Hispanic American Debater Collage from Various Fields

September 15th-October 15th marks Hispanic American Heritage Month, designed to “pay tribute to the generations of Hispanic Americans who have positively influenced and enriched our nation and society.” (HHM)

The history of our activity is filled with incredible alumni whose contributions to our nation and world had ripple effects in many fields: the arts, law, politics, labor rights, education, and STEM. Besides their passion, intelligence, and drive, these activists have more in common: they made Latino American history and they’re former debaters. Check out this 100-year timeline with just a few of the accomplishments these great former debaters have made.

(Spanish version of article, translated by Shelley Pacheco & Mariana Chavez / En español)

Alicia Dickerson Montemayor

Photo via Aurelio Montemayor and Amy’s Smart Girls.

Alicia Dickerson Montemayor

1937: She was the first woman elected to a national office not specifically designated for a woman.

As the vice president (among other roles) on the local and national League of United Latin American Citizens, Dickerson-Montemayor pressed for Latina women to have a stronger public role in the organization. She also formed a Junior LULAC branch in San Antonio, where students learned debate, literacy, and public advocacy skills. It’s no wonder she was such an advocate for youth involvement: when she graduated from Laredo High School in 1927, she was a member of athletics, the drama club, the glee club, the Nike Literary Club, the science club, the library club, the student newspaper, and of course, the debate team. (Redeeming La Raza: Transborder Modernity, Race, Respectability, and Rights)

Emma Beatrice Tenayuca at rally

Image Courtesy of University of Texas at San Antonio.

Emma Beatrice Tenayuca

1938: She led 12,000 workers through the San Antonio Pecan Shellers Strike.


Emma Beatrice Tenayuca earned the nickname “La Pasionara” for her oratorical skills, which she used for good as an Mexican American labor organizer, civil rights activist, and educator. She is best known for leading the Pecan-Shellers strike, which was the largest strike in San Antonio history. A scholar-athlete, she excelled in basketball and baseball, and became politically involved after joining the school’s debate team and reading club. (Tejanos Through Time)

Gus Garcia in Supreme Court

Image Courtesy of UTSA Institute of Texan Cultures / Courtesy of the Hearst Corporation/Camino Bluff

Gustavo “Gus” Garcia:

1954: His landmark case granted civil rights to millions.


He led the first Latino civil rights case in front of the Supreme Court, Hernández v. State of Texas, which secured that the 14th Amendment protects all racial groups. He honed the advocacy skills used in court on the debate team at the University of Texas, where he even debated against future president, John F. Kennedy. “Gus was a silver-tongued orator. He had a deep resonant voice. Anything he said he said with authority.” (A Class Apart, PBS)

Maria Jimenez

Maria Jimenez carrying the Antorcha Guadalupana, courtesy of Houston History Magazine.

Maria Jiménez

1957: She arrived in Houston – and dedicated the rest of her life to improving her community.


She got her start addressing her community’s needs in high school debate. Since then, she has been a lifelong activist for Latinx rights, ranging from student activism as part of the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) at the University of Houston, to her labor activism in Central America, to co-founding ARCA, the Association for Residency and Citizenship of America. Her activism continues today. (Houston History Magazine) 

“My partner and I won the girls’ state championship in debate. I started to address the issue of the inequalities of Mexican Americans in oratory contests… On the debate team, my experience with the farmworkers and various struggles for civil rights and equality that loomed in magazines and newspapers began to shape an understanding within me of the need for the confrontation of injustice with unified struggle.” (Chicana Movidas: New Narratives of Activism and Feminism in the Movement Era)

Ernesto Galarza Portrait

Image Courtesy of the Stanford Center for Comparative Studies in
Race & Ethnicity.

Ernesto Galarza:

1964: His book paved the way to end the bracero program.


Ernesto Galarza was a prominent labor organizer and activist, as well as a lead researcher for the Pan American Union and the National Farm Labor Union. He wrote more than 100 publications, including the book Merchants of Labor (1964), which paved the path for Cesar Chavez to organize workers in the braceros program. Galarza first honed his research skills while writing for his high school newspaper and competed on the debate team. (Online Archive of California)

Jose Angel Gutierrez with La Raza

Pictured at left, courtesy of Colorado Public radio and Fred Kaufman/AP.

José Ángel Gutiérrez:

1970: He envisioned two organizations that changed America.


His strong interest in politics began on his high school debate team, where he won many awards in recognition of his stirring speaking skills. As a leading Chicano student activist during the 1960s and 1970s, he co-founded the Mexican American Youth Organization (MAYO) and the Raza Unida Party (now known as UnidosUS). He served as a judge and is now a professor of political science. (Mexican American Youth Organization: Precursors of Change in Texas) 

carlos rene guerra

Image courtesy of Texas State Historical Association

Carlos Rene Guerra

1970: He united a group of powerful student activist organizations at the national level.


Carlos Rene Guerra was a Texas-based writer, journalist, and leader in the Chicano movement . This former gifted student attended Texas Arts A&I, where he majored in history and political science, got elected to student government, and excelled on the debate team. He went on to become MAYO’s first elected national chairman at age 22, nonprofit executive director for the Texas Institute for Educational Development (TIDE), and a syndicated columnist writing about progressive causes.

Lorna Dee Cervantes at her desk

(Mission Local, Steve Salvidar)

Lorna Dee Cervantes

1982: Her moving poetry brought worldwide attention to Mexican-American women’s experiences.


Lorna Dee Cervantes, one of the most valued Chicana poets today, won the American Book Award with her 1981 debut, Emplumada. Her follow-up, From the Cables of Genocide: Poems on Love and Hunger (1991) won the Latino Literature Prize and the Paterson Poetry Prize. Growing up, she was active in the antiwar movement, the Chicano cultural movement, and her school’s feminist debate team. (CUNY-Latina History)

Luis Valdez directing La Bamba

(Columbia Pictures)

Luis Valdez

1987: His $50 million-earning, Golden-Globe winning film redefined Latinx roles in Hollywood:


Luis Miguel Valdez, known as the “Father of Chicano Theater” and founder of El Teatro Campesino, debuted the first-ever Chicano play Broadway, Zoot Suit. Soon after, he directed the box office smash, La Bamba, which debuted top 5 at the box office and kicked off the production of more Latinx stories in Hollywood. He was active in speech and debate during high school, winning awards for writing several original plays. He remains friends with Mr. Ed Farrell, his former English teacher and forensics coach, after decades. (El Teatro Campesino Interviews, Miriam Pawel),

Fernando Espuelas

Image Courtesy of TV Guide via Mercury LLC.

Fernando Espuelas

1996: His vision brought the Internet to Latin America.


Named a “Latin American Leader of the Internet” by CNN en Español, Fernando Espuelas co-founded Starmedia in 1996. StarMedia served more than 25 million Spanish and Portuguese speakers in the early consumer internet – leading him to be named a Leader of the Millennium by Time Magazine in 2000. He has returned to his early love of politics as a current political advisor in Washington DC; back in high school, he was the President of the Debate Team and the Connecticut State Champion debater in 1982, and Chairman of the Political Action Club. 

(Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States, Steve Petteway)

Sonia Sotomayor

2009: She made history as the first-ever Latina Supreme Court justice in the U.S.


In 2006, she became the first Latina Supreme Court Justice in U.S. history. Years earlier, she found her niche on the high school debate team, where she developed into an unassailable speaker. It was her high school debate coach who convinced her to apply for Princeton University – where she received a full scholarship, and the rest is history. (University of Denver, Sturm College of Law)

Forensics club was good training for a lawyer in ways that I barely understood at the time. You not only had to see both sides; you had to prepare as if you were arguing both in order to anticipate your opponent’s moves. (NSDA Website)

Cristina Rodriguez

(Yale Law School Profiles)

Cristina Rodríguez

2013: She achieved a centuries-long milestone at Yale Law School.


Cristina Rodríguez became the first Hispanic tenured professor at Yale Law School in 2013-despite the school being founded in 1824. She was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Her newest book, The President and Immigration Law, will be published in September 2020. As one of the nation’s leading theorists on immigration law, she credits the debate team for piquing her interest in government and politics. (Latinas of the Year, 2013)

 (Texas State Historical Association)

Alfredo Quinones Hinojosa Portrait

WIKIMEDIA / Carlos Rodríguez/ANDES.

Alfredo Quiñones-Hinojosa

2014: He was named Neurosurgeon of the Year for his work to cure brain cancer.

(born January 2, 1968)


As a neurosurgeon and the chair of neurologic surgery at the Mayo Clinic-Florida, Alfredo Hinojosa, or “Dr. Q”, has received dozens of awards for his work researching the cure for brain cancer. He worked as a painter and welder to pay his way through community college, where he competed on the debate team to improve his English skills. A biopic about his life is under development by Brad Pitt – another famous former debater. (Mayo Clinic)

Yvanna Cancela Portrait

Image Courtesy of Women Count

Yvana Cancela

2017: She took office at 29 years old as the first Latina to serve in the Nevada Senate.

“I was never athletic, but I was good at arguing — and smart,” she told OZY about her experience falling in love with politics through debate. She went on to become the political director of the Culinary Union Local 226, a 60,000-worker strong majority-Latino, majority-female union. She now fights for immigrant rights as the Executive Director of the Immigrant Workers Citizenship Project. 

“Debate changed my life by teaching me to be a critical thinker, and I take that with me in everything I do.” (NSDA Website)

Tanya Saracho Portrait

Image courtesy of Jackson Davis for Hispanic Executive.

Tanya Saracho 

2020: On top of other accolades for her screenwriting, she is named one of 50 heroes “leading the nation toward equality, acceptance, and dignity for all people.” 


Tanya Saracho, award-winning writer for theater and television, recently won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comedy Series for the Starz series Vida. She was also named among the Queerty Pride50 nominees for her skillful representation of Latina and LGBT people onscreen. She first developed her love of public speaking on the competitive speech and debate team. (Variety)


If you liked this mini history lesson, check out the NSDA’s Spanish Speech & Debate resources at their Hispanic Heritage Month page!