Top 10 Influential Hispanic Americans Who Made History

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Top 10 Influential Hispanic Americans Who Made History

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Jeff Kronenfeld
These Hispanic Americans changed the world. For this list, we'll be looking at notable leaders, entertainers, and journalists from across the US who are of Hispanic descent. Our countdown includes Jennifer Lopez, Ritchie Valens, Cesar Chavez, and more!
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10 Influential Hispanic Americans Who Made History


Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Influential Hispanic Americans Who Made History.

For this list, we’ll be looking at notable leaders, entertainers, and journalists from across the US who are of Hispanic descent. Since winnowing down our selection from the vast pool of talent was already hard enough, we’ll be focusing on individuals born during the 20th century.

Which of these gifted luminaries inspires you? Let us know in the comments below.

#10: Jorge Ramos

Since 1987, this fearless journalist has served as the anchor of “Noticiero Univision,” currently the most-watched Spanish-language evening news program in the US. Over his decades-spanning career, Ramos has pitched hardball questions to numerous presidents, reported on the ground from five wars, and won ten Emmys. Born in Mexico City, he immigrated to the US in 1983 due to censorship. In addition to his regular evening gig, Ramos hosts a Sunday morning political talk show and writes a bilingual newspaper column. Millions of people rely on his fiercely honest reporting. Whether he’s advocating for immigrant rights, or castigating the Catholic church for covering up abuse, Ramos doesn’t back down. He also founded US Spanish-language TV’s first book club, Despierta Leyendo (Wake Up Reading).

#9: Rita Moreno

This legendary performer was born in Puerto Rico on December 11, 1931. Five years later, she and her mother moved to the US, where Moreno snagged her first voice acting job at 11, her first role on Broadway at 13, and her first gig in Hollywood at 19. Her breakout role came in 1961 when she was cast as Anita in “West Side Story.” The performance earned Moreno an Oscar, making her the first Hispanic woman to win one. Over time, Moreno also earned an Emmy, Grammy and Tony, becoming only the third person to win all four awards. Moreno continues to act and appears in a remake of “West Side Story” scheduled for release this December.

#8: Gloria Estefan

The future superstar was only two when her family fled from Cuba to the US in 1959. While a student at the University of Miami, the CIA tried to recruit her, but luckily for fans, she instead accepted her future husband Emilio’s invitation to join his band, which then changed its name to Miami Sound Machine. The group’s early albums were in Spanish and did well in Latin America, though they proved to have mass appeal with the releases of their first two English albums, “Eyes of Innocence” and “Primitive Love.” Estefan eventually became a successful solo act and continues to record music to this day. She also began a successful career as an actress, most recently voicing a character in the animated film “Vivo.”

#7: Jennifer Lopez

Before becoming an icon, J.Lo was just a kid from the Bronx with a dream. Her Puerto Rican parents supported her ambitions by enrolling her in dance lessons when she was five. However, when Lopez dropped out of college to dance professionally, her mom stopped speaking to her for eight months. In 1991, Lopez scored a job dancing on “In Living Color.” After that, her acting career gradually took off until her breakout role as the titular singer in the 1997 biopic, “Selena.” Two years later, Lopez released her first studio album. Since then, her films have grossed over 3.1 billion dollars, she’s sold tens of millions of albums and she’s been heavily involved with a number of charities.

#6: Lin-Manuel Miranda

When it comes to rapping about US Founding Fathers, no one holds a candle to this multi-talented son of Puerto Rican immigrants. Miranda started writing “In the Heights” — a musical based on his New York City neighborhood — while a sophomore in college. Upon graduation, he revamped and expanded the story, which made it to Broadway in 2008, with Miranda himself playing the lead. That same year, Miranda came up with the idea for a musical about Alexander Hamilton. In 2015, “Hamilton” opened to wide acclaim, turning Miranda into a household name. Since then, he’s worked on more than a half-dozen projects for Disney, as well as many others. Miranda’s directorial debut — “Tick, Tick… Boom!” — hit theaters November 2021.

#5: Roberto Clemente

Nicknamed “The Great One,” this Hall of Famer was as exceptional off the field as he was on it. Born in Puerto Rico and partially of African descent, Clemente faced discrimination when first joining the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1955. He stood tall in the face of this mistreatment and was a strong advocate for other Latino and Black players. Clemente also did lots of charity work, which included personally hosting free baseball clinics for young Puerto Ricans. Tragically, he died in 1972 while trying to deliver aid to victims of an earthquake in Nicaragua. Though efforts to canonize him never came to fruition, this hero’s incredible accomplishments as a ballplayer and humanitarian live on.

#4: Ritchie Valens

In 1941, Richard Valenzuela was born in Los Angeles. The son of Mexican immigrants displayed an affinity for music from an early age. Richard’s father cultivated this natural talent by encouraging his son to learn the guitar and trumpet. While in high school, Richard joined a band, which soon led to Bob Keane — the president and owner of Del-Fi Records — inviting the teenage prodigy to an audition. From there, it was a rock and roll whirlwind of success for the California kid until the day the music died. Though his musical career was tragically cut short due to a plane crash in 1959 that also killed Buddy Holly, Valenzuela’s songs like “La Bamba” and “Donna” still echo in popular imagination to this day.

#3: Sonia Sotomayor

This daughter of the Bronx became the first Hispanic member of the Supreme Court in 2009. Her parents were both from Puerto Rico and her father died when Sotomayor was only nine. She set her sights on becoming a judge in elementary school, where she was valedictorian. She was also the top student at her high school. Sotomayor went to Princeton for her undergraduate degree, and then attended law school at Yale. After school, her first job was as an assistant district attorney. She became a judge in 1992, eventually working her way up to the land’s highest court. Sonia has never lost her sense of humor, graciously serving as an arbitrator of fairytale disputes during her appearance on “Sesame Street” in 2012.

#2: Cesar Chavez

Born in Yuma, Arizona in 1927, Chavez was just a boy when his parents lost their farm to foreclosure. After that, they became migrant agricultural workers in California. Chavez spent weekends working in the fields from a young age and quit school after Junior High to work full-time. In 1953, he joined the Community Service Organization, a Latino civil rights group. Nine years later, Chavez, Dolores Huerta and other activists founded a union that would eventually be known as United Farm Workers. While the name changed as the group grew and merged with others over time, Chavez’s use of boycotts, peaceful protests and other innovative strategies radically improved conditions for farmworkers. He died in 1993, though his legacy endures.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

Raul Juliá
This Actor from Puerto Rico Saw Critical & Commercial Success Before His Tragic Death in 1994

Carolina Herrera
As a Barrier-Busting Latina Fashionista, She’s Dressed First Ladies & Superstars

Celia Cruz
The Queen of Salsa, Cruz’s Singing Captivated Audiences in the US & Her birthplace, Cuba

Ellen Ochoa
This Trailblazer Was the First Hispanic Woman to Go to Space & Run the Johnson Space Center

Eva Longoria
Not Just an Accomplished actress, Longoria Is Also a Philanthropist, Entrepreneur & Producer

#1: Selena

Born in 1971 in Lake Jackson, Texas, Selena’s musical career began ten years later when she and her siblings performed at her father’s restaurant. When that business failed, the kids’ band became the family’s main income source. Initially, Selena struggled to find acceptance in the hypermasculine Tejano music scene, but her talent won out. Selena’s debut solo album did well, as did her second. The singer’s third album was a breakout success when released in 1992. That same year, her father flipped out when he learned about Selena’s relationship with her guitarist, though pops eventually apologized after the pair got hitched. Tragically, a superfan who grew close to the singer murdered Selena in 1995. The Queen of Tejano music legacy lives on through her singing and representations on screen.
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