20 Puerto Rican Women Everyone Should Know

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March is Women’s History Month and March 8 is International Women’s Day. La Respuesta magazine proudly celebrates and honors the immense contributions of Boricua women in both Puerto Rico and the Diaspora. For this important event we have selected twenty mujeres boricuas we think everyone should know. While this is far from a comprehensive list, we encourage further research and recognition of the many Boricuas making our people proud and our world a better, more equitable and ethical place.

Ana Irma Rivera Lassén, J.D., 1955

Lassens-PrimeraHora

A feminist, activist, and lawyer. She was the third woman and the first Puerto Rican of obvious African descent and openly gay President of Puerto Rico’s Bar Association.

[Photo: Primera Hora]

Ana Roque de Duprey, 1853-1933

Duprey

A teacher and feminist, she founded the first “women’s only” magazine in Puerto Rico. She also helped found the University of Puerto Rico campuses in San Juan and Mayagüez.

Dr. Antonia Pantoja, 1922-2002

Pantoja

An educator and organizer, Pantoja founded the educational institution ASPIRA in 1961, Boricua College in 1970, and several other organizations and institutions throughout her life. She was integral in getting bilingual education in New York City schools and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1996.

[Photo: Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños]

Blanca Canales Torresola, 1906-1996

BlancaCanales

A member of the influential Canales family of Jayuya, Torresola was a teacher and revolutionary, playing a leading role in the 1950 Nationalist Insurrection, where she declared the Second Republic. For this she spent 17 years in prison.

Caridad de la Luz, “La Bruja,” 1977

LaBruja

La Bruja is a Bronx born and raised poet and actress who started performing at the Nuyorican Poets Café. She has performed and acted on film, television and web series. She also facilitates writing workshops for inner-city youth and was named in 2005 by El Diario/ La Prensa as one of the 50 most distinguished Latinas.

[Photo: Shirley Rodriguez]

Esmeralda Santiago, 1948

EsmeraldaSantiago

Born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York, Santiago is a graduate of Harvard University and the author of When I Was Puerto Rican and other critically acclaimed novels and memoirs. She is also a spokesperson for public libraries and has advocated for women survivors of domestic violence.

Dr. Evelina López Antonetty, 1922-1984

Antonetty

Called the “Hell Lady of the Bronx” for her fierce advocacy on behalf of Puerto Rican, Black and other historically oppressed peoples in New York City. She fought for bilingual education, community control of public schools, the creation and survival of Hostos Community College, and founded the community institution United Bronx Parents in 1965.

Dr. Helen Rodríguez Trías, 1929-2001

RodriguezTrias

Pediatrician, educator, and women’s rights activist, she was born in New York City and earned her M.D. at the University of Puerto Rico. In 1960, she helped establish the island’s first center of care for newborn babies and in 1970 she became the head of pediatrics at Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx. In NYC, she brought attention to the mass sterilization of Puerto Rican women and reproductive rights. She was the first Puerto Rican and Latina president of the American Public Health Association and was awarded the Presidential Citizen’s Medal in 2001.

Julia de Burgos, 1917-1953

DeBurgos

Poet, Teacher, Essayist, and Feminist. She was born in Carolina, Puerto Rico and died in El Barrio/ East Harlem, NY. De Burgos had her first verses published at age 19 and published several books including, Poemas en Veinte Zurcos, Poemas Exactos de mí Misma and Canción de la Verdad Sencilla.

Lolita Lebrón, 1919-2010

Lolita

A leader in the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, New York Chapter, Lebrón led a small brigade on an attack of the U.S. Congress on March 1, 1954 to bring global attention to Puerto Rico’s colonial status. For this act she was incarcerated until 1979. She later became a voice for human rights and non-violent protest against the U.S. Navy’s presence on the island of Vieques.

Luisa Capetillo, 1879-1922

Capetillo

Capetillo was a labor organizer, essayist, and radical feminist born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. She was a leader in the American Federation of Labor, organized tobacco workers and women for universal suffrage and helped pass the island’s minimum wage laws. She is also credited with being the first woman in Puerto Rico to wear pants in public, for which she was arrested.

Dr. Mayra Santos-Febres, 1966

MayraSantos

A novelist, literary critic, and intellectual, her works have been translated into several languages. Her novels and poems are used by colleges and universities to engage in challenging topics, such as race, gender and sexuality in Caribbean societies. She organizes the Festival de la Palabra in Puerto Rico.

Melissa Mark-Viverito, 1969

Viverito

She is the Speaker of the New York City Council – the first Puerto Rican and Latina to hold the position – and represents a district encompassing El Barrio/ East Harlem and the South Bronx. She is a graduate of Columbia University and has worked in labor and human rights issues.

Miriam Colón, 1936

Colon

A stage and film actress for over 60 years, she is the founder and director of New York’s Puerto Rican Traveling Theater and winner of the Obie Award’s Lifetime Achievement in the Theater category in 1993.

Nicholasa Mohr, 1938

Mohr

A Nuyorican writer, her books such as Nilda and El Bronx, detail Puerto Rican life in the barrios of New York. She has won several awards including the New York Times Outstanding Book of the Year and was a National Book Award finalist.

Nydia Velázquez, 1953

Velzquez-QueesCourier

The first Puerto Rican woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Velázquez serves since 1993 and represents a district encompassing Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. Born in Puerto Rico, she has an M.A. in political science from New York University and has been the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus since 2011.

[Photo: Queens Courier]

Pura Belpré, 1899-1982

Belpre

The first Puerto Rican librarian in New York City’s public library (NYPL) system, Belpré was a writer, a collector of folktales and advocate for bilingual and children’s literature. Her work in the 115th Street library branch during the 1920s integrated Latin American and Spanish-language literature in the NYPL and validated the presence of the growing Puerto Rican community. She was awarded the New York Mayor’s Award for Arts and Culture in 1982.

Rita Moreno, 1931

Moreno

An actress and winner of the Grammy, Oscar, Tony and Emmy awards, Moreno was born Rosa Dolores Alverio in Humacao, Puerto Rico. She is known best for playing Anita in West Side Story in 1961 for which she was the first Puerto Rican and Latina to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

Rosie Pérez, 1964

Perez

Pérez is a screen and stage actress, dancer, choreographer, filmmaker and activist born in Buschwick, Brooklyn. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Fearless in 1993. Pérez also directed the 2006 film Yo Soy Boricua Pa’ Que Tú Lo Sepas. She also participated in acts of civil disobedience against the U.S. Navy in Vieques.

Sonia Sotomayor, J.D., 1954

Sotomayor

Born and raised in the Bronx, NY, Sotomayor went to Yale Law School and served on the U.S. Circuit Court and Court of Appeals in New York. Since 2009 she has been an Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, the first Puerto Rican and Latina to hold this position.

IntlWomensDatLaRes

*The poster features a painting by Rafael Tufiño of his mother, called “La Goyita.” The quote and background text is from “A Julia de Burgos” by nuestra poeta nacional Julia de Burgos.

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  21 comments for “20 Puerto Rican Women Everyone Should Know

  1. March 9, 2014 at 8:39 am

    It’s with great pride to read this article that I say I’m glad our women in history I recognized. When my mother arrived in 1958 from San Tulce, Puerto Rico, she was not treated any better just because she came from a U.S. territory. Our struggles were no different yet unique being from P.R. She made a life for herself then family. From an orphan, to a seamstress, a wife, mother and friend, I honor her no less than all the women in this article. Brunilda Castellanos lost her battle with colorectal cancer but lives on through family, and now Forever United to Colorectal Cancer, Inc. so others, and our people, will not have to suffer the same fate. Thank you for the article. Btw, I’m also proud of a friend mentioned above; Caridad De La Luz.

  2. Karla S. Correa Pérez
    March 9, 2014 at 5:53 pm

    It’s an honor that an article is dedicated to influential Puerto Rican women throughout history. However, this list would be complete if you included our beloved songwriter Sylvia Rexach, how her legacy had an important contribution to Puerto Rico’s popular music in the past century and the fact that she is one of our most valuable cultural icons.

  3. Javier
    March 9, 2014 at 7:30 pm

    Nilita Vientós Gastón

  4. Jennifer
    March 9, 2014 at 8:40 pm

    I would also add Sylvia Rivera, who was of Puerto Rican and Venezuelan descent. To quote her Wiki page, Rivera was a “bisexual transgender activist and trans woman. She was a founding member of both the Gay Liberation Front and the Gay Activists Alliance and helped found Street Transgender Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a group dedicated to helping homeless young street drag queens and trans women, with her friend Marsha P. Johnson.” Rivera was a civil rights pioneer and her importance for LGBTQ and women of color communities cannot be understated. Additionally, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, which “works to guarantee that all people are free to self-determine gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination or violence,” is named in her honor.

    • La Respuesta
      March 10, 2014 at 4:14 pm

      Yes, we honored her with a poster when we first launched our publication (check out our tumblr and facebook pages) and plan to honor her again in June for the anniversary of the Stonewall Rebellion.

  5. T
    March 9, 2014 at 9:59 pm

    A list to be proud of. So inspiring! I was expecting to see Lola Rodriguez de Tío as I scrolled.

  6. Betsy Tirado
    March 9, 2014 at 10:31 pm

    Proud to be Boricua and prouder still of our women, men that gave so much for us .

    Betsy

  7. ROSE AVELLANET
    March 9, 2014 at 11:23 pm

    The article is A Wonderful Way To bring some insight on Our Culture and Our Mujeres Puertorriqueñas That have overcome adversity and Now are Writers Actresses Doctors Poets etc..
    And It is a Honor To see How Your Very Own have Triumph ..
    But I have to say something that I am not Proud of If You believe In that You have To go into a Federal Building and shoot it up to bring a point across or that Your Beliefs is so that You need to submit To Violence To bring Your Point across I cannot Be Proud of That.. I do not think That Lolita Lebron is a Woman That I as A Latina A Puertorriqueña at That should be Proud of Her.. Violence Only Brings Violence … Did she change anything No she did not ..

    • Becky dejesus
      March 10, 2014 at 4:26 pm

      I agree totally with you, ms. Avellanet.

  8. Anónimo
    March 10, 2014 at 1:13 am

    Wonderful list, but you forgot to include sisters Luce and Mercedes López-Baralt.

  9. March 10, 2014 at 6:03 am

    What about Sandra Maria Esteves as a pioneering poet? I do believe that she’s inspired many young women (and men) who are currently attempting poetry.

  10. Lorenzo Villalba
    March 10, 2014 at 9:04 am

    I am glad articles like this are being written. Articles that honor the fantastic women who have made a difference for Puerto Rico. I know that with lists some names are always left out, but I would also like to honor three women who were instrumental in their times and broke molds.

    Lola Rodríguez de Tió (1843-1924) – poet, journalist and revolutionary, she fought for women’s right and for for the abolition of slavery. She also wrote the lyrics to the revolutionary version of the national anthem.

    María Libertad Gomez (1898-1961) – teacher and politician, she was the President of the House of Representatives in Puerto Rico and Vice President of the Constitutional Convention that drafted the Constitution of Puerto Rico. While working as a politician, she fought for women’s rights and environmental right, among others.

    Felisa Rincón de Gautier (1947-1969) – politician who fought for women’s rights. She was the first woman to be elected as Mayor of San Juan. First woman to be elected mayor of a capital city in the Americas.

    Thanks for the article.

  11. March 10, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    Like the article, but Sol Isolina Ferrer is more important than some of the great people you mention in the article….so far loved it!!!

  12. José Velazquez
    March 10, 2014 at 8:58 pm

    Excellent article. We can keep adding names to the list, there have been a lot of great women from Puerto Rico. May I suggest Sister Isolina Ferré.

  13. Antonio Medina-Rivera
    March 10, 2014 at 9:09 pm

    How come you didn’t include Rosario Ferré? She is probably the most important and most influential novelist (male or female) in Puerto Rico.

  14. March 10, 2014 at 9:11 pm

    Que bonito, wonderful , mom, Olga Torres Reyes traveled from Bayamon, Puerto Rico in the late 50′s to Connecticut. She is an example to all, she left behind all her family and brought with her, three daughters, Carmen, Iris, Lydia and One Son, Carlos. Mom worked , en las factoria de Connecticut, Olga, beside her husband made sure her daughters and son graduated from High School and Continue their College studies. Bridgeport, CT was were Olga joined the Puerto Rican Parade organization, El Club de Veteranos, La Lojia Hueste Del Caribe and La Lia de Tetelo Vargas. Mom, Madre ejemplar Nacida en el 1933 made sure her daughters learned and continued to work the Hispanics. Mom always mentioned the Mujeres Illustre de Puerto Rico, she too contributed.

  15. Z
    March 10, 2014 at 9:49 pm

    Helen Rodriguez-Trias was also included in the book by Karina Gore-Schiff (Vice President Al Gore’s daughter) ‘The Nine Most Influential Women in America in the 20th Century’. In addition to being an outstanding doctor she was an international authority on AIDS and women and children’s health and health policy to world leaders, she was also a pioneer of and helped draft Patient’s Rights laws. I had the distinct honor of meeting Helen and came away humbled at her strength, beauty and grace. A part of a power couple institution, she was married to Eduardo Gonzalez, Jr, another Titan of Puerto Rico. I’m very proud to say they both were my role models. Thank you for celebrating the Women who helped to shape the world.

  16. Manuel
    March 11, 2014 at 8:54 am

    Great list. You could have included Dr. Elvira Cuevas, Professor of Biology of Biology at the University of Puerto Rico, and one of the leading environmental scientists in this hemisphere.

  17. Chente
    March 11, 2014 at 1:51 pm

    I’d also include Judith Ortiz-Cofer.

  18. Yvette Iris
    March 11, 2014 at 3:42 pm

    Thank you for this inspiring article! I am so proud of our spirit as a people, through out struggle and throughout history.
    Yvette Iris

  19. Milagros
    March 12, 2014 at 7:47 pm

    We cannot forget Yolanda Sanchez..

     She was a longtime resident and community activist in East Harlem. She was also an author, educator, social worker, community organizer, and administrator.

    1932-2012

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