AARP Magazine celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month with profiles of Hispanic American heroes


Rita Moreno, 86 years old and going strong, remembers when she came with her mother from Puerto Rico to their new home in New York. It was the first time she stuck out being a “little different.” It wasn’t a place that gave her a handout, it was “sink or swim” she recalls, and she chose the latter. Her dream was to be an actress. This dream led her down the road to one of the biggest roles of her life when she played Anita in “West Side Story.” She was a Latina playing the role of a Latina. For her performance she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, the first Latina ever to win the coveted award. Today, she is still living her dream, acting as a Cuban American Grandma on the Netflix series “One Day at a Time.” The show portrays different generational aspects of what it means to be Latin and American.

Jorge Ramos, a Mexican American journalist, came to this country due to the censorship he faced in his native land. He wanted freedom of speech and press, unimpeded by those in power. He expresses his amazement at and respect for the Declaration of Independence, which gives natural born citizens as well as naturalized immigrants the same rights. His life’s purpose is to preserve the rights of all Americans and the world to know the truth, warts and all.

Born in Illinois, Sandra Cisneros has become one of the most famous Mexican American authors and activists in the world. She always felt that the term Hispanic did not fit her, saying it was too broad a definition to put so many diverse groups together. For a time, she called herself a Chicana, but now identifies as being “estadounidense,” as someone born in the U.S. with Mexican roots. She celebrates the diversity of peoples and cultures with origins throughout the Americas, and the rich complexity this brings.

Maria Elena Salinas is a journalist who believes there is no conflict to “dual heritage,” being both American and Mexican. Both cultures are part of who she is, and the same is true for many others. She celebrates both cultures’ traditional holidays, and also embraces the culture of her husband, who is Cuban American. She believes her daughter is richer for being able to embrace aspects of all her heritages.

Daniel Lubetzsky is a socially-conscious entrepreneur of such companies like Kind Healthy Snacks. He is also a proud Mexican American. After Daniel’s father was recused from Dachau by U.S. military during World War II, he immigrated to Mexico and started a family. When Daniel turned 16, he left Mexico for the U.S. and became a naturalized citizen. His motto is that immigrants do not simply have a “can-do attitude” but a “must-do attitude,” because there is no other option. One of his most notable accomplishments was in helping frame PeaceWorks, a foundation to foster understanding in regions of conflict.

John Leguizamo, an American actor and comedian, brought to light Latin American contributions to this country through his acclaimed Broadway show “Latin History for Morons.” It was a labor of love he sought to accomplish because Latin involvement in America’s history was not well-represented in school or in Hollywood. He pointed out that Latin people are the second-oldest ethnic group in America, that they fought in the Revolutionary War and all subsequent wars, and that they are the most decorated minority group in this nation’s history.

Richard Carmona, a proud Latino of Puerto Rican descent who served as Surgeon General of the U.S. from 2000-2006, revealed that his heritage helped shape him into being the best advocate for the U.S. Public Health Service he could be. Growing up poor in Harlem gave him first-hand knowledge of what it was like to go to bed hungry or to not afford to go to the dentist. His abuelita was a great influence on him as well, through cooking for, sewing for, and advising new immigrants. She taught him all about community service.

While it is true that some people believe “assimilation” means having to give up one’s original heritage and traditions, and that Native peoples and African slaves in particular were deprived of or forced to give up theirs, we believe the United States’ ideals mean welcoming the world’s cultures. The U.S. is inherently a country with people of all origins, and our baseline virtues, the keys to our success now and in the future, are freedom and peaceful coexistence. Maria Elena Salinas is right when she says that we should be proud of the totality of who we are. We celebrate that.

You can see many of these profiles online at:

Image by: John Ferguson - CC BY-SA 3.0