Nine Latinas You May Not Know This Hispanic Heritage Month
By Oriana E. Gonzales and Ariana A. Curtis of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Sara Cohen of Because of Her Story
Our vast Smithsonian collections represent many Latinas who have fundamentally shaped American history. Here are nine of their stories in honor of Hispanic Heritage Month.
1. Dr. Marta Moreno Vega
Dr. Marta Moreno Vega is an Afro-Puerto Rican visual artist, activist, scholar, author, educator, and Yoruba priestess. She was born and raised in El Barrio in New York City. From 1972 to 1976 she served as the director of El Museo Del Barrio in New York. In 1976, she founded the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI). Through the CCCADI, Vega advances social justice for African descendants. Vega has dedicated her career to the celebration of the arts, histories, and cultures of communities of African descent in the Americas. Her work increases their visibility, documents their history, and advocates for their needs.
2. Dara Torres
Cuban American swimmer Dara Torres has won 12 Olympic medals. She began swimming at age seven. As a high school junior, she started training for her first Olympics. Torres became the first swimmer to represent the U.S. in Olympic competition in 1984. In 2008, she became an icon for older athletes. She won three silver medals at age 41, the oldest swimmer in history to represent the U.S. in Olympic competition. She said, "Why can't a 41-year-old mom try for an Olympic team?" Although she retired from swimming at age 45, she has continued to work as a sports commentator on ESPN, CNN, Fox, and other channels.
3. Antonia Hernández
Lawyer Antonia Hernández has spent her career speaking up for Latinx people and other underserved groups in the United States. When she was eight, Hernández and her family moved from Torreon, Mexico, to Los Angeles, California. She hoped to become a teacher, but she instead decided to earn a law degree to ensure Latinx students could get an equal education. In 1979, Hernandez became the first Latina counsel to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary. In 1985, she became president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. For nearly 20 years, she championed 29 million Latinos through legal issues. Today, she leads the California Community Foundation, supporting local nonprofits in Los Angeles County. Chicana artist Barbara Carrasco created this print in our National Portrait Gallery to celebrate Hernández as a leader in their community.
4. Ingrid Silva
Ingrid Silva is a Black professional ballerina from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She moved to New York City at the age of 18 to train with the Dance Theatre of Harlem (DTH). Silva is now a principal company member at DTH and mentor to Black and other women of color ballerinas. In 2017, she founded EmpowHerNY, an international women's empowerment platform. To make the standard pink ballet shoes match her shoes to her skin tone, Silva painted her shoes with Black Opal foundation in the "Ebony Brown" shade. In 2019, Silva's preffered ballet shoe company finally created a shoe to match Silva's skin tone. This pair, worn during her 2013-2014 season at DTH, is part of our National Museum of African American History and Culture's Taking the Stage exhibition.
5. Emily J.T. Perez
Emily Jazmin Tatum Perez was born and raised in Germany and Maryland by two U.S. military veterans. She identified as "Afro-Rican," a nod to her parents' Puerto Rican and African American heritages. Perez became the highest ranking Black female cadet in the history of the United States Military Academy (West Point). Upon graduation in 2005, Perez was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 204th Support Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 4th Infantry Division in the U.S. Army. While leading a convoy in Iraq in 2006, Emily Perez was killed. She is the first Black female officer in US military history to die in combat. She is honored and remembered by many and is represented in the collection of our National Museum of African American History and Culture.
6. Lady Pink
Sandra Fabara, better known as Lady Pink, is a graffiti artist and muralist born in Ambato, Ecuador, and raised in Astoria, Queens, New York. Starting in the late 1970s, she immersed herself in New York City's male-dominated graffiti scene. The origins of her name, Lady Pink, reflect her self-proclaimed feminine and unknowingly feminist approach to tagging. In 1980, she created the all-female graffiti crew Ladies of the Arts (LOTA). In 1983, Pink starred in the iconic hip-hop film Wild Style, directed by Charlie Ahearn. She was also part of the recent Beyond the Streets traveling exhibit. She is one of few women graffiti artists to have gained wide acclaim among her male contemporaries.
7. Ellen Ochoa
In 1993, astronaut Ellen Ochoa became the first Latina to visit space on nine-day mission aboard the STS-56 Discovery. In total, Ochoa has been part of four space missions and logged nearly 1,000 hours in orbit. Her first three missions in space were science missions. Her final mission went to the International Space Station. Ochoa also made history in 2013 as the second woman director, and first Latina director, of NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Her legacy inspires future generations—she is "especially honored" that six schools across the U.S. bear her name.
8. Sandra Cisneros
Author Sandra Cisneros became nationally known in 1984 for her coming-of-age novel, The House on Mango Street. Cisneros grew up in Chicago, Illinois, in a working-class Mexican American family. As a dual U.S. and Mexican citizen, she lived in San Antonio, Texas, for many years before moving to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. In 2016, President Barack Obama awarded Cisneros the National Medal of the Arts. Cisneros has written 12 books, founded two nonprofits supporting writers, and partnered with our Museum of American History to create altars to mark Día de los Muertos. In this video, Cisneros explains the significance of her 2014 altar, A Room of Her Own, in a program held at our National Museum of the American Indian.
9. Princess Orelia Benskina
Princess Orelia Benskina was born Margarita Orelia Benskina in 1911 in Panama to Barbadian parents. By1922, she, her parents, and her three younger sisters had immigrated to Harlem, New York City. Benskina danced in Harlem nightclubs including the Cotton Club. She also danced in other locations around the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean. As pictured here, she was well-known for her "African" dance performances, as well as her "Afro-Cuban" dance performances. She primarily toured in a dance duo billed as "Princess Orelia and Pedro." She also produced music and published several works of poetry including The Inflammable Desire To Rebel. In 1972, the JFK Library for Minorities honored her contributions with their American Heritage Award. In 1983, she graduated from Queens College with her daughter Pearl Quintyne. When Benskina passed away in 2002, she was buried alongside her daughter.
Ariana A. Curtis is the curator of Latinx Studies at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, a content lead in the Smithsonian's Race, Community and Our Shared Future Initiative, and serves on multiple committees for the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative.
Oriana E. Gonzales is the curatorial assistant for Latinx Studies at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. She contributes research focused on Latinxs, Black Latinxs, and Black Americans with diasporic heritage outside of the U.S.
Sara Cohen is the digital audiences and content coordinator for Because of Her Story, the Smithsonian American Women's History Initiative. She shares lesser-known histories of women through this website, the Because of Her Story newsletter, and Smithsonian social media.
Portrait of Dr. Marta Moreno Vega photographed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; Gift of Catherine and Ingrid Pino Duran © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders