I organized a dinner last night for Hispanic historians. The reality is that there are very few biographies of Hispanic heroes and even fewer historical overviews of the Hispanic journey.
Having married into a Hispanic family, I’m learning more about the gap that exists in capturing the history and contributions of the Latino people. My own path of discovery began with Our America, A Hispanic History of the United States by Felipe Fernández-Armesto, a history professor at Notre Dame University. Did you know about Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, the Spanish explorer who went in search of the legendary Seven Cities in 1540 and was the first European to see the Grand Canyon and Arkansas River? Or the San Miguel Chapel, the oldest Catholic church in the U.S., which was constructed by Franciscan friars in 1610? Or the celebration of the first Thanksgiving in the continental U.S. in 1565, celebrated by explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés and the 800 Spanish who settled St. Augustine, FL.
I reached out to Prof. Fernández-Armesto for names of other academics who have concentrated on this area of study. Ten of them came from Amherst College, University of Houston, University of California Davis, Notre Dame, and Johns Hopkins. I also invited my friend Ric Burns, legendary historical film maker, who is interested in doing a five-part series for PBS on the story of Hispanics in the U.S.
I asked each of the academics for a Hispanic hero who could be profiled in a book. Here were the responses:
- General Bernardo de Gálvez — who allowed shipments of weapons to the Continental Army during the American Revolution along the Mississippi River, then under control of Spain.
- Diego María de Gardoqui — A Spanish diplomat appointed by King Carlos of Spain to send supplies to the Americans during the Revolution, then was the first Ambassador to the U.S. from Spain.
- Desi Arnaz — a Cuban-born actor, he played Ricky Ricardo on the I Love Lucy show, alongside his wife, the comedienne Lucille Ball.
- Rita Hayworth — born Margarita Carmen Cansino, an actress who hid her Hispanic identity to make it in Hollywood.
- Dolores del Río — a Mexican actress who was the first Latina to make it in Hollywood.
- Luisa Capetillo — born in Puerto Rico, she emigrated to the U.S. in 1910 to organize women rolling cigars in sweatshops.
- Celia Cruz — the Queen of Salsa who helped to advance women in music and Afro Latina culture.
- Zorro — a fictional character created in 1919 by a Hollywood writer, a “sword wielding vigilante who defends the poor and defenseless against forces of injustice.”
- Félix Varela — a Cuban Catholic priest who was elected to the Spanish Parliament, pushed for Cuba Libre, and had to flee to the U.S., where he served as a parish priest in Lower Manhattan for immigrant Irish.
To provide an incentive to the academics, my friend Doug Peterson, CEO of S&P Global, and I are going to put together a prize, awarding $50,000 to an author who writes the best book on a Hispanic hero. Doug, who grew up in New Mexico, is deeply invested in Hispanic culture having spent a decade with Citibank in Latin America. We are also going to raise money for a set of research grants for graduate students who will work for professors on promising book projects. Doug and I will ask the esteemed Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History to manage the process, as they have for other non-fiction book prizes.
If the perception of Hispanics is to change, there needs to be a better appreciation of the huge contribution that Hispanics have made to the United States. Books on Hispanic heroes, of the quality of Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton or David McCullough’s John Adams, can play an important role. Maybe one of the books will even provoke a Broadway show. The books will be the precursor to the National Museum of the American Latino, which will be located on the National Mall and is expected to be completed by the end of the decade. This is a noble crusade for a deeply underappreciated and underrepresented community.
Richard Edelman is CEO.