Every day we are inspired by women who work to achieve more and give more. These Latinas show us that everyone has the potential to change the world and that it's up to us to make a difference! Here are 40 amazing Latinas who have changed the world.
- With additional reporting by Irina Gonzalez
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Roots: Puerto Rican
How She Changed the World: The legendary singer, dancer and actress has had an amazing career. She won acclaim for her role as Anita in the film adaptation of West Side Story, had a successful Broadway career and even performed at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993. She was only the second Puerto Rican to win an Academy Award and is still the only Latino who has earned the prestigious EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony).
Name: Selena Quintanilla
How She Changed the World: Despite having her life tragically cut short, Selena accomplished more than most artists in her lifetime. She helped put Latin and Tejano music on the mainstream map. She was known as ‘The Queen of Tejano” and her voice transcended borders in hits like, “Como la Flor” and “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom.” Very few stars have been able to live up to the Grammy winner’s grace, talent, and ambition.
Name: Cristina Saralegui
How She Changed the World: Known as the Latina Oprah, Cristina inspired and motivated for decades with her self-titled hit Univision show. Known for ending each episode with the Spanish phrase, ‘Pa'lante, pa'lante, pa'tras ni pa' coger impulso’ (Move forward and never look back) the Cuban journalist instantly won over the hearts of millions.
Name: Gloria Estefan
How She Changed the World: As if selling over 90 million albums isn’t enough, Gloria has served as a role model for women across the globe. The legendary singer is known for her energetic performances and one of the first Latin stars to crossover into the mainstream pop market. In 2010, Gloria also launched a charity single, “Somos el Mundo” to help support Haiti after the devastating earthquake. The Queen of Latin Pop is an icon with true love for her community.
Name: Celia Cruz
How She Changed the World: “¡Azúcar!” While most singers came and went, Cruz’s career lasted a span of nearly six decades. Her profoundly soulful voice and colorful presence revolutionized salsa and transformed her into a musical legend. Most importantly, the Cuban singer taught us that ‘life is a carnival’ (in one of her many hits “La Vida Es Un Carnaval”). The late singer was also a strong voice for freedom in Cuba and was strongly against Fidel Castro’s regime.
Name: Claribel Alegria
How She Changed the World: With over 25 published works, this novelist is a powerful voice in contemporary literature in Central America. The George Washington University grad focused on the people’s movement, which helped overthrow dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle.
Name: Julia de Burgos
Roots: Puerto Rican
How She Changed the World: The renowned Puerto Rican writer and poet was a feminist at heart. Her poems, “Yo Misma Fui Mi Ruta (“I Was My Own Path”) and “A Julia de Burgos” symbolized messages of individual and nationalistic freedom. As the oldest of thirteen children, Burgos pursued her education at The University of Puerto Rico and would go on to become one of the most influential Caribbean civil rights activists.
Name: Sylvia Rivera
Roots: Puerto Rican – Venezuelan
How She Changed the World: Orphaned at the age of 3, Rivera learned how to take life’s punches at an early age. The transgender activist fought for the LGBTQ community and organized plenty of protests fighting for gay rights in the 1970’s in New York City. Her legacy is still strongly felt within the community and she has been honored in the musical,
Sylvia So Far.
Name: Hilda Solis
How She Changed the World: Solis knows how to work it! The former labor secretary, who has degrees from California State Polytechnic University, Ponoma, and the University of Southern California, won recognition from labor unions for pushing wage and hour laws, and also job safety regulations. “Growing up in a large Mexican-American family in La Puente, California, I never imagined that I would have the opportunity to serve in a president’s Cabinet, let alone in the service of such an incredible leader,” she said in a statement.
How She Changed the World: The generous pop star is known for giving back to her community thanks to her foundation Pies Descalzos. While her music career has continued to flourish, Shakira has never forgotten her roots. She has raised millions dedicated to improving the quality of education in her hometown and throughout Latin America. As a UNICEF ambassador, the “Hips Don’t Lie” singer has also committed to making a global impact for the less fortunate.
How She Changed the World: The Domican-American poet, essayist and novelist gained national acclaim after her 1991 novel, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, illuminated what it’s like to be a Latina immigrant in the U.S. Her second novel, In the Time of the Butterflies, detailed the death of the Mirabal sisters during the Trujillo dictatorship in the DR. Her contribution to Latin American literature brought on future Dominican-American writers like Angie Cruz and Junot Diaz.
How She Changed the World: The Cuban prima ballerina and choreographer changed the Cuban ballet, despite being afflicted with an eye defect that left her partially blind at the age of nineteen. She became famous for her portrayals of Giselle and the ballet version of Carmen in New York and Havana, where she founded the Ballet Nacional de Cuba and continues to direct to this day.
Maria Teresa Kumar
How She Changed the World: Growing up in a bicultural household propelled this Colombiana to change the world by getting out the Latino vote in the U.S. as the president and CEO of Voto Latino. She revolutionized the non-partisan organization when she joined shortly after Rosario Dawson founded it in 2004, developing the first voter registration via text message in 2006 and grown Voto Latino into a leading social media and online community.
Roots: Puerto Rican
How She Changed the World: Being the third female justice and the first Latino to sit on the bench of the Supreme Court of the United States is no small accomplishment for the New York City native. Other than her inspirational work as a Latina in the legal work, Sotomayor published her memoir, My Beloved World, earlier this year, which recounts her early life of growing up in housing projects in New York and the challenges she overcame.
How She Changed the World: Along with Cesar Chavez, Huerta co-founded the National Farmworkers Association, which eventually became the United Farm Workers (UFW), in order to unite farmers into a union that fights to protect their rights. She is a labor leader and civil rights activist who has also advocated for immigrants’ and women’s rights, earning her the Eleanor Roosevelt Award for Human Rights and Presidential Medal of Freedom.
How She Changed the World: The elegant business woman made a name for herself as a fashion designer who has dressed everyone from countless celebrities to many First Ladies, including Jackie O (Jacqueline Onassis) and current First Lady Michelle Obama. Known for the clothes’ impeccable, worldly style without being fussy, Herrera earned the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2008—but even that hasn’t stopped her and she is still designing beautiful clothes, accessories and even fragrances.
How She Changed the World: She is an activist who has dedicated her life to helping the world recognize the plight of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples during and after the Guatemalan Civil War. She has promoted indigenous rights in the country, ran for President of Guatemala in 2007 and 2011 and even received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2991 and the Price of Asturias Award in 1998. Her fight for the people of Guatemala has forever inspired recognition of indigenous rights in South America.
Age: Died in 2002 at age 88
How She Changed the World: Known as “Maria de los Angeles Felix”, she is considered the most iconic leading lady of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. She often played tough film characters and won three Ariel Awards for Enamorada, Rio Escondido and Dona Diabla. She forever changed the world of cinema.
Vilma Martinez (civil rights attorney)
How She Changed the World: The Mexican-American civil rights attorney was the first woman appointed to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Argentina. She was appointed by President Barack Obama in 2009 but has been a diplomat since President Jimmy Carnet appointed Martinez to her first position in the U.S. Diplomatic Corps in 1977.
Linda Chavez-Thompson (labor leader)
How She Changed the World: The Mexican-American woman is a union leader who was formerly the vice-president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations from 1995 until 2007, working on behalf of the fifty-six national and international unions to represent more than 11 million workers. Since her retirement, she ran to be the Lieutenant Governor of Texas and was the vice chair to the Democratic National Committee.
Cristina Fernández De Kirchner (Argentine President)
How She Changed the World: She is Argentina’s first elected female president, assuming office in 2007, and was reelected to a second term in 2011. Previously, she served as First Lady under former President Nestor Kirchner, as a National Deputy and three terms as a National Senator.
Michelle Bachelet (Chilean)
How She Changed the World: An inspiration to all, Bachelet was the first female president of Chile, serving from 2006 until 2010, and has since been appointed as the head of UN Women. She is also incredibly educated, speaking her native Spanish, as well as English, German, Portuguese and French. She is even rumored to be considering a return to run for president later this year.
Dilma Rousseff (Brazil’s First Female President)
How She Changed the World: The current president of Brazil also happens to be the first woman to hold the office. She served as the Chief of Staff to the President of Brazil from 2005 until 2010, and then assumed the role of President in January 2011. Her distinguished honors include receiving the Woodrow Wilson Public Service Award and being named one of Forbes’ most powerful women in the world.
How She Changed the World: The Cuban-American broadcast journalist made waves as the anchor of CNN’s morning news program Starting Point and American Morning. Today she is recognized as one of the top journalists who fights for social change, has won an Emmy award for co-hosting The Know Zone and a Goodermote Humanitarian Award for her reporting of Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. She continues to strive for excellence in reporting as she starts Starfish Media Group, which will allow her to continue to confront difficult topics and tell underreported topics.
How She Changed the World: Although she had been acting in her native Mexican, it was Hayek’s move to Hollywood in 1991 that earned her worldwide recognition as a Mexican-American actress, director and producer. She is best known for her role as Frida Kahlo in 2002 film Frida, for which she received numerous nominations and awards. She is also an advocate for increasing awareness on violence against women and discrimination against immigrants. She has testified before the U.S. Senate Committee supporting the reauthoring of the Violence Against Women Act and is a board member of V-Day, a charity aimed at ending violence against women and girls.
Name: Victoria Soto
Age: Died in 2012 at the age of 27
Roots: Puerto Rican
How She Changed the World: This courageous teacher was hailed as a heroine after she died protecting her young students during the Newton, CT shootings on December 14, 2012. She demonstrated tremendous strength when she hid her students in a closet and told the shooter that they were in the gym. She was killed protecting them, after the shooter didn’t believe her and she shielded her room from the bullets with her own body. President Barack Obama awarded Soto the Presidential Citizens Medal, describing her as a selfless and courageous woman who “inspire[s] us all to look for opportunities to better serve our communities and our country.”
Name: Concepcion Picciotto
How She Changed the World: Her name isn’t well known but she is one hard-to-forget inspiring Latina. The Spaniard-American woman commonly known as “Conchita” has been living in Lafayette square in Washington, D.C., since August 1, 1981. That’s when she set up a peace camp across from the White House in order to protest nuclear arms. She is known for carrying out the longest continuous act of political protest in the U.S. and has been featured in Michael Moore’s 2004 documentary Fahrenheit 9/11.
Name: Eva Longoria
How She Changed the World: Known as one of the highest paid actresses in television history, the Desperate Housewives star made a cool $13 million for her seductive role as Gaby Solis. However, that was only the beginning for Longoria. She has developed into a powerful figure behind-the-scenes as an executive producer of the ALMA Awards and the upcoming series, Devious Maids. Her philanthropic work with PADRES Contra el Cancer has also helped millions of families affected by the illness. However, the Chicana actress’ biggest role has been as the ambassador for Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012.
Alicia Dickerson Montemayor (Latina activist)
Age: Died in 1989 at age 86
How She Changed the World: The Mexican-American activist from Laredo, Texas, was one of the first truly inspirational Latina women. She crossed a lot of barriers for women, becoming the first woman elected to national office (that wasn’t created for a woman specifically) as vice president general of the League of United Latin American Citizens and also the first woman associate editor of the LULAC newspaper. She encouraged girls and women to join the Latin American activism movement and is designated as a Women’s History Honoree by the National Women’s History Project.
Jovita Idár (journalist)
Age: Died at age 60 in 1946
How She Changed the World: The Mexican-American journalist, who was born in Texas, was a major figure to worked to advance the civil rights of Mexican-Americans. She wrote for a newspaper called La Cronica where, under a pseudonym, she exposed the poor living conditions of Mexican-American workers and supported the Mexican revolution, which started in 1910. She also served as the first president of the League of Mexican Women, which was founded in 1911 to offer free education to Mexican children in Laredo, Texas. She continued writing to advocate for the issues being faced by Mexican-Americans in that time.
The Mirabal Sisters
Age: Particia was 36, Maria was 34 and Antonia was 25 when they were killed
How They Changed the World: Patricia, Belgica, Maria and Antonia (commonly known as Patrisia, Dede, Minerva and Maria Teresa) became involved in the political movement against dictator Trujillo. They formed the group Movement of the Fourteenth of June in order to oppose his regime, but they were incarcerated and tortured on several occasions, resulting in the deaths of Patricia, Minerva and Maria Teresa. Their amazing courage and persistence in the face of endless opposition remains an inspiration to many. The day of their deaths, November 25th, is now official the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.
Name: Frida Kahlo
How She Changed the World: Although her artwork wasn’t well known until the 1970’s, Kahlo was always considered an important figure in folk art. Many of her works were self-portraits that captured her pain and anguish from surviving a bus accident and her rocky romantic relationship with artist Diego Rivera. With each brush stroke, her vibrant style and cultural depiction has inspired countless Latinas ever since.
Name: Claudia de la Cruz
How She Changed the World: As the founder of Da Urban Butterflies (DUB), Cruz is dedicated to youth outreach for Latinas in the Washington Heights area in New York City. The group, which has been around for 8 years, helps empower young women between the ages of 18 to 30 with sex education and career workshops. “Here you find yourself in a space where they are telling you yes, you are worth something. We care about you and you can create the world you want. That is really empowering,” said Cruz about her organization.
Name: Isabel Allende
How She Changed the World: As “the world's most widely read Spanish-language author," Allende has captivated readers for decades thanks to her mythical storylines and gripping narratives in classics like, The House of Spirits and City of Beasts. She helped transform the non-fiction literary landscape and has won countless of awards for her works.
Name: Arisa Batista Cunningham
How She Changed the World: Arisa runs the boardroom as the VP of global diversity for Johnson & Johnson. She helps come up with strategic planning for franchises worth a total of $24 billion. Since earning her MBA from Ohio University, Arisa has made it a point to increase diversity in the workplace and has won the J&J Equal Opportunity Award.
Name: Ellen Ochoa
How She Changed the World: As if being the first Latina astronaut isn’t enough, she’s also the co-inventor of three patents related to optical inspection systems. She received her doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University and is currently the director of the Johnson Space Center. Talk about reaching for the stars!
Name: Rosario Dawson
Roots: Puerto Rican and Cuban
How She Changed the World: This actress has never been content with just being a Hollywood superstar. The co-founder of Voto Latino has inspired and empowered a new generation to hit the polls in a major way. Rosario is just as passionate about other issues concerning our community. She has shown support for arrested undocumented immigrants, and raised awareness for the Purple Purse Campaign, which aimed to donate over $250,000 to the YWCA for their domestic violence survivors and women in need.
Name: Jennifer Lopez
Roots: Puerto Rican
How She Changed the World: J.Lo may not have completed her degree at Baruch University, but she’s still considered one of their top alumni with a total annual net worth of $52 million in 2012 alone. Jenny From The Block hit the jackpot from her humble beginnings in the Bronx and gives back to her community as a spokesperson for the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the founder of Lopez Family Foundation, her nonprofit organization which helps provide medical care to women and children across the globe. Her signature curves also helped transform Hollywood’s standards of beauty.