20 Standout Latinos Who Raised The Bar In 2016

20 Standout Latinos Who Raised The Bar In 2016

As the year comes to a close, we look back on those who took a stand, made a statement, or just did something incredibly rad, forging their legacies in sectors across entertainment, music, politics and the arts. VIBE Viva sheds light on a bevy of Latinos who soared above and beyond the call of duty in their respective fields. Some are new to the game. Some are seasoned vets. And some exist outside mainstream America. All broke barriers.

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  • Gabby Rivera: Author

    Gabby Rivera dropped her young adult novel Juliet Takes a Breath, the story of a queer puertorriqueña from the Bronx, at the top of 2016. She's since made waves, garnering the attention of Marvel Comics, who then tapped the "quirky puerto rican" as the writer tasked with bringing America's queer Latina superhero story to a forefront. “What I noticed when I was reading the Young Avengers was that it felt like America was being pulled in by different characters — [Thor villain] Loki wanted her to do this or that; the fight wasn’t hers. She was treated like a member of the team, but I always wondered what’s in it for her?” she told Refinery29. “So my thinking for this new book is that she’s finally asking herself that question: What’s in it for me? Why am I fighting with these people? What I want is to go to college and I want to start over, and I want to learn about myself and do this for myself. And so that is the big thing that I was thinking about. What’s more American than trying to go to college and trying to find yourself?”

  • Maria Hinojosa: Journalist

    Award-winning news anchor and reporter Maria Hinojosa covers America's untold stories and highlights today's most critical issues. This year on national television, she wound up educating Trump surrogate Steve Cortes on the proper and improper uses of the term “illegal.” We, for one, were elated someone had finally brought this very necessary conversation to the table. In a back-and-forth with Hinojosa, Cortes made the comment, “It is more unfair for legal immigrants to allow illegals to hop in front of them and cheat the system.” Hinojosa immediately corrected Cortes by asserting that the term “illegal” is not a noun. She followed her argument with vindication, stating that labeling someone “illegal” is rooted in fear; the concept of labeling undocumented citizens as “illegal,”  for example, was the same ideology used against the Jews during the Holocaust, Hinojosa pointed out.

  • Romeo Santos: Singer

    After traveling the globe and winning over the hearts of women and men alike with bachata ballads, Dominican heartthrob and award-winning recording artist Romeo Santos was named CEO of Roc Nation Latin earlier this summer. Upon signing several up-and-coming artists—Victoria “La Mala,” Angel “Mr. Paradise” Batista, Jayro Rosado and Karen Rodriguez—he forged a groundbreaking deal with Universal Music Publishing.

  • Carmelo Anthony: NBA Player

    No stranger to participating in ads against gun violence and building basketball courts across Brooklyn, Baltimore and Puerto Rico, Carmelo Anthony followed these lesser known acts of social change with a grand opening at the 2016 ESPY Awards where he was joined by LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul to challenge fellow athletes to speak up on behalf of the injustices affecting black and brown people. Anthony, whose father was a member of Puerto Rican nationalist group the Young Lords, talked openly with ESPN about systemic racism and police violence, disclosing he felt it his civic duty to make a stand against the extrajudicial murders occurring disproportionately in black and brown communities.

  • Dayme Arocena: Jazz Artist

    It’s not often that a 24-year-old garners international acclaim and comparisons to music giants Nina Simone and Celia Cruz, but Cuban-born Dayme Arocena is no ordinary artist. Raised in Havana, she's hailed a musical prodigy, becoming a trained composer, arranger, choir director, and band leader. At eight, she began performing semi-professionally; six years later, she became the lead singer of Los Primos. Her charming demeanor has captivated audiences worldwide. Jazz, according to Arocena, provides a center for musical interpretation and improvisation. “If you mix jazz with everything, it always works—that’s why I love it. It gives me all the opportunity to create as I feel it. I always try to be honest with myself. I always try to create as I feel it, even knowing that new song is always going to have that jazzy taste inside,” she told Miami New Times earlier this spring.

  • Mariela Castro Espín: Activist

    Following decades of persecution and neglect, Cuba’s LGBT community finds itself amid a new struggle: the fight for equality. A recent announcement calls Mariela Castro, the charismatic daughter of President Raúl Castro, leader of this new uprising. Also a member of Cuba’s National Assembly, Mariela is using her passion and pedigree to promote acceptance in the face of prejudice. Mariela Castro’s March: Cuba’s LGBT Revolution is a new documentary that follows Castro and her LGBT supporters as they spread their universal message of equality across the island. Directed by Jon Alpert (HBO’s Emmy-winning “Baghdad ER”), the documentary highlights gay, lesbian and trans activists through revealing stories of pain, love, strength and perseverance, all told against a rapidly changing social and political backdrop.

  • Aja Monet: Poet

    Of Cuban-Jamaican descent, Aja Monet is an internationally established poet, performer, singer, songwriter, educator and human rights advocate, who this year made full use of her newly-opened Smoke Signals Studio in Miami, by hosting a series of events centered around the arts and activism. Monet earlier this month was honored to officially and publicly announce her "first full collection of words" will be published with Haymarket Books in 2017, titled my mother was a freedom fighter. Monet continues to serve as a voice of truth and strength in fields of poetry and activism.

  • LeJuan James: Comedian

    With over three million followers across various social media platforms, LeJuan James continues to build a name for himself in the world of comedy by simply being unapologetically Latino. While LeJuan continues to elevate his brand with content that keeps his fans folding over with laughter, he is still amazed that his success took no more than staying authentic within his identity, telling NBC Latino: “I would have never thought in a million years because of how you disciplined me or in the way that I grew up, I would be able to make a livelihood from this, being able to entertain people on social media platforms for just being Hispanic. We get to, as a family, show the world what it is to be Hispanic [and] Latino being ourselves.”

  • Laurie Hernandez: Gymnast

    Athletic wunderkind Laurie Hernandez is the first U.S.-born Latina to be on the Olympic gymnastics team since 1984, and the first Boricua to rep #TeamUSA. She is also the youngest of the Final Five, who won the team gold medal in Rio. After winning silver on the balance beam this summer, Laurie Hernandez somersaulted into the opportunity of a lifetime, landing a sweet gig as the new Crest and Orgullosa ambassador. She went on to sweep Dancing with the Stars, and even landed on TIME’s roster of most influential teens while doing it.

  • Tony Peralta: Visual Artist

    Designer-artist Tony Peralta, whose work focuses on the Dominican diaspora and immigrant experience, has been carving a lane for himself for years now. From his studio based out of Inwood, New York, he spends his days creating fashion screen prints that speak to the historic neighborhood's Caribbean influence, which in turn, inform his bigger serial works of art. Last year, Peralta unveiled his still talked-about "Rolos & Icons" series, an ode to the traditional beauty regimen and standard routine of Saturday afternoons in salons throughout Washington Heights, Harlem and the Bronx. Using iconic figures like Celia Cruz, Frida, Wonder Woman and Dora the Explorer, Peralta managed to bring a conversation on beauty standards to a forefront. Most recently, the Celia Cruz piece is centered at the Smithsonian’s Anascostia Community Museum, while Frida was sold to hip-hop producer and art collector Swizz Beatz.

  • Messiah El Artista: Rapper

    Making a way for hip-hop en española, Messiah El Artista caught the attention of Daddy Yankee and Nicky Jam, later making an impression on rap heavy-hitter 50 Cent. After being dubbed the first-ever Latino rapper from New York to sell out Stage 48, play Madison Square Garden three consecutive times in a year, and step foot inside Swedish music streaming giant Spotify, Messiah waxed poetics over Gatorade's new “Counter Attack” campaign. The Dominican rapper went on to record a song with Curtis Jackson himself, before landing a sweet gig as the new face of Sean John alongside Wale.

  • Zapatistas: Revolutionaries

    The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) initially gained worldwide attention on January 1, 1994, when they incited a rebellion in San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, demanding “work, land housing, food, healthcare, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace” for indigenous people. The group continues the fight against the exploitation of land and resources in the rural areas of Mexico. Earlier this year, they delivered almost three tons of food to the striking teachers of la Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de la Education (CNTE) in the impoverished state of Chiapas in southern Mexico. And for the first time in its history, the Zapatista movement will compete in a Mexican presidential election by putting an indigenous woman as their candidate on the ballot in 2018, this according to Fusion.

  • Rosario Dawson: Actor

    In a year that tested the politics of many Americans, particularly those of Latino descent, Hollywood's own Rosario Dawson went above the call of duty rallying for people of color everywhere to make their voices be heard. A staunch supporter of Bernie Sanders, the Voto Latino co-founder hit the streets in protest, served as the new face of “Crash The Parties,” and even took to the pages of Huffington Post to rebuttal beloved civil rights activist Dolores Huerta on the topic of Sanders vs. Clinton.

  • Luisito Pié: Taekwondo Athlete

    Luisito Pié, a Dominican of Haitian descent, won the country’s only 2016 medal in the Rio Olympics, earning bronze in Men’s 58kg Taekwondo by defeating Spain’s Jesus Tortosa. The irony? Consider that the Dominican government acted to strip Dominicans of foreign descent of their citizenship just in 2013. The people disproportionately affected were Dominicans of Haitian descent, and the cities all over the U.S. rallied for the government to cease its “ethnic cleansing.”

  • BIA: Rapper

    BIA has been patiently waiting for her moment to shine ever since she caught the attention of Pharrell Williams eons ago. Introduced to Skateboard P by longtime Star Trak member Fam-lay, the pretty face MC with a venomous tongue has emerged a must-watch artist after years of being a hungry rapper with little direction. Her performance at the 17th Annual Latin Grammys, alongside J Balvin and Pharrell, was marked by stellar vocals and a strong stage presence, leaving a lasting impression on an otherwise uninitiated audience.

  • Dr. Marta Moreno Vega: Educator

    The Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI) opened new doors at its permanent home of East Harlem, a historic location commonly referred to as “El Barrio.” At this year's VIP ribbon cutting affair, guests had an exclusive preview of the Exhibit HOME, MEMORY, and FUTURE, co-curated by Lowery Stokes Sims. A longtime cultural and arts oasis by and for people of color, founder Dr. Marta Moreno Vega had this to say about the institution: “CCCADI follows in the steps of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, Silvia del Villard, Rex Nettleford, Amilcar Cabral, Marcus Garvey, Zora Neal Hurston, Katherine Dunham, Abdias do Nacimento, Antonia Pantoja, Yolanda Sanchez, Evelina Antonetty and the many others that have fought for racial, cultural and social justice. To have a location that will continue to frame equity at all levels is a tribute to them, to our community and our role as advocates for a just future for our children.”

  • Virgilio Martínez: Chef

    Virgilio Martinez, owner of the Michelin star award-winning restaurant, Central in Lima, plans to open a new restaurant 11,500 feet above sea level. At 39 years of age, Martinez owns the fourth best restaurant in the world, and is considered one of Latin America’s best chefs. His new restaurant will be called Mil (or thousands, a reference to altitude), and the restaurant will be built on the edge of Moray, an Inca ruin in the Andes Mountains. It will also include a food lab that focuses on researching and growing ingredients native to the land. Mil is set to open in the new new year.

  • Monica Puig: Tennis Player

    On Friday August 13, 2016, Boricua tennis champ Monica Puig won the island’s first-ever gold medal at the Rio Olympics. Proud Puerto Ricans across the globe will always hold August 13th close to their hearts. “I’m speechless,” Puig said, “I never imagined in my wildest dreams that this would happen.” The president of Puerto Rico’s Olympic Committee, Sara Rosario Velez, later added: “This is a great day for all the Puerto Ricans—that live in Puerto Rico and around the world!”

  • Sandra Cisneros: Novelist

    Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, today, is required reading material for many high school and middle school classes. The pioneering writer's 1984 debut novel is lauded for tackling issues of race, gender and class. After winning the prestigious PEN Center 2016 Literary Award for her latest book, A House Of My Own: Stories from My Life, Cisneros was awarded the highest honor given to artists and art patrons by the U.S. government; on Sept. 22, during #LatinoHeritageMonth, President Barack Obama presented the Chicana author with the National Medal of Arts.

  • Sarai Gonzalez: Child Star

    Bomba Estereo’s “Soy Yo” single off their fourth album, Amanecer, always contained a message of empowerment. But with the help of Sarai Gonzalez from central New Jersey, and a most proper visual directed by Torben Kjelstrup, “Soy Yo” soon went viral, becoming a self-love anthem for quirky, brown girls everywhere.

Main Image Credit: Marjua Estevez