of her radical action and communist beliefs, Cacuango’s legacy has been expunged from many texts yet is remembered by many as the pioneer of indigenous activism in Ecuador.

3. María Teresa Ferrari (1887- 1956, Argentina)

María Teresa Ferrari was an Argentine doctor, educator, and pioneer in women’s health care.  Born in Buenos Aires, she founded the local military hospital’s first maternity ward and introduced gynecological services in 1925. Two years later, after a battle of over a decade, Ferrari became the first female university professor in all of Latin American. Her research on radiation use for uterine tumors and development of a vaginoscope revolutionized women’s health services in her home country as well as in Brazil. Ferrari also remained a firm advocate of women’s rights and in 1936 established the Argentina Federation of University Women which sought to increase female professorship and further social and political gains for women.

4. Julia de Burgos (1914 –1953, Puerto Rico)

Julia de Burgos was an Afro-Caribbean poet and civil rights activist who was elected Secretary General of the Daughters of Freedom for the women of Puerto Rico’s Nationalist Party. De Burgos studied at the University of Havana to become a teacher and later moved to New York City, where she began a career in writing. During her lifetime, she published two books of poems. Her pieces were known for bringing attention to the oppression faced by women. Her poetry is laden with themes of social justice and feminism and her work was a precursor for the Nuyorican Movement of the 1960’s and 70’s.  Following her untimely death, a third book of poems was published and de Burgos has continued to receive praise and memorialization for her literary contributions. She was inducted to the New York Writers Hall of Fame in 2011 and is the namesake of several public schools, parks, and cultural centers including Yale University’s Latino cultural center.

5. Eva Perón (1919 – 1952, Argentina)

Eva Perón was a beloved political figure and the First Lady of Argentina from 1946 through 1952. Born into poverty in Buenos Aires, Perón achieved her dream of becoming an actress and started her very own entertainment business at the age of 20 before marrying Colonel Juan Perón. Eva revolutionized the role of the First Lady and became a highly active, outspoken advocate for women’s suffrage and the poor. Barred from carrying the First Lady tradition of joining Buenos Aires’ society for charity work due to her own low socioeconomic status and education, Perón created the Eva Perón Foundation which sought to provide financial support to build homes, school, orphanages, and hospitals. She founded the first large-scale female political party and is attributed with gaining the right to vote for Argentine women in 1946. Her political achievements also include a declined nomination for vice presidency a year before her death from cervical cancer.  Since her death, Perón’s political and social legacy continues in Argentina and beyond as an international symbol of cult sainthood within popular culture.

6. Argelia Laya (1926 – 1997, Venezula)

Regarded as one of the most important female leaders in Venezuela, Argelia Mercedes Laya López was an Afro-Latina political activist who fought to eradicate gender, ethnic, and able-bodied discrimination in her country.  Born in a cocoa hacienda in Rio Chico, Laya’s mother instilled activism from a young age and encouraged her to protect her rights as a woman and person of African descent. Laya advocated for educational equality, inclusivity for girls who became pregnant while in school, and the right to a safe pregnancy. Despite peaceful protest and non-violent ethos, Laya faced repeated physical assaults for her efforts.  During the 1960’s, Laya became a member of the communist guerrilla movement FALN where she traversed mountainsides under the name of Comandanta Jacinta. Before her death, she served as the president of MAS, Venezuela’s social-democratic political party. 

7. The Mirabal Sisters (born 1926 – 1936, three were killed in 1960 and Dedé lived until 2014, Dominican Republic)

Patria, Dedé, Minerva, and María Teresa Mirabal were four sisters from the Cibao region of the Dominican Republic who bravely rejected the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo and became know as Las Mariposas (The Butterflies). Ignited to action after witnessing a massacre executed by the regime on June 14, 1959, the sisters formed the Movement of the Fourteenth of June and sought to dismantle Trujillo’s rule through public protest. They created and shared pamphlets outlining the massacre and as a result were repeatedly subjected to torturing and imprisonment. While en route to visit their jailed husbands, Minerva, María Teresa, and Patria were detained and beaten to death by Trujillo’s lackeys who attempted to stage their deaths as accidental by placing them back into their Jeep and running it off of a road. After her sisters’ assassinations, Dedé continued her sisters’ legacies by founding the Mirabel Sisters Museum, raising their six children alongside her own, and published her own memoir, Vivas en su Jardín, in 2009. The sisters are a symbol of feminist resistance and radical activism in Latin America and have been memorialized through pop culture, on the 200 Dominican peso bill, and annually on their death anniversary of November 25—the UN-designated International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, named in their honor.

8. Dolores Huerta (1930 — present, Mexican American)

Dolores Huerta is a Mexican American labor leader and civil rights activist known for founding the United Farm Workers alongside Cesar Chavez and for her continued advocacy for the rights of immigrants, agricultural workers, and women. She began her career in activism in the 1950’s as an organizer for farm workers’ rights. In 1960, she began lobbying for legislation in support of Spanish speakers and undocumented people. In addition to carving out space for herself in the world of politics, she spent two years advocating for increased Latina representation in office around the country through a project by the Feminist Majority. Over her impressive career, she has been arrested 22 times for non-violent protests and still has received a long list of accolades and awards for her work including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights. She’ll also officially became the first Latina to be portrayed in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery last summer. !Huelga!

9. Domitila Barrios de Chúngara (1937 –2012, Bolivia)

Domitila Barrios de Chúngara was a Bolivian labor rights activist and pioneer of intersectional feminism. An impoverished mother of seven and the wife of a tin miner, Barrios de Chúngara founded the Housewives’ Committee of Siglo XX alongside 70 other wives of miners as they advocated for increased wages and medical care through marches, hunger strikes, and political assembly. After unifying 600 unemployed women eager to financially support their families, Barrios de Chúngara convinced the managers of local mining companies to hire all of them, boosting their quality of life and the local economy. While participating in the International Women’s Year Tribunal in 1975, Barrios de Chúngara found that the majority of concerns discussed were not reflective of her experiences or struggles, so she spoke of the intersection of race, class, and sexism that she and her people faced. She went on to co-author Let Me Speak! Testimony of Domitila, a Woman of the Bolivian Mines, a chronicle of her life and work.

10. Bianca Jagger (1945 – present, Nicaragua)

Bianca Jagger is an internationally celebrated social and human rights activist from Managua, Nicaragua. While Jagger first came to the world’s attention during the 1970’s following her marriage to Mick Jagger, she has received numerous awards for her activism and charitable work over the past 30 years. Jagger’s passion for advocacy began during childhood and she marks 1981 as her “turning point” after she demanded the release of 40 refugees at gun-point while in Honduras. Since then, she has steadfastly advocated for a wide range of issues including the opposition of US-intervention in Nicaragua, indigenous rights in Latin America with notable efforts for the Yanomami tribe, environmentalism and the protection of tropical rainforests, and women’s rights on an international scale. She continues to serve today as a Council of Europe Goodwill Ambassador, Trustee of the Amazon Charitable Trust, and as the chair for the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation.

11. Michelle Bachelet (1951 – Present, Chile)

Michelle Bachelet is the current and first female president of Chile, executive director of the UN Women, and a multilingual physician who previously served as the Ministers of Health and Defense. Born in Santiago, the political climate of Chile dramatically shaped Bachelet and her family’s history. Under Augusto Pinochet’s rule in 1974, Bachelet’s father was imprisoned and tortured for several months for opposing the coup and died of a heart attack while in custody. Bachelet and her mother were subsequently kidnapped, detained, and tortured before being exiled to Australia for four years beginning in 1975. Bachelet became increasingly active in Chilean politics by the late 1980’s and it was in 2005 that she was selected by the Coalition of Parties for Democracy as their presidential candidate.  After a successful four-year term, she was re-elected in 2013 and became the first president to win in competitive elections since 1932. Bachelet’s politics are socialist and her presidential platform is founded on reducing income inequality, advocacy for LGBTQ and women’s rights, tax reform, land rights for the Mapuche, Aymara and Diaguita, and free public education.

12. Sylvia Rivera (1951 – 2002, Puerto Rican American)

Born and raised in New York City with Puerto Rican and Venezuelan roots, Sylvia Rivera was a pioneer for trans women and drag queens of color. Struggling with addiction, homelessness, jail time, and abuse because of her identity, Rivera spent her lifetime championing intersectional awareness within the gay and lesbian community and is credited with helping add the “T” to LGBTQ. After protesting together during the Stonewall riots of 1969, Rivera founded the Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries (STAR) with friend and activist Marsha P. Johnson to provide housing and support for homeless queens and queers in New York City.  Since her 2002 death, Rivera’s life has been depicted in several musicals and a short film. Her legacy has continued through The Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which pushes for legislative and political change in support of gender expression. The corner of Hudson Street and Christopher Street were renamed in her honor to Sylvia Rivera Way and her portrait was added to the National Portrait Gallery collection in 2015.

13. Sonia Sotomayor (1954 – present, Puerto Rican American)

In addition to being the third woman Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor also became the first Justice of Latin American descent following her appointment in 2009. Born to Puerto Rican immigrants, Sotomayor identifies as a Nuyorican and was raised in housing projects in the Bronx.  Her story oozes the American Dream—she knew in elementary school that she wanted to be a judge. Known for her left-leaning principles, Sotomayor has made a career of protecting minorities, women’s health, and pushing for criminal justice reformation. In a few notable cases, she rejected Arizona’s anti-immigration law SB 1070, overturned Wheaton College’s ban on contraception, and ruled in favor of marriage equality last summer.

14. Rigoberta Menchú (1959 – present, Guatemala)

Rigoberta Menchú Tum is a prominent K’iche’ activist and 1992 Nobel Peace Prize recipient with a lifelong dedication to furthering indigenous rights within the Americas.  Born in Laj Chimel, Guatemala, Menchú’s foray into political activism began in the 1970’s while speaking out against the Guatemalan army’s human rights violations during the country’s civil war. Along with an estimated 1700 Ixil Mayans, Menchú lost her father, mother, and two brothers during the Guatemalan genocide. At the age of 23, she collaborated with Venezuelan author Elizabeth Burgos to tell her story in the memoir I, Rigoberta Menchú, which catapulted the struggles of indigenous peoples in her country to international awareness. Although her autobiographical accounts have been challenged, Menchú continues to serve as the president of the organization Salud Para Todos, which seeks to provide indigenous people with affordable medicine, and has run for President of Guatemala twice since 2007.

15. Berta Cáceres (1971 – March 3, 2016 Honduras)

Berta Cáceres was a renowned environmental activist and advocate for the protection of indigenous peoples’ land in Honduras. While she has also fought for the rights of women and the LBGTQ community, she is best known for the successful, decade-long campaign she organized against the Agua Zarca Dam. In addition to grave environmental repercussions, construction of the dam violated international laws protecting indigenous people as it would have denied the Lenca people’s access to water and self-sustainability. Cáceres’ efforts were commemorated with a Goldman Environmental Prize in 2015. But after years of increasing death threats, she was killed earlier this month in what the people of Honduras are calling an assassination by the government.  COPINH, the organization she founded in 1993 to preserve the Lenca land and culture, continues to fight and operate within the country, although with caution. Her death has been widely criticized and protested around the world.

All photos in this article are Creative Commons, except for the photos of Dolores Cacuango (Descubriendo a Dolores)Julia de Burgos (Poetry Foundation), Argelia Laya (MinMujer), and Domatila Barrios de Chungara (The Woman Project).

by Emilly Prado
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Emilly Prado is a writer, educator, and interim director of Youth Programs at Literary Arts in Portland, Oregon. When not writing or teaching, Emilly moonlights as DJ Mami Miami with Noche Libre, the Latinx DJ collective she cofounded in 2017. Learn more at www.emillyprado.com or @emillygprado on Twitter and Instagram.

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