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Luminarias: Celebrating Latinas Who Inspire Us

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(The following is a guest post by Hispanic Division Huntington Fellows Maria Guadalupe Partida and Herman Luis Chavez and Reference Librarian Maria Thurber.)

Collage of images created by Herman Luis Chavez. Images used clockwise from top left – Deborah Dosamanes. El Dia Internacional de la Mujer. 1979; March 8th: Dia Internacional de la Mujer = International Women’s Day; Ester Hernandez. Mis Madres. 1986; Poster by Shepard Fairey based on a photograph by Arlene Mejorado of Maribel Valdez Gonzalez. We the people – defend dignity. 2017. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Last summer, as the global pandemic raged on and the need for digital resources continued, a group in the Hispanic Division decided to collaborate on projects highlighting the rich history and contributions of the Latina/o/x community. With support from supervisors, mentors, and colleagues, we –Huntington Fellows Lupita Partida and Herman Luis Chavez and Reference Librarian Dani Thurber– formed a group we call the Latinx Dream Team. Aided by video chats, calls, and text messages, we focused on all things Latina/o/x, from discussing the term “Latinx” to planning virtual events during National Hispanic Heritage Month. Despite working remotely from three different time zones and never having met in person, our combined efforts resulted in the publication of two new research guides: A Latinx Resource Guide: Civil Rights Cases and Events and Latinx Studies: Library of Congress Research Guide.

In celebration of Women’s History Month, we share the stories of Latina Luminarias whose lives, actions, and bravery inspired our work. We call these women Luminarias (luminaries) because they “lit the way” during challenging times. Luminarias, sometimes referred to as farolitos (“small lanterns”), are traditionally made out of paper bags with a small light source inside and weighted down by sand. A historical tradition from New Mexico, these little lights illuminate towns during winter’s darkness.

Soldaderas (1910-1924)

During Mexico’s early 20th century, women disenfranchised by the Mexican Constitution of 1857 were restricted to lives of domestic work. As the Mexican Revolution erupted in 1910, these “nobodies” began to break traditional gender roles. Many women, including Afro-Mexicanas, chose to become soldaderas (female soldiers) during the Revolution, fighting on the battlefield, cooking, or performing other chores. Many women were coerced by President Huerta into accompanying men into battle. Some women, including Petra Herrera who changed her name to “Pedro,” disguised themselves as males to avoid sexual assault or discrimination. Today, soldaderas are celebrated worldwide; their accomplishments trespass borders and inspire us to shatter adversity, confront gender discrimination, and evolve as Latina trailblazers.

Walter H. Horne. Mujeres listas para recivir a Rabago. 1911. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Collage of images by Herman Luis Chavez of Jovita Idar’s El Progreso Park in Laredo, TX. Photographs taken by Lupita Partida.

Jovita Idar (1885-1946)

Journalist and community activist Jovita Idár was born in the border town of Laredo, Texas in 1885. Her parents founded “La Crónica,” a local Spanish-language newspaper that uncovered prevalent discrimination against Mexicans and Mexican Americans and roused activism among individuals residing in both Laredo and Nuevo Laredo. In 1911, Idár helped assemble the first Mexicanist Congress, a political convention that addressed socioeconomic discrepancies within Mexican and Mexican-American communities. Idár joined the journalists of “El Progreso newspaper, where she criticized President Wilson’s military intervention at the U.S-Mexico border during the Mexican Revolution. After reading Idár’s political editorial, Texas Rangers arrived to shut down “El Progreso.” Idár firmly stood outside, prohibiting the Rangers from entering. Ultimately, Texas Rangers shut down “El Progreso,” but Idár remained an activist, writing pro-suffrage editorials for both “La Cronica” and “Evolución,” a newspaper founded by Idár alongside her brother.

Pura Belpré (1899-1982)

Pura Belpré arrived in New York City in 1921 and discovered a need to connect the growing Hispanic communities across the city’s boroughs. As one of the first bilingual assistants hired by the New York Public Library, Belpré found fertile ground for bilingual cuentos folklóricos (folkloric stories) from her native Puerto Rico. Belpré wrote and published her own cuentos and went around the city telling stories and inspiring literacy. Belpré’s legacy lives on through ALA’s Pura Belpré Award, which honors her as one of the most influential librarians to promote children’s literature and for her service to the Latina/o/x community. In the Hispanic Division, we honor Belpré’s work by recommending diverse children’s and YA materials for the Library’s collections and hosting the annual Américas Award ceremony. Last year, Planting stories: the life of librarian and storyteller Pura Belpré received a commendation from the Américas Award committee.

Luisa Moreno (1907-1992)

Luisa Moreno was born in Guatemala in 1907 as Blanca Rosa Rodríguez López. After rejecting her family’s fortune in 1928, Moreno pursued a life in the U.S., toiling as a seamstress in New York’s Spanish Harlem. This experience inspired her work for the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in Florida on behalf of African American and Latino cigar workers. In 1938, Moreno joined the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA), where she continued Emma Tenayuca’s work in organizing the Pecan Shellers Strike in San Antonio, Texas. Moreno helped organize the Spanish Speaking People’s Conference, where about 1,500 representatives from 120 organizations convened in Los Angeles to address civil rights issues pertaining to the Latino community. In 1950, Moreno voluntarily left the U.S. after deportation proceedings were brought against her. She died in her native country of Guatemala in 1992.

Celia Cruz, full-length portrait, facing front, on stage. 1962. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Joan Baez in concert, September 10…. 1976. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Celia Cruz (1925-2003)

The music of Celia Cruz can lift spirits even on the gloomiest day. Cruz grew up in Havana, Cuba exposed to diverse music and musicians. Known worldwide as the “Queen of Salsa,” Cruz recorded more than 70 albums and received countless accolades. In 2005, Cruz was awarded posthumously the Congressional Gold Medal. In 2013, the Library of Congress added Cruz’s collaborative album with Johnny Pacheco, “Celia & Johnny” (1974) to the National Recording Registry.  With her distinctive shout “¡Azucar!” (“Sugar!”) while singing, Cruz’ voice and her music’s uplifting rhythm are wonderful reminders that life is beautiful despite adversity.

Sylvia Rivera (1951-2002)

Sylvia Rivera, born Ray Rivera Mendoza was a Latina transgender activist and drag queen with Puerto Rican, Venezuelan, and Mexican roots. During the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, Sylvia demonstrated against the police raid of the Stonewall Inn. Following this event, a wave of political activism emerged within the LGBTQ community, leading Rivera to press for New York City’s first gay rights ordinance. In 1970, Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson (1945-1992) founded the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a NYC-based organization that supplied lodging for homeless transgendered and queer youth. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SLRP), a non-profit organization that provides free legal services for transgender and gender non-conforming individuals was founded in 2002 to honor Rivera’s life-long activism for queer and trans people of color.

Joan Baez (1941-  )

Folk singer and social rights activist, Joan Baez has used her voice to advance social change. Since 1960, Baez has recorded and performed multilingual songs of protest and social justice, marched with iconic civil rights activists, and established several human rights nonprofits. During the Civil Rights Movement, Baez joined Martin Luther King Jr. in the March to Washington and sang “We Shall Overcome” in front of a crowd of more than 300,000 people. Baez marched numerous times with César Chávez, demanding fair wages and better working conditions for farmworkers. In 1981, Baez toured Chile, Brazil, and Argentina to investigate human right abuses. In 2014, The Library of Congress added Baez’ 1960 debut album “Joan Baez” to the National Recording Registry.

Collage by Herman Luis Chavez. Photo credit of Fajardo-Anstine’s protrait by Graham Morrison. Photo of Antonia Hernández used with permission.
Rachael Romero. Stop forced sterilization. 1977. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Antonia Hernández (1948-)

Antonia Hernández, born in Torreón, Mexico in 1948, is an attorney, civil rights activist, and the current president and CEO of the California Community Foundation, a philanthropic nonprofit organization that supports marginalized communities in Los Angeles, California. In 1981, Hernández defended the women of Madrigal v. Quilligan, a class action lawsuit filed by 10 Mexican-American women against the Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center for involuntary or forced sterilization. From 1985 to 2004, Hernández was the acting president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), a nonprofit organization that advocates for the civil rights of the Latina/o/x community.

Kali Fajardo-Anstine (1987-)

Kali Fajardo-Anstine is a novelist from Denver, Colorado with Indigenous, Latina, and Filipino roots and a 2020 winner of an American Book Award. Fajardo-Anstine is the author of “Sabrina and Corina: Stories,” finalist for the National Book Award, a novel that captures the lives of Indigenous Latina characters in the American West. Winner of multiple awards and widely translated, “Sabrina and Corina” promotes a narrative of identity, heritage, and feminine empowerment. Listen to Fajardo-Anstine’s inspiring presentation and  Q&A session during last year’s virtual National Book Festival.

The Latinas highlighted here are only a few of the women who inspired us this year. Please tell us in the comments about the Luminarias who have encouraged, nurtured, or taught you!

Comments (5)

  1. I’m a bilingual/bicultural librarian, and haven’t heard about many of these artists/activists in this article. Really appreciate this and will continue to look for further information from your Hispanic Division.
    Thank you.

  2. Thanks for the hard work you amazing librarians did in this compilation. I was the first ever Coordinator of Services to the Spanish Speaking in the history of the San Antonio Public Library System (now retired). We accomplished many things with zero budget or support. Sometimes I was subversive within the system to accomplish my goals (I am a Latina, what did you expect.) That won me no kudos, I can tell you that!
    I will send the names of other Luminarias, al rato.
    All the best,
    -Linda Massengale
    P.S. Shout out to all my fellow Reformista librarians.

  3. Another Luminaria: Emma Tenayuca led the pecan shellers strike in San Antonio, Texas on January 31, 1938. Que Viva Emma!

  4. My deepest appreciation for doing this much needed work for the Latinx community! We will be counting in the resources you identify to help build a curriculum to inspire and empower emergent bilingual students. Where can I reach you to get more information about the work you do?

  5. Thank you, Nora! We really appreciate your kind words. Librarians are here to help! Please reach out to the Hispanic Reading Room by calling (202) 707-5397 or submitting a question through our Ask a Librarian service through

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