Hispanic Heritage Month: Brave Woman Highlights
By Melanie Gasmen-Fleck
This month, we’re sharing the stories of three Hispanic American luminaries who fought to preserve their culture and paved the way for others to do the same.
- JOVITA IDÁR
Journalist, teacher, and activist
Jovita Idár spent her life advocating for the rights of Mexican Americans, immigrants, and women. She was the definition of fearless.
In 1914, the paper she worked for, El Progreso, published a piece criticizing the U.S.’s military for interfering in the Mexican Revolution. The Texas Rangers, an unofficial military group with a history of violent acts toward people of color, showed up outside the paper’s office to silence the publication. Jovita immediately blocked them from entering. She said that stopping El Progreso would go against the First Amendment—the freedom of the press. And the rangers left.
Born on Sept. 7, 1885, Jovita grew up in Laredo, Texas, a bordering city that belonged to Mexico nearly 40 years before. This was the Jim Crow era and Mexican Americans and immigrants faced segregation and anti-Mexican hate. Jovita believed a good education could help her people overcome discrimination.
Jovita’s family valued education and civil rights for Mexican Americans. She started teaching kids at a segregated school—but was shocked by the conditions. Like other Mexican state schools, supplies were sparse, buildings were falling apart, and history lessons villainized Mexican people. Even speaking Spanish was discouraged.
She decided to channel her activism through journalism. Her family owned a social justice newspaper called La Crónica, where her father was editor and publisher. Jovita wrote stories on racism, poverty, and other issues facing Tejanos. Years later, Jovita founded her own newspaper: Evolución.
To rally against anti-Mexican abuse, Jovita’s family started the El Primer Congreso Mexicanista Convenes, a conference that brought together leaders from the U.S. and Mexico. Jovita also founded La Liga Feminil Mexicaista, or the League of Mexican Women, a group focused on women’s suffrage and education for young kids. She wanted to empower women to fight for equality, including voting rights and jobs outside of the home.
Outside of journalism and organizing, Jovita was also a war nurse during the Mexican Revolutionary War, helped undocumented workers get naturalization papers, founded a free nursery school, tutored young children, and worked as a hospital interpreter.
At the age of 60, Jovita died from tuberculosis on June 15, 1946. Let’s continue honoring her legacy by amplifying unheard voices around the world.
Photo by Carucha L. Meuse via The New Yorker
- MIRIAM JIMÉNEZ ROMÁN
Scholar, activist, and author
Representation matters. That’s why Miriam Jiménez Román dedicated over ten years to co-editing The AfroLatin@ Reader—a groundbreaking and award-winning book celebrating the many contributions Afro-Latinx people have made that shaped America.
Miriam was a pioneer in the Afro-Latinx Studies movement and worked hard to make more space for Afro-Latinx voices. For her book, which she co-edited with her husband, she helped weave together over 60 texts—from essays and memoirs to poetry and interviews—exploring the Afro-Latinx community’s impact on art, film, music, religion, and U.S. history. No other book like it existed.
Miriam was born on June 11, 1951 in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. Her parents emigrated to Spanish Harlem the following year. Growing up, she was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and chose to study sociology in college. She realized textbooks and scholars focused on Latinx and African American experiences but largely left out Afro-Latinx stories—those who identified as both. So she dedicated her career to changing that.
She worked for a decade at the world-renowned Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, where she taught, oversaw exhibitions, and coordinated a Scholars-in-Residence Program. Afterward, she taught classes on race, ethnicity, and gender in Latin America at Brown, Columbia, and other universities in New York, and was a mentor to many young scholars.
Miriam also co-founded the AfroLatin@ Forum, a nonprofit that raises awareness for the Afro-Latinx community. She also authored three other books on race identity and was the managing editor of “Centro: Journal of the Center Puerto Rican Studies.”
Before the 2010 census, Miriam worried more Afro-Latinx people would go uncounted, so she helped launch a campaign encouraging the community to “Check Both” on the census form.
In 2020, Miriam died from cancer at 69 years old. We look up to Miriam for preserving and bringing attention to the Afro-Latinx perspective.
Photo via New York Public Library
- PURA BELPRÉ
Librarian, author, and puppeteer
Love the library? So do we! Today we’re spotlighting a true hero for all bookworms: Pura Belpré, New York City’s first Latinx librarian. Pura was known for turning the library into a biblioteca. She pioneered programs, like “Bilingual Story Hour,” that helped Spanish speakers and immigrant kids feel more at home.
After becoming a librarian, Pura soon noticed there weren’t any children’s books in Spanish—so she wrote them herself. In 1932, her book Pérez y Martina became the first Spanish language book for children published by a mainstream U.S. press. Her story was based on a Puerto Rican folktale about a romance between a cockroach and a mouse.
She would go on to author even more children’s books, all sharing the culture of her homeland. In her honor, the American Library Association gives out the Pura Belpré Award every year to recognize kids and YA books by Latinx writers and illustrators.
Pura grew up in Cidra, Puerto Rico in the early 1900s. Ever since she was a little girl, she loved telling stories and heard many folktales from her abuela. While she was still a student at the University of Puerto Rico, she visited New York to attend her sister’s wedding. Pura fell in love with the Big Apple and decided to stay for good.
To bring her stories to life, Pura put her own spin on story time. She made puppets and used them to tell different Puerto Rican folktales. From the Bronx to lower Manhattan, Pura performed these different tales in both Spanish and English for all kids. She also acted as a translator and introduced different library resources to Spanish-speaking parents.
After 47 years as a librarian, Pura retired. The day before she died in 1982, at the age of 83, Pura received the Mayor’s Award of Honor for Arts and Culture. It acknowledged her hard work and dedication to making libraries more accessible for the Spanish community.
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