Puerto Rican women who paved the way for all Latinas in the US

Puerto Rican Women Who Paved the Way for All Latinas in the US

Image via Francesca Daly. From left: Rita Moreno, Antonia Novello, Mónica Puig, Sonia Sotomayor, and Antonia Pantoja

By Crystal Harlan

October 11, 2023

Floricua, our sister site focused on sharing stories that matter for Puerto Rican women in Florida, highlighted several Boricua women whose dedication, hard work, and achievements have not only benefited their own communities, but all Latinas.

 

Landing a seat on the US Supreme Court or winning an Olympic gold medal is a once-in-a-lifetime achievement that not many people can brag about. That’s why it’s so important to us to share the stories of these five Puerto Rican women who have all done things to earn a place in history.

Some have faced financial hardships, others discrimination, and some have dealt with health issues. None of that, however, stopped these inspiring Boricuas from becoming trailblazers for all Latinas.

As Hispanic Heritage Month draws to an end, take their experiences as a reminder that nothing is impossible, as these Puerto Rican women have proven with their hard work and dedication.

 

Rita Moreno

Born in Humacao, Puerto Rico, in 1931, Rita Moreno is the first and only Hispanic—and one very few performers—who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony. She moved with her mother to New York City at a young age, and made her Broadway debut at 13 in “Skydrift.” She then appeared in “Singin’ in the Rain” and “The King and I,” but it was her breakout role as Anita in “West Side Story” that earned her the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1962, becoming the first Latin American woman to win an Academy Award.

Despite her success, Moreno was often typecast and only offered stereotypical “ethnic” roles, whether it be Hawaiian, Native American, Egyptian, Filipino, or Latina. For that reason, after winning her Academy Award, she took a seven-year break from Hollywood and only did theater.
She has since appeared in multiple films, theatrical productions, and even in children’s television programs. She won a Grammy in 1972 for “The Electric Company Album” based on her contributions to the show’s soundtrack. Her role in “The Ritz” won her a Tony Award in 1975, and she received two consecutive Emmy Awards for her roles on “The Muppet Show” in 1977 and “The Rockford Files” in 1978.

More recently, you’ve likely seen her in the role of Valentina in the Steven Spielberg 2021 remake of “West Side Story,” which she executive-produced, or as Liliana de la Vega on the CW series “Jane the Virgin.”

Want to know more about her career that spans over seven decades? In 2021, Lin-Manuel Miranda profiled her life and career in the feature documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It.”

 

Antonia Novello

Antonia Novello is the first woman, the first Hispanic, and the first Puerto Rican to serve as Surgeon General of the United States, a position she held from 1990 to 1993. She was born in Fajardo, Puerto Rico in 1944 and as a child she was hospitalized frequently with a medical condition that required surgery; however, her family was not able to afford that treatment until her late teens. Those health challenges inspired Novello to become a doctor and help children access needed medical care.

She graduated from the University of Puerto Rico School of Medicine, and furthered her training at the University of Michigan and Georgetown University. After spending some time as a pediatrician, she decided to go into the public health field, working with several organizations, including the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in 1987, where she focused on pediatric AIDS. In 1990, she was appointed the United States’ 14th Surgeon General, the nation’s top health official. In that position, she advocated for healthcare accessibility, especially for women, children, and minority populations. She was committed to pressing public health issues, including childhood immunizations and HIV/AIDS awareness.

“I wanted to be able to do something about the major health issues facing people in this country, such as the need to increase access to health care for the uninsured, the need to ensure that the health care in this country is high-quality care, and the need to improve the health status of Americans through greater emphasis on prevention and healthy lifestyles,” Novello said in an interview with AMA Journal of Ethics.

 

Sonia Sotomayor

Sonia Sotomayor made history by becoming the first Latina to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States, the highest court in the country. Her beginnings were anything but privileged. She was born in New York City to Puerto Rican parents and grew up in a public housing project in the Bronx. Her father, a factory worker, died when Sotomayor was just 9 years old.

Through hard work and determination, the Nuyorican made it to Princeton University, where she graduated summa cum laude and received the Pyne Prize, the highest academic honor Princeton awards to an undergraduate. Next stop was Yale Law School, where she earned her J.D.

After working as prosecutor and a corporate litigator in New York City, she was appointed to the United States District Court of the Southern District of New York and then to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Later, Sotomayor was appointed to the US Supreme Court by former President Barack Obama and confirmed in 2009.

When Obama announced her nomination, Judge Sotomayor recalled visiting the White House when former President Bill Clinton nominated her for the appeals court. “It was an overwhelming experience for a kid from the South Bronx,” she said. “Never in my wildest childhood imaginings did I ever envision that moment, let alone did I ever dream that I would live this moment.”

 

Monica Puig

In 2016, Monica Puig achieved something not only for Puerto Rico, but for all Latinas. At the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, she became the first Latina to enter the tennis finals, and then the first Olympic gold medal winner for Puerto Rico. She was only ranked 34th in the world at the time, so her win was an unexpected source of pride for Boricuas and Latinas alike.

Her quick rise to success started in Florida. Although she was born in San Juan, she moved to Miami with her family as a child. At the age of 6, her mother, who played tennis in high school, gave Puig her first tennis racket, and she started playing at a small park in Doral. By 8, she was already playing in tournaments, and her parents decided to homeschool her so that she could have more time to dedicate to the sport. Her early dedication to the sport meant that she had to make sacrifices at a young age, missing out on birthday parties, time with friends, and even family events.

At 16, Puig went pro, and by 17 she made the Australian Open and French Open finals. As her career progressed, she started to travel more frequently to Puerto Rico to visit her sponsors.

“Tennis brought me back to Puerto Rico, brought me back to my roots. Kind of made me fall in love with the island all over again and, uh, it gave me more opportunity to be with my family,” she told Project Pulso.

It was during that time that she also noticed that she was one of very few Latinas playing tennis professionally. But that didn’t stop her.

At the age of 22, when she beat Angelique Kerber from Germany, at the Rio Olympics, she dropped to her knees and the crowd chanted, “¡Sí, se puede!”

 

Antonia Pantoja

Antonia Pantoja turned her childhood full of hardships into a life of purpose and civil service, ultimately earning the highest civilian award of the United States. Pantoja was born in 1922, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where she was raised by her mother and grandparents. On top of her family’s already difficult financial circumstances, they faced the devastation of a hurricane and the Great Depression.

At the time, many children in Puerto Rico had to work to support their households, so convincing her family to allow her to go to high school was no easy task. After high school, she went to college and then began teaching in a one-room school in a remote rural community. She commuted to the school on horseback and would stay there Sunday through Friday.

In the 1940s she was part of the large migration of Puerto Ricans to New York City. Although Puerto Ricans are American citizens, she was not welcomed with open arms. Instead, she experienced racism and inequality, which ignited a fire in the young teacher-turned-factory worker.

At her factory job, she organized a union to negotiate for better working conditions. She joined the Hispanic Young Adults Association (HYAA), which was later renamed Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs (PRACA), whose mission was to address the community’s lack of access to education, health care, and stable incomes.

Pantoja eventually went back to school and earned a master’s in social work from Columbia University. That further propelled her into grassroots activism, and she went on to found ASPIRA in 1961, offering Puerto Rican students tutoring, classes on Puerto Rican history and culture, and leadership training. Today, ASPIRA is a national organization that supports not only Puerto Ricans but people from all backgrounds.

Pantoja later went on to establish the Puerto Rican Research and Resource Center in Washington, D.C., and she helped found Boricua College in New York City. After decades of giving back to her community, in 1996, Pantoja was the first Puerto Rican woman to receive the American Presidential Medal of Freedom.

 

READ MORE: Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month with These Must-Read Books, According to Our Staff

Author

  • Crystal Harlan

    Crystal is a bilingual editor and writer with over 20 years of experience in digital and print media. She is currently based in Florida, but has lived in small towns in the Midwest, Caracas, New York City, and Madrid, where she earned her MA in Spanish literature.

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