In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, we’re highlighting influential Hispanic internationalists who advocated for peace, civil rights, and multiculturalism, either abroad or in the U.S. Our list includes artists, activists, and diplomats who developed cultural understanding, equality, and justice.

In 1968, a bill was passed to designate the week of September 15th as “National Hispanic Heritage Week.” Representative Esteban Torres of California submitted a bill in 1987 to expand Hispanic Heritage Week into a Hispanic Heritage Month. While Torres’s bill did not pass, a similar bill was passed by Congress and President Ronald Reagan signed it into law in 1988. September 15th of every year was chosen as the starting point for the celebration because it is the anniversary of independence for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Joan Baez (1941–)

A New Yorker of Mexican descent, Baez is known best as a singer, songwriter, musician, and activist. Her music often includes songs of protest or social justice. Through her vocal opposition to the Vietnam War, she founded the Institute for the Study of Non-violence and was instrumental in the formation of the U.S. section of Amnesty International, a leading human rights nonprofit. In 2015, Baez received the Ambassador of Conscience Award.

Diane Guerrero (1986–)

An American actress and author known for her roles on Orange is the New Black and Jane the Virgin, Guerrero is an advocate for immigration reform.  She remained in the U.S. when her parents and older brother were deported back to Colombia after unsuccessfully attaining legal citizenship. Guerrero volunteers and is an ambassador for the Immigration Legal Resource Center, a nonprofit that aims to educate people about issues in the immigrant community. She also became a board member for Mi Familia Vota, a national nonprofit organization that promotes civic involvement. In 2015, she was named one of the Presidential Ambassadors for Citizenship and Naturalization. At the 2018 Phillip Burton Immigration & Civil Rights Awards, Guerrero was recognized for her work.

Salma Hayek Pinault (1966–)

A Mexican and American film actress whose international work focuses on creating awareness of violence against women and discrimination against immigrants. After the 2017 earthquake in Mexico, Hayek Pinault raised more than $700,000 for relief efforts. For International Women’s Day in 2014, she was one of the artist signatories of Amnesty International’s letter campaigning for women’s rights in Afghanistan. Most recently, she was awarded the Danny Kaye Humanitarian award by UNICEF for leading UNICEF’s campaign to end maternal and neonatal tetanus, as well as other global initiatives.

Pablo Neruda (1904—1973)

A Chilean poet, diplomat, and politician who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1971 and appointed honorary consul to Rangoon in Burma (now Yangôn, Myanmar) for five years. Throughout his life, Neruda was named consul in Batavia (modern Jakarta) and then eventually Chilean consul in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In 1969, Neruda campaigned for Salvador Allende, who appointed him ambassador to France after being elected president of Chile.

Dolores Huerta (1930–)

An American labor leader, civil rights activist, and co-founder of the National Farmworkers Association with Cesar Chavez. Dolores Huerta is known best for her advocacy for workers’, immigrants’ and women’s rights. Huerta is famous for originating the slogan “Sí, se puede” (“Yes, one can” or, “Yes, it can be done”), which was adopted by former President Barack Obama as his 2008 campaign slogan. In turn, President Barack Obama honored her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012.

Michelle Bachelet (1951–)

Bachelet was the first female president of Chile from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2014 and 2018, serving as the first president of Chile to be reelected since 1932. In her role as Executive Director of UN Women, she backed the Fund for Gender Equality, which provides grants to support innovative programs to promote equal gender access to quality education. Bachelet was appointed as the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in August 2018. She also worked for the Ministry of Health’s West Santiago Health Service and was a consultant for the Pan-American Health Organization and the World Health Organization.

Octavio Paz (1914—1998)

A Mexican poet and diplomat who received both the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1982 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1990. Paz’s writing often exposed his critical views on totalitarianism and the violation of human rights in communist regimes including Castro’s Cuba. Paz entered Mexico’s diplomatic corps in 1945, after having lived for two years in San Francisco and New York and served as Mexico’s ambassador to India from 1962 to 1968. His stay in India greatly influenced his work, infusing themes of Buddhism, Hinduism, and his understanding of East Indian myths.

Argelia Laya (1926—1997)

An Afro-Venezuelan educator and women’s rights activist who was one of the first women in Venezuela to advocate for a woman’s right to choose. Laya was an advisor to the Transcultural Institute of Studies of Black Women and in 1982, she took part in eliminating discrimination in adoption procedures. In 1985, she attended the United Nation’s Third World Conference on Women, held in Nairobi, Kenya as the Venezuelan delegate. She also served as Venezuela’s representative at the Inter-American Commission of Women.

Raul Humberto Yzaguirre (1939–)

An American civil rights activist who is a lifetime member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Yzaguirre served as the president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza (the largest Latino nonprofit advocacy organization in the U.S) from 1974 to 2004, and as U.S. Ambassador to the Dominican Republic from November 2010 to May 2013 under President Obama. In 1993, Yzaguirre received the Order of the Aztec Eagle, which is the highest honor awarded by Mexico to citizens of another nation.

While some of the extraordinary individuals on this list worked abroad to accomplish their goals as internationalists, it’s important to note that intercultural efforts can be achieved within the U.S. By working for equal rights for minority groups and championing the rights of those from different cultures, these individuals demonstrate a belief in forging a more just and peaceful world.

AFS-USA is committed to making our organization and programs accessible and inclusive for people of color. In particular, the AFS-USA Students of Color Exchange group, composed of AFS Staff, Returnees, and Volunteers, is dedicated to helping students of color navigate their international exchange experience. We work with students before they depart on program and after they return to offer them support and guidance on how to use their unique background to enrich their experience and fulfill their role as an AFS Ambassador. Last year, about 1/4 of the U.S. students that studied abroad with us identified themselves as students of color.

If you are interested in learning more about the Students of Color Exchange group or have any questions, please contact us at [email protected].

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