September 15 – October 15 is Hispanic Heritage Month. Beginning in 1968 as a week-long celebration, it was expanded in 1988 to coincide with key Independence Days such as Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras, Chile, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Another holiday, Día de la Raza, also known as Columbus Day on October 12th, also falls within this month, although Columbus Day has received criticism due to being associated with the erasure of Indigenous people (source: census.gov).
As Rise is an organization by parents impacted, for parents impacted, and Hispanic and/or Latino families are disproportionately harmed by the system, we’d like to highlight some amazing Hispanic pioneers in social work, LGBTQ+ rights, and child welfare:
Antonia Pantoja (1922 – 2002): Born in Puerto Rico, she was a feminist, educator, social worker, and civil rights activist that championed for Latinx youth through educational access and community self-determination. Pantoja founded the Puerto Rican Forum in 1957 which promoted economic self-sufficiency, ASPIRA, an organization dedicated to New York City youth and their families by providing opportunities and fighting to improve education for Puerto Rican & Latino communities in 1961, and Boricua College in 1974. In 1997, she became the first Puerto Rican woman to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor.
Armando Torres Morales (1932 – 2008): Described as a Chicano Renaissance Man and a Los Angeles native, Morales became the first Latino in the nation to earn a doctorate in Social Work in 1972. He founded the first Spanish-speaking psychiatric clinic at the UCLA Neuropsychiatric Institute out of concern of a lack of mental health services accessible to the Latino community. He was inducted into University of Southern California’s School of Social Work, Hall of Distinction, in 2016. He was also an advocate for the end of abusive policing and police brutality.
Sylvia Mendez (born 1936): Born in California to a Mexican immigrant father and Puerto Rican mother, when she was 8 years old, she denied admission to a whites-only school due to having dark skin and a Hispanic surname. This led to the landmark, groundbreaking case, Mendez vs Westminster, brought forth by her mother, Felicitas Mendez, which ruled that the forced segregation of Mexican-American students into separate schools due to language barriers and a perceived lack of intelligence was unconstitutional. This case is one of many that paved the way for integration and eventually led to the desegregation of public schools with Brown vs. Board of Education. Today, Sylvia Mendez is a civil rights activist and retired nurse. She was awarded the President Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2011.
The Honorable Ramona A. Gonzales (born 1956): Dominican Republic born, Wisconsin raised, Ramona A. Gonzales is a leading family law expert that champions against domestic violence, human trafficking, child abduction, and for LGBTQ+ issues. The first female judge appointed in La Crosse County, Wisconsin and the first non-white judge appointed in all of Western Wisconsin, she was selected as the 75th president of National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges in 2019. The same year, she testified before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security on the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA).
Sylvia Rivera (1951 – 2002): Sylvia was a participant in the Stonewall Riot and a fierce advocate for the inclusion of transgender people, especially transgender people of color. With fellow trans rights activist and friend, Marsha P. Johnson, they founded Street Transvestite Action Revolution, also known as STAR. She often tangled with gay rights leaders that were hesitant to include transgender people and fought against the exclusion of transgender people in the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act in New York. When passed in 2002, the bill said to prevent discrimination “on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, credit, with the exercise of civil rights.” Although she died in 2002 at the age of 50 from liver cancer, The Sylvia Rivera Law Project continues her legacy working to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine their gender identity and express it without violence and harassment.
While these are only a few Hispanic heroes and Hispanic Heritage Month is only a month long, here at Rise, we champion to support Hispanic families and their children all year long. For more information, click here.