Mar 8, 2022 - Politics & Policy

These Latinas and Latin American women paved the way in politics and art

Migrant mother Maria Moreno talks to Okie farmworkers in California who were Dust Bowl migrants during the Great Depression.
Migrant mother Maria Moreno talks to Okie farmworkers in California who were Dust Bowl migrants during the Great Depression. Photo: Courtesy of George Ballis/Take Stock

Latinas in the U.S. and Latin American women have helped shape history, but their contributions have often been forgotten.

Why it matters: On International Women's Day, Axios Latino is highlighting some of the women who transformed politics, labor, literature, and daily life, both in the U.S. and Latin America.

Two of the most influential Latinas in U.S. history — Emma Tenayuca and Luisa Moreno — organized Latino workers and sought to fight discrimination against Latinos in the 1930s.

  • Tenayuca garnered attention for organizing the largest strike in San Antonio history, the Pecan-Shellers’ Strike of 1938, and was a leader of several highly visible marches, demonstrations and sit-ins.
  • She set the foundation for what would become the Chicano Movement decades later.
  • The Guatemalan-born Moreno founded the National Congress of Spanish-Speaking Peoples and sought to desegregate schools, public places, and neighborhoods. She built one of the first Pan-Latino political movement in the U.S.
  • Both would be monitored by the FBI for years for their activities. Moreno left the U.S. after federal authorities sought her deportation. Tenayuca faced death threats and later became a teacher.

An acclaimed poet: Long before Sandra Cisneros wrote about a House on Mango Street, Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos wrote about finding her own home as a woman in the world of colonization and oppression.

  • A member of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, she worked as a journalist and earned acclaim for her poetry, even from Pablo Neruda.
  • De Burgos created a space for Latina feminist literature and what would later be called the Nuyorican Poets movement decades later.

A battle for farmworkers: Maria Moreno, a mother of 12, used her personal story to draw attention to poor agricultural workers in California.

  • She was so influential that she spoke at a 1961 labor convention alongside President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Then, she disappeared. The 2019 PBS documentary, “Adios Amor: The Search for Maria Moreno,” uncovers her life and the mystery of her whereabouts.
  • Moreno's actions paved the way for what would become the United Farm Workers union led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

As the suffrage movements in Europe and the U.S. succeeded by 1920, Ecuadorian Matilde Hidalgo de Procel was just getting started.

  • In May 1924, Hidalgo demanded to be registered to vote. Officials refused, then relented, and Hidalgo became the first woman to vote in Latin America.
  • Her request reached parliament, which made Ecuador the first South American country with full suffrage just five years later.

At 18 years old, Chilean Margot Duhalde Sotomayor was one of the first Latin American women to get a pilot's license. Two years later, in 1940, she volunteered to join the French resistance air force in London, becoming one of few female World War II pilots.

Teresa Carreño was a piano prodigy in Caracas, eventually playing in major concert halls in New York, Paris and Berlin.

  • In 1863, as a 9-year-old, she was invited to play at parties held by members of President Abraham Lincoln's cabinet, and reportedly for Lincoln himself in the White House. She also played for Woodrow Wilson in 1916.

Three sisters in the Dominican Republic helped topple a dictator.

  • María Teresa, Patria and Minerva Mirabal called themselves “butterflies” in their fight against the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo.
  • On Nov. 25, 1960, authorities brutally killed the three sisters and tried to pass it off as a car accident.
  • The murders prompted much outrage, and became one of the events that triggered Trujillo's assassination six months after.

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