Rita Moreno becomes the first Hispanic woman to win an Oscar

Year
1962
Month Day
April 09

On April 9, 1962, Puerto Rican actress Rita Moreno becomes the first Hispanic woman to win an Oscar, for her role of Anita in West Side Story (1961). 

Moreno, who was born in Puerto Rico in 1931 and grew up in Long Island, New York, began acting at a young age, landing her first Broadway role at the age of 13. Later in life, Moreno recalled her early career as a time when the only roles available to her were stereotypes: “The Conchitas and Lolitas in westerns … it was humiliating, embarrassing stuff.” Nonetheless, she was successful, appearing in a supporting role in the The King and I, which won five Academy Awards in 1956.

A few years later, she was cast in the role of her lifetime: Anita in the film remake of the musical West Side Story. While many of the actors, including leads Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer, did not perform their own singing parts, Moreno recorded most of Anita’s songs herself. One such song was “America,” a piece with heavy Latin influences in which characters both celebrate the experience of Puerto Rican immigrants and decry their adopted country’s racism. 

West Side Story was an enormous success, winning ten Oscars including Best Picture. As she accepted her award for Best Supporting Actress, a bewildered Moreno kept her acceptance speech concise: “I can’t believe it. Good Lord! I leave you with that.”

Despite this triumph, Moreno remained disenchanted with Hollywood and did not work on another film until 1968’s The Night of the Following Day. She returned to regular film and television work and in 1975 won a Tony Award, again for Best Supporting Actress, for her role in The Ritz. For most of the ’70s, Moreno was a member of the main cast of the popular children’s show The Electric Company. Her appearance on another children’s program, The Muppet Show, earned her her Emmy and, with it, the coveted EGOT—an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award—in 1977.  

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Labor organizer and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez begins hunger strike

Year
1972
Month Day
May 01

On May 1, 1972, Mexican-American labor organizer and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez begins a hunger strike. The strike, which he undertook in opposition to an Arizona law severely restricting farm workers’ ability to organize, lasted 24 days and drew national attention to the suffering of itinerant farm workers in the Southwest.

A fervent admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, Chavez had undertaken several hunger strikes before. As a co-founder of the United Farm Workers, he and his strikes had played important roles in many major labor actions, including the five-year Delano Grape Strike in California. In response to the wave of organizing that had swept the region, Arizona’s legislature passed a bill that constricted workers’ rights to organize, outlawed secondary boycotts, and allowed growers to obtain a restraining order to prevent strikes during the harvest. Despite an outcry from farm workers and Chavez’s request that they meet to discuss the bill, Governor Jack Williams immediately signed it into law. Later that day, Chavez began his fast.

READ MORE: When Millions of Americans Stopped Eating Grapes in Support of Farm Workers

An increasingly emaciated Chavez appeared regularly at mass, attended by his supporters and others from the civil rights movement. Coretta Scott King, whose husband Martin Luther King, Jr. had supported Chavez in his previous strikes, attended one such mass, as did Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern. Chavez referred to the strike as “a fast of sacrifice,” repeatedly reminding observers that his suffering was meant to represent the daily suffering of farm workers. Finally, after 24 days, he ended his fast at a memorial mass for Bobby Kennedy, who had thrown his political support behind Chavez’s cause in the years prior to his 1968 assassination. The following year, Chavez and the UFW organized another major agricultural strike, the Lettuce Growers Strike, and in1975 California passed a landmark law affirming workers’ rights to boycott and to collective bargaining.

READ MORE: Cesar Chavez: His Life and Legacy

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Joseph Marion Hernández becomes the first Hispanic elected to Congress

Year
1822
Month Day
September 30

On September 30, 1822, Joseph Marion Hernández becomes the first Hispanic to be elected to the United States Congress. Born a Spanish citizen, Hernández would die in Cuba, but in between he became the first non-white person to serve at the highest levels of any of three branches of the American federal government.

Hernández belonged to a St. Augustine family that came to Florida as indentured servants. Despite these humble beginnings, records show that his family eventually became wealthy enough to own property and several slaves, and that Hernández was educated both in both Georgia and in Cuba. Throughout the 1810s, the United States made a variety of efforts to take Florida from the Spanish, finally succeeding after Andrew Jackson led an army through the territory in the First Seminole War. What Hernández did during this time is unclear, but he was either very savvy or very lucky—he fought the Americans during the war and received substantial amounts of land from the Spanish government, but then pledged loyalty to the United States and was allowed to keep his three plantations when the territory changed hands in 1819. It was then that Hernández changed his name from José Mariano to Joseph Marion.

The newly-acquired Florida Territory was allowed to elect a delegate to congress, but that delegate did not have voting privileges. Florida’s legislative council elected Hernández to represent the territory. During his brief tenure—he served for less than a year before losing his re-election bid—Hernández was instrumental in facilitating the transition from Spanish to American government in Florida. In addition to securing the property rights of many Floridians who remained after the annexation, he also advocated for roads and infrastructure to bind the new territory together and make it an attractive candidate for statehood.

He went on to fight in the Second Seminole War, helping his adopted nation drive the natives from its new territory. The war saw the loss of two of his plantations, however, as well the destruction of his political ambitions after he was involved in an incident in which an American contingent captured a number of Seminoles despite approaching them under a flag of truce. Hernández later served as Mayor of St. Augustine before retiring to Cuba, where he died in 1857. 

READ MORE: Hispanic History Milestones: Timeline 

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Delano Grape Strike begins

Year
1965
Month Day
September 08

September 8, 1965 marks the beginning of one of the most important strikes in American history. As over 2,000 Filipino-American farm workers refused to go to work picking grapes in the valley north of Bakersfield, California, they set into motion a chain of events that would extend over the next five years. We know it as the Delano Grape Strike.

READ MORE: When Millions of Americans Stopped Eating Grapes in Support of Farm Workers

Filipino and Mexican immigrants had worked for decades along the West Coast, moving with the seasons to harvest the region’s crops. The Filipino contingent in particular was growing restless, as many of the workers were aging and anxious for decent medical care and retirement funds. When one of their number, labor organizer Larry Itliong, declared a strike on September 8, he asked for the support of the National Farm Workers Association and its Mexican-American founders, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. Although Chavez had reservations about his union’s capacity to pull off the strike, he put the issue to the workers, who enthusiastically joined.

The strike lasted five years and went through a number of phases. From the outset, the already poor farm workers faced opposition from law enforcement and cruel attempts at sabotage by the growers—some reported that farmers shut off the water supply to their meager dormitories. As frustration grew and workers increasingly spoke of violence three years into the strike, Chavez decided to go on a hunger strike, emulating his hero Mahatma Gandhi. In addition to ending the calls for violence, the hunger strike drew further attention to the movement, earning praise from figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

The union, by then known as the United Farm Workers, also called for a boycott of table grapes. Individual households stopped buying grapes, and union workers in California dockyards let non-union grapes rot in port rather than load them. Eventually, the industry could take no more, and the growers came to the table. In July of 1970, most of the major growers in the Delano area agreed to pay grape pickers $1.80 an hour (plus 20 cents for each box picked), contribute to the union health plan, and ensure that their workers were protected against pesticides used in the fields.

“We said from the beginning that we were not going to abandon the fight, that we would stay with the struggle if lit took a lifetime, and we meant it,” Chavez said of the grueling strike. “[Soon] all grapes will be sweet grapes again.”

READ MORE: Cesar Chavez: His Life and Legacy

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Sonia Sotomayor is sworn in as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court

Year
2009
Month Day
August 08

On August 8, 2009, Sonia Sotomayor is sworn in as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court. Born in the Bronx to Puerto Rican parents, Sotomayor is the first Hispanic justice to serve on the nation’s highest court.

Sotomayor’s mother was an orphan from rural Puerto Rico. Her father had a third-grade education, did not speak English, and died when Sotomayor was 9 years old. Sotomayor grew up in the Bronx and claims that watching the CBS legal drama Perry Mason in her youth led her to aspire to a career as a judge. She received a scholarship to attend Princeton University, where she advocated strongly on behalf of the school’s underserved minority communities, and received her J.D. from Yale Law School in 1979.

READ MORE: How Sonia Sotomayor Overcame Adversity to Become the United States’ First Hispanic and Latina Justice

Sotomayor spent much of her career in private practice but also served on the board of the New York State Mortgage Agency, where she became a vocal proponent of affordable housing and frequently called attention to the effects of gentrification. She also served on the New York City Campaign Finance Board and the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. In 1991, Republican President George H.W. Bush fulfilled her childhood dream by nominating her to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. Six years later, she was confirmed to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Over the course of her judicial career, she issued an injunction that ended the 1994 Major League Baseball strike in favor of the players, sided with an employee of the New York Police Department who had been fired for sending racist materials through the mail, and gained a reputation for dealing bluntly with the lawyers who argued before her.

Sotomayor was the first Supreme Court justice nominated by President Barack Obama, who had taken office the previous January. The choice of a Hispanic woman by the nation’s first non-white president led to a backlash that set the tone for her confirmation hearings. In particular, a comment she had made in 2001 about “a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences” being a better-qualified than being “a white male who hasn’t lived that life” rankled her opponents. Nearly every Republican on the Senate Judicial Committee—all of whom were white men—brought up the comment during their questioning, while pundits speculated about Sotomayor’s impartiality and even accused her of being racist. Nonetheless, she was easily confirmed by a Democratic majority and nine of the Senate’s 40 Republicans.

In addition to becoming the first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, Sotomayor was the third woman named to the bench. The following year, Justice Elena Kagan would become the fourth. Since her appointment, Sotomayor has been notable for her forceful dissent in several cases regarding racial discrimination, as well as siding with the majority in a 5-4 decision that upheld the Affordable Care Act.

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Hispanics are officially declared the largest minority group in the U.S.


Year
2003
Month Day
January 22

On January 22, 2003, the U.S. Census Bureau releases detailed statistics on race and ethnicity, the first time such numbers had been released since the 2000 census. The numbers showed that the Hispanic population of the United States had increased by 4.7 percent since the last count, officially making Hispanics the largest minority group in the country.

The trends of the last several decades had indicated that this milestone was approaching. The foreign-born population of the United States had been increasing exponentially, from just 9.6 million in 1970 to 31.1 million by 2000, and immigrants from Latin America accounted for a large percentage of those newcomers. The 2000 census showed that 29 percent of immigrants in the U.S. had come from Mexico alone, while immigrants from other Latin American nations made up another 22 percent. Birth rates in the Hispanic-American community were also among the highest in the nation.

The demographic shift was significant for several reasons. Robert Puro from the Pew Hispanic Center told the New York Times that it challenged the way Americans thought about race: “[M]uch of this nation’s history is wrapped up in the interplay between black and white,” he said. “This serves as an official announcement that we as Americans cannot think of race in that way any more.” The announcement marked one of the inciting moments for an undercurrent of racism that has brewed in America every since, as some whites have become increasingly concerned with brith rates and the notion that America will someday no longer be majority-white. But Sonia Perez, from the National Council of La Raza, framed the landmark as a moment for unity. “Rather than comparing groups,” she said, “we should be looking at the status of communities.”

The Hispanic-Americans represented by the census data have had a profound effect on American society. In many parts of the nation Spanish is now on at least equal footing with English, and American music and culture would be unrecognizable without the contributions of its largest minority group. 

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Astronaut Ellen Ochoa becomes the first Hispanic woman in space

Year
1993
Month Day
April 08

On April 8, 1993, the space shuttle Discovery lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center. On board is astronaut Ellen Ochoa, soon to become the first Hispanic woman in space.

Ochoa started at NASA in 1988 after receiving a doctorate in electrical engineering from Stanford University. Two years later, she was selected as an astronaut. On her first mission, Ochoa served as a Mission Specialist on a 9-day space flight, the primary mission of which was to study Earth’s ozone layer. She went on to fly three more space shuttle missions, one of which conducted further atmospheric research and two of which carried components to the International Space Station. Over the course of her four flights, Ochoa compiled a total time of 40 days, 19 hours, and 35 minutes in space.

In addition to her extra-planetary contributions, Ochoa has served the cause of space exploration in a number of ways from Earth. She holds several patents for technologies related to automated space exploration and served as Director of the Johnson Space Center—the first Hispanic director and the second woman to hold the position—from 2013 to 2018. Among numerous other awards, she has received NASA’s highest honor, the Distinguished Service Medal.

READ MORE: When Sally Ride Took Her First Space Flight, Sexism Was the Norm

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Mexican-American voting rights advocate Willie Velasquez awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

Year
1995
Month Day
September 29

On September 29, 1995, voting rights advocate Willie Velasquez is posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Velasquez and the organizations he founded are credited with dramatically increasing political awareness and participation among the Hispanic communities of the Southwestern United States.

The son of a union organizer, Velasquez was one of five founders of the Mexican-American Youth Organization, or MAYO. Beginning with voter registration drives and walkouts on college campuses around San Antonio, MAYO expanded to organizing high school students and even succeeded in electing several candidates to local school boards. Inspired by groups like the Black Panthers and leaders like Malcolm X, some of MAYO’s members went on to form the Raza Unida Party, a party that aimed to elect Hispanic candidates without relying on either the Republican or Democratic establishments.

Velasquez worked as a boycott coordinator for the United Farm Workers, a union that organized farm workers across the Southwest and drew national attention to their working conditions in the late 1960s. He then went to work for Raza before embarking upon the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in 1972. SVREP, whose motto was “Su vota, su voz” (Your vote is your voice), sought to address the poor voter turnout, voter apathy, and institutional disenfranchisement that affected the Hispanic-American community—Velasquez believed that the Hispanic community had much to learn from the civil rights movement and sought to address many of the same systemic issues as prominent leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr.

READ MORE: When Millions of Americans Stopped Eating Grapes in Support of Farm Workers

Though he would not live to see the full effects of his work—he died suddenly of cancer at the age of 44—Willie Velazquez certainly achieved his goal of activating the Hispanic electorate. Today, SVREP claims to have registered over 2.7 million voters, trained over 150,000 political activists, and won over 100 civil rights lawsuits. Though Hispanic voter turnout is often significantly lower than turnout among whites, it has risen sharply in recent decades, increasing tenfold from 1.3 million in the 1994 general election to 13.5 million in 2016. In his White House speech honoring Velasquez, then-President Bill Clinton called Willie “a name synonymous with democracy in America.”

READ MORE: How JFK’s ‘Viva Kennedy’ Campaign Galvanized the Latino Vote

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Fidel Castro announces that Cubans are free to leave the island

Year
1965
Month Day
September 28

On September 28, 1965, six years after he led the Cuban Revolution and four years after the failed U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs Invasion, Fidel Castro announces that any Cuban who wished to leave the island was free to do so. With Cuban forces no longer blocking civilians from leaving, a massive wave of emigration ensued, bringing hundreds of thousands of Cuban immigrants to Florida.

Poverty and political repression had brought about Castro’s revolution, but much remained the same under the new regime. As Castro became increasingly vocal about his belief in socialism and opposition to American imperialism, he faced dissent from political opponents at home and hostility from the American political establishment. The year after the Bay of Pigs, the United States and Soviet Union nearly went to war over the latter’s placement of nuclear missiles on the island. Due to the recent hostilities, many Americans assumed Castro was behind the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, although no such evidence has ever emerged. Castro refused to allow Cubans to leave for America, although a number of dissenters and supporters of the deposed Batista regime did succeed in escaping.

With further anti-government protests and widespread poverty, due in no small part to the American embargo on all trade with Cuba, Castro believed his society was close to the breaking point. He therefore announced on September 28th that those who wished to leave were free to do so. Immediately, several thousand refugees boarded boats at the port of Camiorca, leading to a haphazard crossing that threatened to overwhelm the U.S. Coast Guard and immigration authorities. As the continuation of such perilous crossings was in neither’s interest, the U.S. and Cuba engaged in surprisingly cooperative negotiations, resulting in the “Freedom Flights” airlift program.

For the next eight years, ten flights a week left Cuba for Miami, and many Cubans waited years for their spot on the planes. Roughly 300,000 made the trip. This mass movement of people had several major effects on both countries. Castro was able to rid the island of many dissenters, although their departure was a propaganda victory for the Americans and may have led to significant “brain drain” in Cuba. It also markedly changed the demographics of Miami—it was during this period that the city’s Little Havana neighborhood became a permanent enclave for Cuban culture, and as of the 2010 census 34.4 percent of Miami residents were of Cuban origin.

READ MORE: How the Castro Family Dominated Cuba for Nearly 60 Years

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The Equal Educational Opportunities Act takes effect

Year
1974
Month Day
August 21

The Equal Educational Opportunities Act takes effect on August 21, 1974. The new law addressed civil rights issues in education, barring states from discriminating against students based on gender, race, color, or nationality and requiring public schools to provide for students who do not speak English.

In many ways, the EEOA was an extension of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which banned racial discrimination in schools as well as businesses and outlawed the segregation of schools. The Civil Rights Act was one of the most important pieces of legislation in American history, but it did not singlehandedly put a stop to discrimination in public education. Aside from the famous “Massive Resistance” campaign against desegregation in the South, schools continued to fail racial minorities and students for whom English was not their first language.

The EEOA mandated that schools accommodate students regardless of nationality and that they provide adequate resources for students who did not speak English. In effect, this meant that schools must now offer both English classes for non-native speakers and classes in other subjects taught in students’ native languages. Subsequent Supreme Court cases clarified the full extent of the law. In 1974, the Court ruled that the EEOA mandated that schools offer classes in students’ first languages while they learned English as a second language. In 1982, it ruled that, based on the EEOA, undocumented students not only had the right to attend public schools but were obligated to do so, the same as all American children.

Thanks to the EEOA, schools across the country now offer classes in languages other than English, in addition to teaching English to non-native speakers. The act also provided legal recourse for students facing discrimination in public schools, greatly bolstering the progress that was made during the Civil Rights Era.

READ MORE: The Mendez Family Fought School Segregation 8 Years Before Brown v. Board of Ed

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