Every year many Americans observe National Hispanic Heritage Month from September 15th through October 15th. Being Puerto Rican, it’s always felt like this is our time as Latinos to be “# trending.” School children may study a Latin American country or do a report on Latino artists, entertainers or sports figures. When I’ve asked young people to name an Hispanic who has made an impact, I often hear Jennifer Lopez, Frida Kahlo and maybe Sonia Sotomayor. . . maybe! I even get a Bad Bunny, A-Rod, or Daddy Yankee for an answer. However, when I’ve asked my elders the same question I’ll get enthusiastic responses: Tito Puente, Iris Chacón, Roberto Clemente, Celia Cruz and Cesar Romero (the original and iconic Joker).
While all these individuals have made tremendous strides in their professions and have had international success, I never hear the names like Franklin R. Chang-Díaz, Romualdo Pacheco, Sylvia Rivera, Soledad O’Brien, Guillermo González Camarena, Dandara of Palmares or even Olga D. Gonzalez-Sanabria. Are you drawing a blank too? If only one (or none) of these names ring a bell, it speaks volumes as to why we need this month of recognition and inclusion.
Take a deep breath — here’s a quick lesson:
- In 1980, NASA chose Dr. Franklin R. Chang-Díaz to go into space, making him the first Hispanic astronaut. Did you know that Díaz, a Costa Rican-American, is also a graduate of Hartford Public High School? The UConn graduate earned a degree in mechanical engineering.
- Romualdo Pacheco became the nation’s first Congressman in 1877 who claimed his Latino heritage. Born in Santa Barbara, California before statehood, (i.e. when California was part of Mexico!) Pacheco remains the only Latino governor in the state’s history as part of the United States.
- Sylvia Rivera was a tireless civil rights pioneer who fought against the exclusion of transgender people and for all who have been marginalized. Of Puerto Rican- and Venezuelan descent, Rivera’s struggles intersected with issues of poverty and discrimination faced by people of color, which caused friction in the Gay Activists Alliance.
- Soledad O’Brien, born Maria de la Soledad O’Brien, is of Australian, Irish and Cuban descent. She is an award-winning broadcast journalist documentarian, news anchor, and producer who has informed viewers via NBC, MSNBC, CNN, Al Jazeera America, HBO, and through Starfish Media Group a company she founded in 2013.
- Guillermo González Camarena, for all the television lovers out there, was a Mexican electrical engineer who invented several color television systems, including the color-wheel type. He developed and patented a Trichromatic Sequential Fields System from primary colors, and was granted the patent when he was 23 years of age! NASA used a version of his invention for its 1979 Voyager mission.
- Dandara of Palmares was a Wonder Woman in her own right. An Afro-Brazilian warrior of the colonial period of Brazil who joined as a child, she was part of the Quilombo dos Palmares who freed themselves from enslavement, in the present-day state of Alagoas, Brazil. She helped create strategies to protect Palmares.
- Olga D. Gonzalez-Sanabria is a Puerto Rican scientist, chemical engineer and inventor. She is currently the highest ranking Hispanic at NASA Glenn Research Center. Gonzalez-Sanabria developed long-life nickel hydrogen batteries that help enable the International Space Station power system.
Okay, breathe. Are you still with me? That was just a taste (with a little Adobo in there) of the contributions Latinos or Hispanics have had on various facets of our society and should be at the very least recognized. As we celebrate the JLos and A-Rods of the entertainment world, I suggest taking a little time to explore others who have contributed to your daily life all year around. If not now, there’s always next Hispanic Heritage Month. Mark you calendars. It’s September 15 through October 15. Why, you may ask, is it between two months? I guess you’ll have to wait until the next blog post about Hispanic Heritage Month.
Lisette Velasquez is a native of Hartford and mother of three. She graduated from Hartford Public High School and Greater Hartford Academy of the Performing Arts where she studied dance and theater. Then she graduated from Hartford College for Women and Hartt School at the University of Hartford with a degree in Performing Arts Management. Although a journalist for several years, most of her career has been in education, the arts, community and family issues with integrations of STEM.