Hispanic Americans are a core demographic of the United States, making up roughly 18% of the population. This highly diverse group includes recent immigrants and families whose US roots extend back many generations, with some ancestors originating from areas in southern US states that belonged to Mexico prior to the Mexican-American War (1846-48).
To celebrate the achievements of Hispanic Americans from history during Hispanic Heritage Month, here are six key figures from across the arts, spanning fields from painting to writing and music.
George Santayana (1863-1952)
George Santayana was a philosopher and writer born in Spain, popularly known for aphorisms, who moved to Boston at the age of nine.
Santayana presented a remarkable synthesis of European and American thought. His Hispanic heritage, shaded by his sense of being an outsider in America, captured much of the apprehension and concern that are apparent as Americans find their social environment fragmented by the country’s increasing diversity.
Image credit: George Santayana by Samuel Johnson Woolf, TIME magazine. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Sophia Gregoria Hayden (1868-1953)
Born in Chile, Sophia Hayden was an architect and the first woman to enrol in the architecture program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, graduating with honours in 1890.
In 1891, at the age of 22, Hayden responded to an announcement relating to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition called “An Unusual Opportunity for Women Architects” and was ultimately commissioned to design the Woman’s Building for the Exposition in Chicago. A controversial structure (as many women objected to having their work placed in a separate location), the building brought Hayden, a reserved young woman, sudden, albeit brief, national fame.
Image credit: Sophia G Hayden by Harper’s magazine. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)
Born to a Puerto Rican mother and British father, William Carlos Williams was trilingual, speaking Spanish, French, and English. Williams was talented not only in languages but also professionally, working both as an author and a physician.
Few writers had a more intense understanding of what being American meant than Williams, who loved his country with the fascination of the partly disenfranchised. The death of his father in 1918 may have intensified his quest for place and belonging. His country remained poised just outside his possession, and his love of America became a pervasive theme in both his poetry and the fiction he began to write in the 1920s.
Image credit: William Carlos Williams by Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Alberto Vargas (1896-1982)
Born in Peru, Alberto Vargas was an artist who became known for painting Varga Girls, a concept that became synonymous with the phrase “pin-up girl”.
Both the nature and quality of Vargas’s work have caused controversy: feminists assert that his work reflects a sexist culture, while admirers maintain that Vargas has been wrongly labelled as a simple pinup artist, when he in fact was a painter who specialized in nudes. Ultimately, it was Vargas’s interpretation of female beauty that made his work, particularly the Varga Girls, significant. As the original wholesome nude, the Varga Girl became an American icon.
Image credit: Marlene Dietrich (1941) by Alberto Vargas. Public domain via Flickr.
Machito was a Cuban bandleader, singer, and maraca player, born in Florida. His family moved to Havana when he was an infant. Although he was already a professional musician when he returned to the United States in 1937, his musical maturity and influence date from 1940. By the mid-1940s Machito’s band – the Afro-Cubans – had performed at concerts with Stan Kenton’s big band, and had recorded or played with most of the leading bop musicians, giving rise to a fusion style known as Afro-Cuban jazz or cubop.
Machito’s band was featured at the first Latin jazz concert, given at Town Hall in New York on 24 January 1947. He began recording with guest jazz soloists, and went on to tour internationally with his band in the 1960s, the popularisation of salsa in the 1970s bringing him to the attention of a wider and younger audience, for whom he became one of the style’s elder statesmen.
Image credit: Portrait of Machito (centre), Jose Mangual (left), and Carlos Vidal (right) by the Library of Congress. Public domain via Flickr.
Jerry Garcia (1942-1995)
Born in San Francisco and raised in a house filled with Spanish relatives and music, Jerry Garcia ran away from home at the age of 13 and learned to play the piano. He idolized the music of Chuck Berry and in 1957 bought a guitar and a small amplifier upon which he learned to play rhythm and blues.
Garcia eventually formed the Grateful Dead, a rock band in which he took on the role of lead guitarist and primary songwriter. Garcia’s nonconformist, utopian vision of total independence and freedom (in mind and body) appealed to hippies and other young people who denounced the Vietnam war, monogamy, parental or authoritarian guidance, formal education, and conformist jobs.
Image credit: The Grateful Dead by Warner Bros. Records. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Featured image: Multicolored Abstract Painting by Steve Johnson. Public domain via Pexels.