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Hidden Gems: Exploring Lesser-Known Figures of Hispanic Heritage

Hispanic heritage is a tapestry woven from a multitude of threads, each representing unique contributions, challenges, and triumphs. While Frida Kahlo, tacos, and salsa dancing are celebrated worldwide, there are countless other remarkable individuals, cultures, and traditions that have played equally significant roles in shaping the international Latino-Hispanic identity and community. As Hispanic Heritage Month comes to an end, we invite you to discover and appreciate some of the lesser known but equally important pioneers, indigenous cultures, culinary delights, and artists and musicians who have shaped and continue to contribute to the Latino community across the world.

Unsung Heroes: Overlooked Pioneers

Image of Sylvia Mendez
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Sylvia Mendez (Civil Rights Activist) | Before the famous Brown v. Board of Education case, there was Mendez v. Westminster. Sylvia Mendez was at the center of this case, fighting against school segregation in California, which paved the way for desegregation across the nation. Mendez was born in 1936 in Santa Ana, California to Mexican and Puerto Rican parents. In 1944, Mendez’s parents tried enrolling her at a nearby elementary school and were denied admission. Instead, Sylvia’s parents were told to register Sylvia at Hoover Elementary School, which was specifically for Mexican Americans. Alongside four other Mexican-American families, Gonzalo Mendez, Sylvia’s father, filed a federal lawsuit against Westminster and three other school districts in Orange County and cited that segregation based on ethnicity was unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment. The judge ruled in favor of the Mendez family, and the state of California outlawed all segregation in its public schools in the months following Mendez v. Westminster.

Sylvia attended the desegregated Westminster school and later became a nurse with the Los Angeles County University of Southern California Medical Center, where she worked for 30 years. In 2011 United States President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work in civil rights. Mendez v. Westminster paved the way for the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education and ultimately, changed the way in which Latinos and Hispanic-Americans were able to experience academia in the United States.

Afro Indigenous Cultures

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The Garifuna people are the descendants of an Afro-indigenous population from the Caribbean island of St Vincent who were exiled to the Honduran coast in the eighteenth century and subsequently moved to Belize. In the United States, Garifuna culture is most vibrant in communities along the Gulf Coast like New Orleans and in New York. Characterized by a blend of Arawakan, West African, and European languages, the language of the Garifuna people is an essential part of their cultural identity. Additionally, Garifuna music and dance – a vibrant and rhythmic cultural expression – is present throughout the culture but shines during cultural celebrations and utilizes traditional instruments like drums and maracas. Despite the unique and vibrant culture and heritage of the Garifuna people, their cultural contributions and history are often overlooked compared to that of other Hispanic and African diaspora communities.

Culinary Treasures: Beyond Tacos

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Ajiaco soup (a·jee·a·kow), a hearty potato soup common across South America, has a long and storied history that traces back to the Andes region in South America. It is most popular in Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia – especially in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital and largest city. The potato is an essential part of the ajiaco as the papa criolla, the specific variety of potato used to make traditional ajiaco, gives the soup its creaminess while guascas, a mountain herb which is part of the daisy and sunflower family, gives the soup it’s unique flavor. Additional ingredients in ajiaco vary across South America depending on the extent of Spanish influence. In Colombia, for example, ajiaco often features corn, chicken, as well as three different types of potato; in Peru, however, this might not be the case. While ajiaco might not be as popular in the United States, the hearty soup is representative of the blending of indigenous, Spanish, and African culinary traditions that have shaped South American gastronomy over the centuries.

Spotlighting Lesser Known Hispanic Artists and Musicians

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George William Lewis Jr., better known by his stage name Twin Shadow, is a Dominican musician who was raised in Florida and currently based out of Los Angeles. He has released five studio albums, including: Forget (2010), Confess (2012), Eclipse (2015), Caer (2018), and Twin Shadow (2021). Throughout his musical career, Twin Shadow has critiqued his own work for being too elitist and discussed his journey to embracing his Dominican heritage in his songwriting. With music that spans the synth pop, new wave, chill wave, indie pop, and pop rock genres, Twin Shadow’s music fuses Dominican musician traditions with more traditional elements of the indie genre.

Give Twin Shadow a listen on Spotify.

In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, we invite you to delve into the lesser-known yet equally significant aspects of the Latino-Hispanic identity and community. From overlooked pioneers like Sylvia Mendez, who played a pivotal role in ending school segregation, to the vibrant Garifuna culture and their unique blend of Afro-indigenous traditions, we explore the multifaceted contributions that often go unnoticed. These hidden gems exemplify the diverse and multifaceted nature of Hispanic heritage, inviting us to celebrate and appreciate lesser-known figures and cultures that have left an indelible mark on the world.


Having an understanding of the rich cultural background of the communities we work with helps to make sure that the strategies we recommend are equitable and reflective of the lived experiences of community members. Interested in ensuring that your community engagement is inclusive? Fourth Economy has ample experience working with diverse communities and developing equity-centered communities planning initiatives. Please contact us at [email protected] for more information.


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