Hispanic Heritage Month is an opportunity to honor the rich cultural contributions of Hispanic Americans. This month-long celebration begins on September 15, marking the independence days of several Latin American countries including Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. As part of our celebration, we are highlighting two prominent figures who shaped history with their contributions and achievements in public health, military service, and technology.
Richard Cavazos: Leading with Honor and Valor
General Richard Cavazos was a trailblazer and role model for many throughout his military career. He started his road to achievements at Texas Technological College through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program, graduating with distinction. After graduation, he joined the Army and was deployed to Korea. Following his training he was selected as the platoon leader of E Company, 2nd Battalion, 65th Infantry Regiment. While leading, Cavazos helped break language barriers and increased understanding between the soldiers, a majority of whom solely spoke Spanish, and the commanders who spoke no Spanish.
Cavazos believed that soldiers need to have complete trust and faith in their commanding officer to achieve victory. This was apparent in his time served in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War, where he displayed exceptional leadership and bravery, earning a Silver Star in February 1953. After at first leading a few of his men and then going on alone once under attack by enemy fire, he captured a wounded enemy soldier who had been left behind after an earlier battle.
Later that year, when his men came under heavy fire in a maneuver to cover Outpost Harry, he successfully defended the outpost and repeatedly went back to rescue his missing men, despite being wounded himself. These actions led to the Army awarding him the Distinguished Service Cross.
Following 33 years of service to the Army, Cavazos made history when he was appointed as the first Hispanic brigadier general in 1976, and then later appointed as the first Hispanic four-star general in 1982. On May 9, 2023, Fort Hood, a military base in Texas, was renamed Fort Cavazos in his honor. His achievements paved the way for future generations of Hispanic Americans in the military, leaving a lasting legacy of leadership and service.
Helen Rodríguez Trías: Pioneering Health Equity
Dr. Helen Rodríguez Trías was a transformative figure in public health, fighting against social and economic disparities. She started her path in medicine at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan and went on to complete her residency in pediatrics at the University Hospital in San Juan. There, Rodríguez Trías began teaching at the medical school and established Puerto Rico’s first infant health clinic, where her remarkable work contributed to a three year, 50% decline in the hospital’s infant mortality rate.
In 1970, she started working as the head of the pediatrics department at Lincoln Hospital, which served predominantly Black and Latino patients in the South Bronx. Prior to her arrival, Tthe hospital was frequently criticized by community members for health violations, crumbling facilities, and negligent care. Her work there focused on providing healthcare services to these underserved communities, training her staff on the specific needs of Puerto Rican community members, and improving the quality of care provided.
Her work to improve healthcare for marginalized communities and her personal life drove her to examine the ways poverty, inequality, and racism impact health. She joined the growing women’s health movement and, along with other women of color, she worked to move the movement toward a broader conversation around social and economic justice for all women.
Rodríguez Trías continued her legacy as a pioneering advocate for health and went on to become the medical director of the New York AIDS Institute, where she advocated for women and children with HIV. She also co-founded the Women’s Caucus and the Hispanic Caucus of the American Public Health Association. She later became the first Latina director of the American Public Health Association. Her commitment to public health, advocacy for women’s rights, and dedication to improving healthcare for underserved communities led her to receive numerous awards throughout her career, including the Presidential Citizen’s Medal in 2001.
Continue the Celebration
We encourage you to learn more about those who have made invaluable contributions to our communities. Learn more, find resources, and explore events by visiting this site. Continue the celebration by joining the conversation and sharing your stories, achievements, and other highlights in the comments below!