Joan Baez
Kevin Kane/Getty Images for UNDP

11 Hispanic-American Innovators Who Helped Change the World

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Joan Baez
Kevin Kane/Getty Images for UNDP

Hispanic-American Heroes

Hispanic-Americans, both immigrants and their descendants, have changed the world through their contributions to science, industry, the arts, sports, and politics — on Earth, obviously, but even beyond. In honor of National Hispanic Heritage Month, celebrated from September 15 to October 15, we took a look at some of those influential figures who have brought important innovations to a variety of fields. 

Related: 20 Hispanic Celebrities Worth More Than $10 Million

Franklin Chang-Dìaz
NASA

Franklin Chang-Díaz

Some parents tell their children the sky is the limit, but that wouldn't have been nearly enough for Franklin Chang-Díaz. The Costa Rican-American physicist and mechanical engineer is a veteran of seven Space Shuttle missions, the last in 2002. Although two Hispanic-Americans had flown with NASA before, he was the first Costa Rican-American and the first Hispanic-American immigrant in space.

Margarita Carmen Cansino
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Margarita Carmen Cansino

Margarita Carmen Cansino was one of the biggest movie stars in the world in the 1940s and '50s. Though you probably know her best by her stage name, Rita Hayworth. An enduring early sex symbol, the Spanish-American actress, singer, and dancer starred in more than 60 films over nearly four decades. She'll always be remembered, however, for a racy Life magazine cover photo she posed for wearing a revealing black lace negligee. The photo became the unofficial pinup of choice for GIs serving overseas during World War II. 

Joseph Marion Hernández
United States Library of Congress

Joseph Marion Hernández

Joseph Marion Hernández was such an early innovator that he wasn't even considered to be from the United States, despite being born in Florida. That's because when Hernández was elected to the House of Representatives in 1821, becoming the first Hispanic-American to serve in Congress, Florida was still a Spanish colony. He became a U.S. citizen the next year, when it annexed Florida as a territory.

Mónica Ponce de León
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Mónica Ponce de León

Mónica Ponce de León pioneered the discipline of applying robotic technology to architecture education and building fabrication. Both a professor and dean of the School of Architecture at Princeton University, the Venezuelan immigrant became the first Hispanic-American to win the prestigious Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for architecture.

Albert Baez
American Institute of Physics

Albert Baez

Albert Baez's family moved to the United States from Mexico when he was 2 years old. He grew up to co-invent the X-ray microscope and later the X-ray telescope. The first director of the science education program for UNESCO, he was also a prominent pacifist and anti-Vietnam War activist.

Joan Baez
Kevin Kane/Getty Images for UNDP

Joan Baez

Another famous Mexican-American Vietnam War activist is Joan Baez, but she conducted her protests through music. Credited with resurrecting the dying art of folk music along with her contemporary, Bob Dylan, Baez was a prominent peace activist during the 1960s. She marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and her version of "We Shall Overcome" became an anthem of the Civil Rights movement. She capped off her 55-year, 30-album career in 2017 with an induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame — oh, and her father is Albert Baez.

Related: 36 Bucket-List Destinations for Music Lovers

Roberto Clemente
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Roberto Clemente

American Essayist Robert Angell once wrote of Roberto Clemente, "He played a kind of baseball that none of us had ever seen before ... As if it were a form of punishment for everyone else on the field." Born in Puerto Rico in 1934, Clemente played 18 seasons in the majors, all with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The right fielder finished his career as one of just 11 players with 3,000 hits, and he also turned in 240 home runs and 1,305 RBIs for a career batting average of .317. On New Year's Eve 1972, Clemente was killed in a plane crash while on his way to Nicaragua to help with earthquake relief. The next year, he became the first Hispanic-American, first Latin-American, and first Caribbean-American player to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Related: 30 Things You Didn't Know About Puerto Rico

Jorge Ramos
Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for TIME

Jorge Ramos

Known unofficially as "the Walter Cronkite of Latin America," Mexican-born Jorge Ramos is among the most famous and trusted journalists in America. He's the anchor and host of "Al Punto" and "Noticiero Univision" on Univision and the English-language program "Real America with Jorge Ramos." Because of his sway among politically active Latinos and Hispanics in the United States and beyond, Time magazine listed Ramos among the 100 most influential people in the world as well as one of the 25 most influential Hispanics in the United States. The Wall Street Journal called him "Hispanic TV's No. 1 correspondent and key to a huge voting bloc."

Oscar Hijuelos
Robert Mora/Getty Images

Oscar Hijuelos

When famed Cuban-American author Oscar Hijuelos died at the age of 62 in 2013, he was remembered for telling the story of the immigrant experience, even though he was born in New York City. Hijuelos' stories chronicled the experiences of immigrants as they adapted to life in the United States, just as his Cuban immigrant parents had done a generation before. He became the first Hispanic-American to win a Pulitzer Prize, which he got for his 1989 book "The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love." The book became the basis for the blockbuster 1992 movie "The Mambo Kings."

Macario Garcia
National Archives and Records Administration

Macario García

Born to destitute farm laborers in Mexico, Macario García was the first Mexican immigrant to get the Medal of Honor, the highest accolade in the U.S. Armed Forces. During World War II, García attacked machine gun positions singlehandedly, despite being wounded, killing several enemies and saving his squad — but is also famous as a reluctant civil rights icon. Less than one month after Harry Truman honored him at the White House, a medal-bedecked García was refused service based on his race at a cafe near Sugar Land in Texas, where the owner beat him with a baseball bat. The owner was never charged, but in Sugar Land — which journalist Walter Winchell labeled the most racist town in America — García was. His case became a rallying cry for civil rights activists. (And the charges were eventually dropped.)

Severo Ochoa
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Severo Ochoa

Severo Ochoa won the Nobel Prize in 1959 for co-discoveries concerning RNA and the hereditary information in genes. Born in Spain in 1905, Severo Ochoa became a U.S. citizen in 1956 after living and studying in Spain, the U.K., and Germany. In 2011, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor, and many buildings, schools, and hospitals bear his name across the world.