By Ashleigh Coren of the National Portrait Gallery, Miriam Doutriaux of the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum, Meredith Holmgren of the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Emily Margolis of the National Air and Space Museum and the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, Claudia Zapata of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Sara Cohen of Because of Her Story
In 1934, musician Lydia Mendoza recorded "Mal Hombre," a breakthrough hit song of Tejano ("Tex Mex") music. As Mendoza's career progressed, she became known as the first "Queen of Tejano."
Learn about Mendoza and six more Latinas who shaped American culture this Hispanic Heritage Month. Their achievements are represented across the Smithsonian's collections in art, music, objects, and more.
Born May 21, 1916, in Houston, Texas, Lydia Mendoza grew up in a musical family with eight children. She performed in her family's band, La Familia Mendoza, alongside her parents and one of her sisters. Two of her other sisters formed their own duo called Las Hermanas Mendoza. The Mendoza family often performed for audiences of migrant laborers along the U.S.-Mexican border. Around 1929, the family moved to Detroit, Michigan, but returned to Texas in the early 1930s. Upon their return, the family recorded their second studio session. For the first time, Lydia Mendoza had an opportunity to cut some solo tracks, including "Mal Hombre." The song became a breakthrough hit, earning her a contract with Bluebird records. She performed solo and with her family band for many years until her mother's passing in 1952. After 1952, Mendoza performed solo.
Through her lifelong career Lydia Mendoza popularized Tejano music, becoming known as the first "Queen of Tejano", "La Alondra de la Frontera" (The Meadowlark of the Border), and "La Cancionera de los Pobres" (The Songstress of the Poor). A genre born in Texas, Tejano music blends musical traditions of Mexican, Spanish, Polish, German, and Czech immigrants. She was inducted into the Tejano Music Hall of Fame in 1984 and the Conjunto Music Hall of Fame in 1991. In 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts with a National Heritage Fellowship honored for her contributions to United States cultural heritage. You can hear Mendoza's music through Smithsonian Folkways.
More Latinas to Know
Get to know these six notable activists, authors, artists, cooks, and pilots through our collections.
1. Pura Belpré
In 1921, librarian and storyteller Pura Belpré became the first Puerto Rican person hired by the New York Public Library system. Exploring children's literature at her library in Harlem inspired Belpré to write Peréz y Martina, retelling a traditional Caribbean folktale. She also wrote The Tiger and the Rabbit and Other Tales, the first English collection of Puerto Rican folk tales published in the United States. Belpré wrote more than a dozen books and worked as a librarian in New York City for the rest of her career. Since 1996, the annual Pura Belpré award honors outstanding Latinx literature for children and youth. Learn more about Belpré in the book Nuestra América: 30 Inspiring Latinas/Latinos Who Have Shaped the United States from the Smithsonian Latino Center.
2. Lt. Col. Olga Custodio
Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Lt. Col. Olga E. Custodio, U.S. Air Force (retired), was the first Latina pilot in the US Air Force. Custodio logged more than 14,500 flight hours over her nearly 30-year career. These miles reflect her work in the military and with American Airlines. Custodio is a charter member of the Women Military Pilots Association and Vice President of the Hispanic Association of Aviation and Aerospace Professionals. You can read or listen to her 2019 oral history interview in the National Air and Space Museum Archives.
3. Sheila E.
Singer and percussionist Sheila Cecilia Escovedo began her career in San Francisco, California. She is the oldest child of Mexican American jazz percussionist Pete Escovedo and French Creole dairy factory worker Juanita Gardere. At 15 years old Sheila E. played congas with her father's band, Azetca, when they opened for the Temptations. In 1984, she released her debut album, The Glamorous Life, which she produced with Prince. Sheila E. has performed, recorded, and toured with renowned musicians from a multitude of musical genres and is a 2021 recipient of the Latin Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Learn more about Sheila E.'s long career from our National Museum of African American History and Culture.
4. Scherezade García
Painter, printmaker, and installation artist Scherezade García lives in New York City. Born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, her artwork addresses Dominicans' unique migration stories. She reflects the hopes and uncertainty between island and city living. In 2010, she co-founded the Dominican York Proyecto GRAFICA. These printmakers explore the history and culture of the Dominican diaspora. The diaspora refer to Dominican cultural identities created away from their homeland. See examples of García's work from the Smithsonian American Art Museum and explore her papers at the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.
5. Sandra Gutierrez
Sandra Gutierrez is a journalist, cookbook author, and cooking instructor. She was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and raised in Guatemala. When she moved to Durham, North Carolina, in the 1980s, she found community through cooking. She said, "When I moved to the South, I wanted to learn how to make the best biscuits possible. I took every opportunity to learn from my friends and their mothers, who took turns teaching me the right way to handle biscuits." With this wisdom, Gutierrez helped create the Southern-Latino Culinary Movement. In her 2011 cookbook, The New Southern-Latino Table, she combines ingredients, tools, and techniques from the American South and 21 Latin American countries. See more of her cookware from the Anacostia Community Museum collections. You can also watch a cooking program she led at the National Museum of American History.
6. Irma Muñoz
Environmental activist Irma Muñoz was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. Her parents immigrated from Mexico. Muñoz said, "We lived under the radar, because my parents did not want the attention of the 'migra' or other law enforcement officials." Still, Muñoz learned how to use her voice to empower her communities. As a college student, Muñoz joined groups advocating for more Latinx staff. Starting in 1995, she worked as national marketing director at the U.S. Small Business Administration. In 2005, she founded environmental equity nonprofit Mujeres de la Tierra (Women of the Earth) in her hometown. Listen to Muñoz speak at the Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum's 2018 Women's Environmental Leadership Community Forum.
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Ashleigh D. Coren is the women's history content and interpretation curator at the National Portrait Gallery. Coren's work at the museum is centered on using portraiture to facilitate nuanced conversations on the history of women in America.
Miriam Doutriaux heads the collections and archives section of the Anacostia Community Museum. Her work centers around the care and documentation of holdings that reflect the experiences, perspectives, and achievements of underrepresented communities in the Washington, D.C. region and nationwide.
Meredith Holmgren is the curator of American women's music at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Her work tells stories about women and music using sound recordings, multimedia, and material culture from across the Smithsonian.
Emily A. Margolis is curator of American women's history at the National Air and Space Museum and Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. She works to center women in the history of aviation, spaceflight, astronomy, and planetary science through research, exhibits, and programs.
Claudia Zapata is curatorial assistant of Latinx Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and a doctoral candidate at Southern Methodist University. Their research interests include curatorial methodologies of identity-based exhibitions, Chicanx and Latinx art, digital humanities, BIPOC zines, and designer toys.
Sara E. 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, Because of Her Story newsletter, and Smithsonian social media.