A Tale of Two Sylvias – Celebrating Unsung Hispanic Heroines

Article published on september 30, 2022

We are now in the midst of Hispanic Heritage Month, celebrated from September 15 – October 15. It gives us an opportunity to reflect on how great our tomorrow can be if we hold onto our resilience and hope. It encourages us to reflect on all of the contributions Hispanics have made in the past and will continue to make in the future. Here are just two of many examples:

Sylvia Mendez (b. 1936) – Educational Rights Pioneer

Seven years before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, Sylvia Mendez was at the center of the Mendez v. Westminster case, in which her parents and neighbors fought against segregated education for children of Mexican descent in Southern California. The case banned segregation in California public schools and paved the way for the national ban that would come. In 2011, Mendez received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama for her advocacy for educational opportunity for “children of all backgrounds and all walks of life.” 

Sylvia Rivera (1951 – 2002) – Gender Identity Pioneer

Sylvia Rivera was a Venezuelan- and Puerto Rican-American who fought against the exclusion of transgender people, specifically transgender people of color, from the larger gay rights movement. She was actively involved in the Stonewall Inn uprising, along with Marsha P. Johnson, who she considered “a mother to me.” The two together started the Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) to discuss issues facing the transgender community in New York City and to provide lodging for those who needed it in their STAR House. She later moved into the Transy House  (similar to the STAR House) and was still marching in Pride Parades and living in the house until her death in 2002. The Sylvia Rivera Law Project continues her legacy, “working to guarantee all people are free to self-determine their gender identity and expression, regardless of income or race, and without facing harassment, discrimination, or violence.”