Social Justice

11 Latinx Activists You Should Have Learned About In History Class

These important Latinx figures paved the way.

by Kyli Rodriguez-Cayro, Jay Polish and JR Thorpe
Originally Published: 
María Elena Moyano and Rigoberta Menchú Tum are two iconic Latinx activists you should know about

High school history classes can be very white- and male-centric. The accomplishments, contributions, and sacrifices of women, especially women of color, aren't always included as part of your average history curriculum. But there are so many Latinx activists who you didn't learn about in school who changed the cultural and political landscape in the U.S. and beyond.

Yet, they tend to be omitted from standard textbooks. As Vox reported in 2019, many major high school textbooks gloss over the oppression that Black people have faced in the U.S. because they diminish the horrors of slavery, or even refer to people who were enslaved as "immigrant workers." Moreover, according to The Atlantic, studies of U.S. history textbooks have also revealed that Latinx communities and historical figures are rarely mentioned, along with other historical figures of color. The Smithsonian Magazine reported that a 2017 study found for every three historical figures that are men taught to students in a standard high school social studies class, only one woman was mentioned. Of the 178 women historical figures taught in the curriculums that were included in the report, the study found only 8% of the historical women were Latinx.

Despite this, Latinx activists — especially women — have always played a crucial role in creating cultural and political change throughout history. Here are nine Latinx and Latin American activists you should know about — even though they probably weren't in your textbooks .


Felicitas “La Prieta” Méndez

As Hunter College's Center for Puerto Rican Studies reported, Felicitas “La Prieta” Méndez was born in Puerto Rico but was recruited to Arizona during the 1920s to work on cotton fields at 12 years old. In the 1940s, Mendez's three children, who were of Mexican-Puerto Rican descent, were denied entrance into the Westminster, California, school district after administrators claimed their skin was too dark.

In response, Mendez and her husband filed a class-action lawsuit against four school districts within Orange County. According to the U.S. Department of Interior, four other families served as witnesses in the case, and the suit garnered support from the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the National Lawyers Guild, the American Jewish Congress, and the Japanese American Citizens League. Though Felicitas and her husband were offered the chance to allow for their children to attend the "white" school in exchange for dropping the lawsuit, the Mendez family refused in their fight for civil rights.

In 1946, the Mendez family won their case, and California ended segregation within their schools in 1947. This case set the precedent for Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which ended legal mass segregation in public schools across the U.S. in 1954.

Sylvia Mendez, Felicitas' daughter, has continued her mother's fight for racial equality by traveling to lecture at colleges about the historic case, and how it impacted the civil rights movement. According to the Los Angeles Times, Sylvia was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2011.


The Mirabal Sisters

The Mirabal sisters — Patria, Minerva, María Teresa, and Dedé — were Dominican activists who fought against the political regime of Rafael Trujillo, who was dictator of the Dominican Republic from 1930 to 1938, and again from 1942 to 1952. The Mirabal sisters founded an activist group called the Movement of the Fourteenth of June in an attempt to restore democracy in the Dominican Republic and resist Trujillo's dictatorship, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The sisters, nicknamed "Las Mariposas" ("The Butterflies") of the movement, were incarcerated, kidnapped, beaten, and assaulted on multiple occasions for their work, according to UNESCO. Three of them, Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa, were assassinated in 1960.

In 1999, the United Nations General Assembly designated November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women to commemorate the Mirabal sisters.


María Elena Moyano

María Elena Moyano was an Afro-Peruvian community organizer and activist who led several social and feminist organizations that aimed to help impoverished communities living in Lima, Peru, and surrounding areas. According to Amnesty International, Moyano was essential to creating the Federación Popular de Mujeres de Villa El Salvador (the Popular Federation of Women of Villa El Salvador, or FEPOMUVES), of which she was elected president twice. FEPOMUVES established social services such as food kitchens, education programs, income-generating projects, health committees, and the "Vaso de Leche" or "Glass of Milk" program, which supplied children in poor neighborhoods with milk.

During this time, as Amnesty International reported, Sendero Luminoso, or Shining Path, was a militia trying to overthrow the Peruvian government at the time that killed thousands of civilians — particularly people who ran social organizations like Moyano, or those who refused to join their party. As the book The Autobiography of Marí­a Elena Moyano by Diana Miloslavich Tupac described, Moyano resigned from her position at FEPOMUVES after being elected the deputy mayor of Villa El Salvador in 1989, and she took a public stand against Shining Path. She was assassinated in 1992 at just 33 years old by Shining Path members as a warning to other activists.

Her legacy is still remembered today, and she is called "Mother Courage" by some people. In 2015, Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski posthumously awarded Moyano the Special Grand Cross Grade of the Order of Merit for Distinguished Service for her activism, according to Andina, a Peruvian news agency.


Sylvia Rivera

According to the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Sylvia Rivera was a Puerto Rican-American civil rights activist who is best known for her prominent role in the Stonewall Riots of New York City in 1969. As a trans woman of color and sex worker, Rivera famously called out the mainstream LGBTQ rights movement for excluding marginalized communities. Rivera also was a founding member of STAR, a shelter for homeless trans youth, as well as the Gay Liberation Front, and the Gay Activists Alliance. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project — a New York-based organization that provides accessible health and legal services to "low-income people and people of color who are transgender, intersex, or gender non-conforming" — was named after Rivera to honor her work.


Dolores Huerta

Dolores Huerta, born in 1930, is one of the most prolific labor activists and community organizers of the 20th century. According to the Dolores Huerta Foundation, Huerta was drawn to activism because of her parents; her father held political office in the New Mexico legislature in 1938, and her mother later owned a hotel in California that housed a diverse community of agricultural and low-wage workers. Though Huerta worked as a schoolteacher for some time after graduating college, she took up activism not long after. According to the foundation, she founded the Agricultural Workers Association and worked in leadership at the Stockton Community Service Organization (CSO), where she helped set up voter registration drives and pushed local government for improvements in Latinx neighborhoods.

Through the CSO, Huerta met César E. Chávez, and together they formed the National Farm Workers Association, according to the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). As a leader in the organization, she spent countless hours lobbying, organizing boycotts, securing safer working conditions for farm workers, and so much more. Later on, she would also go on to speak out about gender discrimination within the farm workers' rights movement, too.

As the National Women's History Museum reported, Huerta has received many awards for her contributions to civil rights, including the Eleanor Roosevelt Human Rights Award in 1998, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. To this day, Huerta still works to empower younger generations to become involved in civil rights activism.


Yvonne Hakim-Rimpel

Yvonne Hakim-Rimpel was a women's rights activist and journalist born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1906. According to the organization The Haiti Support Group, Rimpel was a founding member of Haiti's first feminist organization, the Women's League for Social Action, in 1934. The organization focused on legal rights, access to education, and gender equality. Moreover, she founded Escale in 1951, a feminist newspaper. Rimpel remained the main editor of the newspaper for six years.

According to the book Red Heat: Conspiracy, Murder and the Cold War in the Caribbean, by Alex von Tunzelmann, Rimpel was kidnapped and assaulted in 1958 by henchmen of François Duvalier, then the president of Haiti, whose dynastic regime is suspected of killing around 60,000 people in an attempt to maintain control of the government. After recovering from the attack, Haiti Support Group reports that Rimpel never wrote again.


Gabriela Mistral

Gabriela Mistral, the pseudonym of Lucila Godoy Alcayaga, was a Chilean poet, educator, and human rights activist. As the Poetry Foundation reported, Mistral was born in 1889 and spent many years as a school teacher before she became famous for her poetry. In addition to her writing, Mistral was dedicated to advocating for the rights of marginalized populations. According to the Library of Congress, she was appointed Chile’s cultural representative to the League of Nations in 1925, and as a diplomat traveled to many countries throughout her lifetime. Moreover, she served as the Chilean delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women up until her death in 1957. Mistral was the first Latin American author to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1945.


Rigoberta Menchú Tum

According to the Nobel Prize Organization, Rigoberta Menchú Tum is a K’iche’ activist who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1992 at the age of 33 for her extensive work surrounding Indigenous rights, and for exposing the crimes committed against Mayan people during the Guatemalan Civil War (1960–96). Born to a poor, Mayan family in the foothills of Guatemala, under the dictatorship of Efraín Ríos Montt in 1959, her father was subjected to torture.

The Nobel Prize Organization reported that as a young woman, Menchú joined the resistance group Committee of the Peasant Union (CUC) with her father after he was released from prison. Soon after, her father, brother, and mother were all murdered by the occupying military. As Menchú became an increasingly prominent figure in the resistance movement after her family members' deaths through her demonstrations and education of other Indigenous communities on the resistance, she had to flee to Mexico to escape death herself.

While in Mexico, in 1982, she co-founded the United Representation of the Guatemalan Opposition (RUOG) to oppose the current dictatorship. She also wrote the autobiography, I, Rigoberta Menchú, with the help of a translator. According to the PeaceJam Foundation, an organization that pairs youth with Nobel Peace Prize laureates as mentors, the book garnered global attention and brought international awareness to the human rights violations that Indigenous peoples across Guatemala were facing. Menchú became a world-known activist who pursued justice for the Mayan peoples and other Indigenous communities. She is still a leader in the fight for Indigenous rights.


Pura Belpré

Though librarian, educator, and author Pura Belpré wasn't an activist in the traditional sense, her work as the first Afro-Boricua librarian in the New York Public Library system was essential to preserving Puerto Rican culture and the Spanish language among communities in the U.S. According to Reforma, the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking, Belpré realized her passion for children's storytelling and literature while working at the library but also took notice that there were no stories written in Spanish — despite the large Puerto Rican community in Harlem.

So, Belpré wrote Perez y Martinaa love story between a mouse and cockroach — which became the first Spanish language book for children in the U.S. in 1932, as NPR reported. She hosted bilingual story time hours at the library and started acquiring more books written in Spanish.

Reforma also reported that Belpré was involved in many Latinx organizations throughout the years. In 1939, she became a member of the Association for the Advancement of Puerto Rican People. Moreover, she "helped establish the Archivo de Documentación Puertorriqueña, an early effort to collect original Puerto Rican documents," and she designed programming for children at El Museo del Barrio.

Later in life, Belpré retired from her position as a children's librarian to write. She continued to preserve Puerto Rican folklore through children's stories.


Emma Tenayuca

Emma Tenayuca, born in 1916 in San Antonio, Texas, was a labor activist who fought for the rights of migrant workers and Mexican Americans. In 1933 at the age of 16, she joined a picket line for workers striking at Finck Cigar Co. and ended up being arrested, an experience she later credited as life-changing, per the National Parks Service. By 1937, she was on the Executive Committee of the National Workers’ Alliance, and in 1938 she led a strike of mostly female Mexican-American pecan shellers for better conditions. The strike involved 12,000 workers and lasted for months, with over 1,000 people arrested, but ended up victorious. It was the first major victory for Mexican-American labor rights in the 20th century.

In 1939, she was forced to leave San Antonio after protesters at a Communist rally she’d organized caused a riot. She relocated to Houston, Texas, where she had to work under a pseudonym, and then San Francisco, California, where she earned a teaching degree and became an educator. She’d come back to San Antonio 20 years later to educate migrant children. When she died in 1999, the Mexican-American community in her home state called her “La Pasionaria de Texas” — the passionflower of Texas.


Gloria Anzaldúa

Gloria Anzaldúa was a scholar, academic, and poet whose internationally acclaimed works shaped the concept of intersectional feminism. Born in 1924 in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, Anzaldúa fought hard to get an education: her schools were racially segregated all the way up to high school, and she was unable to continue her graduate education in the 1970s because her field of study — Mexican-American experience and feminism — wasn’t seen as useful.

Despite those setbacks, Anzaldúa authored hundreds of books and articles, including an anthology she co-edited with Cherrie Moraga in 1981 called This Bridge Called My Back: Writing by Radical Women of Color, now a feminist classic. She also wrote Borderlands/La Frontera, documenting her experience as a Chicana-Tejana lesbian feminist, and an essay called “La Prieta,” which the Poetry Foundation calls “groundbreaking works in cultural, feminist, and queer theories.” She worked furiously to make sure modern intersectional feminism integrated Chicanx identities right up until her death in 2004. Without her, the feminist movement in America would look very different today.

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