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Whether it be in politics, science, medicine or the arts, Latinas have defied social, cultural, and gender stereotypes throughout many generations and have become pioneers in their respective fields and native countries.
In honor of these brave, daring, and at times controversial women, here are 10 Latinas who fought against the odds and became the first in their class:
Sonia Sotomayor – First Latina U.S. Supreme Court Justice
Born in the Bronx, New York in 1954, Sonia Sotomayor grew up in challenging circumstances. Although she recalled regular summertime visits to Puerto Rico to see friends and family, her home life in New York was not a happy one. Her father was an alcoholic who died in his early 40s and her mother kept her emotional distance from her daughter. The family lived in the housing projects, which would later be overrun by gang violence.
Still, Sotomayor’s mother pushed her children to take their education seriously, which left a deep imprint on Sotomayor, who knew by age 10 that she wanted to be a lawyer. Sotomayor won a scholarship to Princeton University and graduated summa cum laude in 1976 and went on to receive her law degree from Yale.
In 1979 Sotomayor served as an assistant district attorney, which eventually paved her way to becoming a U.S. District Court judge, appointed by George H.W. Bush. Under Bill Clinton’s administration, Sotomayor would make her way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1997, and a little over a decade later, Barack Obama nominated her to the highest court in the land. In 2009 Sotomayor would make history as the first Latina to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Since then, she has built her reputation on being an advocate for criminal justice reform and women’s rights.
READ MORE: How Sonia Sotomayor Overcame Adversity to Become the United States’ First Hispanic and Latina Justice
Rita Moreno – First Latina PEGOT Recipient
Born in 1931, Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno has built an award-winning career in film, television and theater that has spanned over seven decades. Famous for her supporting roles in the film adaptations of the King and I (1956) and West Side Story (1961), Moreno would earn herself an Oscar for the latter, making her the first Latina to achieve such a feat.
In the 1970s, Moreno became a regular cast member of the beloved PBS children’s show The Electric Company and would later be cast in a supporting role on the HBO hit drama Oz (1997-2003).
Her multitude of credits as an actress, singer and dancer would later result to one of her biggest crowning achievements in 2019: She is the first Latina to be elevated to PEGOT status, a small group of entertainers who have won a Peabody, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award.
READ MORE: Rita Moreno Was Over Being Stereotyped in Hollywood, so She Quit Making Movies for Seven Years
Isabel Perón – First Latina Female President
on October 21, 1975.
Despite her lower-middle-class background and her fifth-grade education, former nightclub dancer Isabel Perón would become Latin America’s first female president.
Born in Argentina in 1931, Isabel Perón’s rise to power would be through her husband, Argentinian president Juan Perón, who was previously married to the late and beloved Eva Perón (aka Evita). As the third wife, Isabel, known to her countrymen as “Isabelita,” would serve as her husband’s vice president and First Lady during his third presidential term, starting in 1973.
However, just a year in office, Juan suffered from a series of heart attacks and died on July 1, 1974. Isabel took over as president, and while her nation and political allies and even some of her husband’s enemies initially showed support for her, she quickly fell out of favor after she issued a government-run suppression campaign against her adversaries, including a string of political murders and anti-left-wing policy measures and purges.
In 1976 Isabel was forced out by a military coup and remained under house arrest before being allowed to move to Spain. In 2007 an Argentinian judge issued an order for her arrest for the disappearance of an activist in 1976, but Spanish courts refused to extradite her, citing the charges didn’t fall under the category of crimes against humanity.
Ellen Ochoa – First Latina Astronaut in Space
Born in Los Angeles in 1958, Ellen Ochoa immersed herself in the sciences, graduating from San Diego State University with a bachelor’s in physics (1980) and later from Stanford University with a master’s in science (1981) and a doctorate in electrical engineering (1985).
As a doctorate student, she focused her studies primarily on optical systems involving high tech space exploration, which eventually led her into the NASA space program in 1991. Two years later, Ochoa became the first Latina woman to fly into space, which occurred aboard the shuttle Discovery.
Ochoa would complete a total of four space missions during her career at NASA and would make history once again when she became the first Latina director of the agency’s Johnson Space Center in 2013.
Evangelina Rodriguez – First Dominican Female Doctor
Despite being born into poverty and discriminated against for being born of partial African descent, Afro-Dominican Evangelina Rodriguez became the first woman from the Dominican Republic to earn her medical degree.
Born in 1879, Rodriguez was raised by her grandmother and diligently worked her way through school and earned her education, despite the social and cultural challenges of being a poor half-Black female who was a product of wedlock. She received her medical degree from the University of the Dominican Republic in 1909 and began building her career in small towns and giving medical care to the poorest citizens.
After scrounging her earnings for many years, Rodriguez furthered her expertise by studying gynecology and pediatrics in France in 1921 and graduated four years later. She returned to her country and cared for her patients, while also becoming a political firebrand, advocating for women’s rights and issues, such as birth control, and speaking out against dictator Rafael Trujillo.
Gabriela Mistral – First Latina Author to Win the Nobel Prize in Literature
Tragic love, childhood, piety, sadness, bitterness and the politics of the times brought forth the lyrical poetry that defined Chilean poet, diplomat and educator Gabriela Mistral. Born in 1889 as Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, the poet would later go by her pseudonym Gabriela Mistral, which she created by fusing the names of her favorite poets Gabriele D’Annunzio and Frédéric Mistral.
While working on her poetry as a young woman, Mistral also served as a village school teacher. An intense romance with a railway worker who would end up killing himself, was one of several tragedies throughout her life that would inspire her poetry, and it was her sonnets memorializing the dead, Sonetos de la muerte, in 1914 that would make her famous throughout Latin America.
As an artist and intellectual who gained international fame for her poetry, Mistral was invited to travel the world as a cultural ambassador for the League of Nations and lived in France and Italy in the mid-1920s to early 1930s. She lectured and served as an educator throughout the United States, Europe and Cuba and received honorary degrees at renowned universities. In 1945 she was the first Latin American female poet to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Isabel Allende – First Latina Author Dubbed as Most Widely Read in the World
Another Chilean artist, Isabel Allende, would follow in Mistral’s footsteps to become “the world’s most widely read Spanish-language author.” In fact, Allende would become the first woman to be awarded the Gabriela Mistral Order of Merit.
Born in Peru in 1942, Allende would gain international recognition for her magical realism in novels such as The House of Spirits and City of Beasts. Drawing from historical events (her father’s first cousin was Chilean president Salvador Allende, who was overthrown in a military coup in 1973) and her own experience, Allende honors the stories of women in mythical fashion and is credited to have transformed non-fiction literature.
Among her many awards, Allende received Chile’s National Literature Prize in 2010 and was honored by President Barack Obama with a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014 as well as an honorary degree from Harvard that same year.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen – First Latina & Cuban-American to Serve in Congress
Political activism ran in Ilena Ros-Lehtinen’s family. Born in Cuba in 1952 and later immigrating to the United States at age eight, Ros-Lehtinen grew up with an anti-Castro activist father and memories of escaping Fidel Castro’s regime. Focusing her career in education, Ros-Lehtinen earned both her a bachelor’s degree in 1975 and a master’s degree in 1985 at Florida International University. In 2004 she received her doctorate in education from the University of Miami.
While operating a private school in Miami in the early 80s, Ros-Lehtinen was elected to the Florida House of Representatives, becoming the first Latina to accomplish this. She continued her groundbreaking streak by becoming the first Latina to serve in the state senate and in 1989, the first Latina and first Cuban-American to serve in the United States Congress as a member of the House of Representatives. Starting in 2011, she also became the first female to ever manage a regular standing committee, the Committee on Foreign Affairs.
As a moderate Republican, Ros-Lehtinen was considered one of the most popular bipartisan politicians before retiring her House seat in 2017. She was the first House Republican to come out in support of gay marriage and served as a member of numerous caucuses in her 30-year political career, including the LGBT Equality Caucus, the Climate Solutions Caucus and the Congressional Pro-Life Women’s Caucus.
Maria Elena Salinas – First Latina Journalist to Win a Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award
Born in 1954, Los Angeles native Maria Elena Salinas is distinguished for being the longest-running female TV news anchor in the U.S. and the first Latina to earn a Lifetime Achievement Emmy. With a journalism career spanning over three decades, Salinas has interviewed world leaders — from presidents to heads of state to dictators — and served as the co-anchor for Univision’s nightly news broadcast as well as its news magazine program, Aquí y Ahora (Here and Now).
Known as the “Voice of Hispanic America,” Salinas recently retired from her role at Univision but continues to focus on her philanthropy, which includes education, promoting women’s media, and increasing voter registration within her community. “I am grateful for having had the privilege to inform and empower the Latino community through the work my colleagues and I do with such passion,” she stated while stepping down from Univision, adding, “As long as I have a voice, I will always use it to speak on their behalf.”
Eulalia Guzmán – First Mexican Female Archaeologist
Born in 1890 in San Pedro Piedra Gorda, Eulalia Guzmán was an educator, feminist and philosopher best known as Mexico’s first female archaeologist. She helped develop the Ixcateopan, Guerrero archaeological project, an archive of her country’s history, and the National Library of Anthropology and History.
Although some of Guzmán’s archaeological work became controversial among Mexican scholars for their lack of authentication — namely her claim that she discovered the remains of the Aztec Emperor, Cuauhtémoc — she was popular among Indigenous populations who celebrated her accomplishments.
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