Healthy People

Excerpts from Latino and Latina Leaders of the 21st Century

Ordinary Beginnings, Extraordinary Outcomes provides comprehensive stories of courageous men and women who have defied expectations, overcome adversity, set precedents, and dedicated significant time and energy to helping others achieve their goals.

Latino and Latina Leaders of the 21st Century:

Ordinary Beginnings, Extraordinary Outcomes

by Kay (Kayla) S. García

Latino issues are everybody’s issues. The Latino and Latina leaders portrayed in this book have made valuable contributions to our social, legal, political and educational systems. This book provides comprehensive stories of courageous men and women who have defied expectations, overcome adversity, set precedents, and dedicated significant time and energy to helping others achieve their goals. Active locally, nationally, and internationally in a variety of professions, these individuals offer proof that ordinary or even humble origins can lead to extraordinary accomplishments. This collective biography expounds on well-known and otherwise Latino leaders who are at the front of their fields. It includes well-known individuals, such as Sonia Sotomayor, First Latina on the Supreme Court; Dolores Huerta, Union Organizer and Community Activist; Jorge Ramos, News Anchor and Advocate; John Haroldson and María Chávez-Haroldson, District Attorney and Leadership Facilitator; and Sandra Cisneros, Author and Activist. It includes, as well, many others, such as Julián Castro, Mayor of San Antonio; Nydia Velázquez, Representative for New York; Luis Gutiérrez, Representative for Illinois; Marco Rubio, Senator for Florida. It also comprises leaders in fields of education, community activism, and literary figures such as Cherríe Moraga, Advocate for LGBTQ, Latinos, and Indigenous People; and Elena Poniatowska, an Internationally known ally to Latinos.

Themes and messages of the book:

1)     How these people succeeded, in spite of overwhelming obstacles.

2)     Social justice issues.

3)     Multicultural identities.

4)     Solidarity among different groups and organizations.

5)     Contributions made by Latinos to U.S. society.  Positive role models.

6)    The importance of education.  Transformative education at OSU  (DPD, Learning Communities, Service Learning, Spanish for Heritage Speakers program, Ethnic Studies).  Outstanding educators at OSU.



Latino issues are everybody’s issues. In Sandra Cisneros’ story Have You Seen Marie?, a character called “River” merges with all the waterways, lakes, and oceans of the world, “washing away the dead… bringing new life, the salty and the sweet, mixing with everything, everything, everything, everything.” Issues of concern to Latinos are like this river, since they are intertwined with every aspect of our society, and the advances made by Latinos have had multiple effects on our nation. Due to efforts by Latino activists, progress has been made in our social, legal, political and educational systems, as well as in protections for workers and consumers. Some of these improvements are obvious. For example, the boycotts and demonstrations organized by United Farm Workers (UFW) brought about better working conditions for agricultural laborers, including regulation of pesticides and access to toilets, soap and water near the fields. Thus, our nation’s food supply became healthier because of improved sanitation and a reduction in the worst chemicals sprayed on produce.

Another observable advancement has occurred in the area of immigration reform, due in part to the efforts of Latino politicians, judges, and advocates. The 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program improved the status of immigrants brought to this country as children, allowing them to study and work in the United States for renewable two-year periods. In 2013, some progress has been made toward a comprehensive reform that would improve the circumstances of undocumented immigrants and provide a stable workforce for industry, agriculture, and services.

In a manner less evident to the public, Latino activists have promoted the rights of minorities, poor people, women, the LGBTQ community, crime victims, defendants, and speakers of other languages. Latino educators have cultivated awareness of the benefits of diversity, social activism, and bilingual education. Latino volunteers at outreach centers have helped people connect to communities and services. Latina authors have raised consciousness and promoted the rights of their own communities and of all women. The ripple effects of all of these contributions are significant, since by improving the life of one person you can improve the condition of the entire family, then of the community, and eventually of the nation.

The term Latino does not refer to race, but to ethnicity, and it encompasses many different identities and cultures. Although most Latinos speak Spanish or descend from Spanish speakers, some of them have ancestors from European countries other than Spain. Many Latinos are related to one or more of the numerous indigenous and African communities represented in the Americas. Moreover, there are Latinos with Jewish, Arabic, or Asian heritage. With this book I would like to honor Latinos and Latinas of all colors and backgrounds. (See the “Terms and Acronyms” page for more information on terminology.)

All the leaders portrayed in this volume are currently active. They have had ordinary or even humble beginnings and have overcome adversity in many forms. Serving as representatives and role models for their communities, these individuals have set precedents, built legacies, and paved the way for future generations. All of them are proud of their heritage and remain connected to the Latino community. They are proof that one can effect change in any setting, and at all levels, since they include people who work in local, state, national and international organizations. In this book I analyze what factors made it possible for these leaders to succeed, how they overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and what lessons can be learned from their experiences. I hope to inspire future activists, as well as to inform others about some noteworthy Latinos in our area and throughout the United States.

I have chosen to focus on positive aspects of these leaders and of the Latino community in general, as a counterbalance to the negative news that dominates our mass media. However, I have not whitewashed these stories. All of these leaders are ordinary human beings, complete with flaws, but somehow they have managed to channel their energies in such a way that they have achieved extraordinary outcomes in their lifetime.

My own perspective is that of a natural ally to Latinos. I lived in Mexico for many years, and I have interacted with Latino communities in the United States for decades. I have taught hundreds of students to speak Spanish and to appreciate Latino and Latin American culture. I am related to some Latinos, even though I have no Spanish-speaking ancestors. Therefore, I am careful to use the third person when speaking of Latinos, and I have made a concerted effort to let them speak for themselves as much as possible by using quotes or by paraphrasing their ideas.

In the first five chapters of this book, I present detailed stories of individuals: Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court justice; Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union; Jorge Ramos, news anchor and advocate for immigrants; John Haroldson, district attorney, and his wife María Chávez-Haroldson, leadership facilitator; and Sandra Cisneros, author and activist. My sixth chapter presents a wide variety of Latino leaders in different fields, who have made connections to each other and to various causes. This final chapter will help convince the reader that Latino issues are connected to everything, everything, everything, everything.

By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.