Not to mention the first artificial heart, acai berries and the third largest music genre... in the world.
Domingo Liotta artificial heart hispanic contributions
Dr. Domingo Liotta is the creator of the first artificial heart used in a human being.

September 15th to October 15th is all about celebrating the beauty and diversity of Hispanic culture and the people who consider this culture their own. Yet, despite Hispanic Heritage Month’s close, we thought it would be fun to highlight some of the coolest contributions from the Hispanic community all year.

From food to music to artificial hearts, we have Hispanics and Hispanic-Americans to thank for some of our favorite things and society’s most important inventions. 

El Equipo Note: the term “Hispanic” is used in this article to encompass being of both Spanish-speaking Latin American and Spanish origin, while “Latinx” describes being of Latin American (including non-Spanish-speaking Latin American) origin only.

1. Chocolate

Hot chocolate was made with cocoa beans and chili peppers. Photo: (Thrive Tribe)

Though there exists some debate, archaeologists generally agree that the Olmec—a Mesoamerican people who inhabited the Tehuantepec isthmus in what is now Mexico from 1200-500 C.E.—were the first to cultivate the cocoa bean. Their descendents, the Mayas, later developed xocolatl, a bitter drink made by brewing crushed cocoa beans, chili peppers, and water.

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After the Spanish conquest of the Americas, this drink was brought back to Spain, where it was mixed with sugar and became incredibly popular. From there chocolate spread throughout Europe, leading to the invention of cocoa powder and eventually the now ubiquitous chocolate bar that we all know and love. Next time you pick up a Hershey’s bar or some Lindor truffles, remember that you have the Olmec to thank!

2. Superfoods

Quinoa, harvested in the Andes has 36 percent more protein than wheat. Photo: Biodiversity International

While most people might think that Latinx contributions to American cuisine start and end with tacos or the Cuban sandwich (which are both objectively delicious), many popular superfoods also have Latin American origins. Quinoa, for example, is native to the Andes region of South America and is known as the “mother grain” to the Incas.

Heck, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote is the second-most translated book after the Bible!

Chia seeds were a staple of the Aztec diet. And, indigenous Amazonian tribes in Brazil were eating açai berries long before they became everyone’s favorite smoothie base.

Acai berries were eaten by indigenous Amazonian tribes long before they were in your smoothie.
Chia seeds were a staple of the Aztec diet.

The consumption of these and other superfoods has become controversial in recent years due to the negative socioeconomic impact of the superfood industry on indigenous Latin American communities and issues of accessibility to superfoods by Latinxs and other marginalized groups in the United States. However, many Latinx chefs and entrepreneurs—especially those in the U.S.—are working to remedy that (read this article from the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage for more info).   

3. Sports

Photo: Yeisser Ramirez

Across all sports, Latinxs have been setting records and winning games like nobody’s business. On the MLB’s list of 2021’s Top 100 baseball players, for example, almost a third are Latin American or of Latin American descent, and Latinxs (particularly Afro-Latinxs) made history in track, weightlifting, gymnastics, Greco-Roman wrestling, and other sports at the Tokyo Olympics this year.

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However, one of Latinx athletes’ most impressive records is their record of service. From legends like Puerto Rican baseball player Roberto Clemente, who is famous for his charity work and died in a plane crash en route to help Nicaraguan earthquake victims in 1972, to Mexican-American Mónica González, a former soccer player whose non-profit teaches Hispanic girls soccer and leadership, Latinx athletes are some of the most talented and generous. 

4. Music

I think it’s safe to say at this point that we all know some traditional genres of music—salsa, merengue, samba, mambo, bachata, even flamenco—have been one of the Hispanic community’s greatest cultural contributions. More recently, however, other Hispanic genres of music like reggaeton and Latin pop have been gaining ground worldwide, especially with the advent of crossover songs between Hispanic and non-Hispanic artists and bilingual releases. According to Billboard, Latin music is the third largest music genre in the world, and in 2018 became the fifth most popular genre in America.

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So, if you think you’re hearing more Bad Bunny at parties or Alejandro Sanz on the radio, you’re probably right. The data show that all genres of Hispanic music are finally getting the love they deserve!

5. Scientific/Technological Inventions

Perúvian Claudio Castillón Lévano created the “Neonatal Artificial Bubble.”

Did you know that the first totally artificial heart was invented by an Argentinean? Or that the incubator used to keep high-risk newborns alive was invented by a Peruvian? Mexican-American Ellen Ochoa, besides being the first Hispanic woman in space, also holds three patents for different optical systems.

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This just goes to show that Hispanics have been at the forefront of medicine and technology for generations, saving lives and making life easier. However, one of the largest-scale Hispanic innovations is probably color television, which was invented by Mexican Guillermo González Camarena—and it’s a good thing, too, because color makes #6 on this list so much better.

6. Telenovelas

cuban telenovelas
Photo: Antena Cubana

Yes, telenovelas! Though they’re often characterized as the Latinx version of soap operas, there’s just something about telenovelas’ embrace of overdramatization (evil twins? long-lost family? a villain’s dramatic voiceover of their evil plan?) that you just don’t get in regular soaps. In recent years, telenovelas and their hallmark tropes have crept into American television with English-language adaptations of popular Latin American telenovelas like Ugly Betty (Colombia), Devious Maids (Mexico), or Jane the Virgin (Venezuela).

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While telenovelas are often criticized for their lack of representation, revamped novelas like One Day at a Time have begun to change that by consciously integrating characters and storylines that truly showcase the racial, sexual, cultural, political, and gender diversity of the Latinx community. 

7. Literature

Look up a list of the greatest books of all time and you’re sure to find at least one book by Gabriel García Márquez or Isabel Allende, and no middle-school summer reading list is complete without something by Sandra Cisneros or Junot Díaz. Heck, Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote is the second-most translated book after the Bible!

From kids books to novels to poetry, Hispanic authors have produced works that resonate with people across time and space because of their amazing ability to capture the human condition in all its absurdity, ugliness, and glory. 

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8. Magical Realism

Speaking of literature, it can thank Latinx writers for the development of an entire genre! While magical realism—a subgenre of fiction characterized by its unique blend of fantastical and realistic elements—may not have been invented by Latinx authors, it was refined and popularized by Latin American greats like García Márquez, Allende, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, and Alejo Carpentier. More modern writers like Junot Díaz and Cristina García have continued the tradition and been especially instrumental in introducing the genre to younger audiences who, let’s face it, would probably find a 450-page book like One Hundred Years of Solitude to be a bit of a drag. 

9. Art

Diego Velázquez
Diego Velázquez

The Hispanic community has a rich tradition of art, cranking out stunning paintings, sculptures, films, and works in just about every other medium you can imagine for hundreds of years. From Diego Velázquez to Frida Kahlo, some of history’s most museum-worthy pieces have come from Hispanic creators. Besides being aesthetically beautiful, Hispanic art is also full of symbolism meant to celebrate Hispanic heritage and draw attention to pressing societal issues…which brings us to #10.   

10. Activism

People participate in the pride parade. Multi-ethnic people in the city street with a woman waving gay rainbow flag.

César Chávez. Dolores Huerta. Sylvia Rivera. Rigoberta Menchú. The Young Lords. And the list goes on, and on, and on…Latinxs in the U.S. and abroad have served as leaders and allies for just about every cause you can think of. They’ve marched, speechified, boycotted, striked, and otherwise protested in the name of workers’ rights, feminism, immigration reform, LGBTQ+ rights, indigenous rights, education, and more. Without Latinxs’ contributions to activism and social movements, things today would definitely look very different, and it’s encouraging to see the next generation of Latinxs standing up for their beliefs and advocating for positive change just like those who came before them. 

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Gabriela Rivero is a recent graduate of Harvard College with a major in Sociology and minor in Latinx Studies. She comes from a colorful Caribbean (Cuban & Venezuelan) and Mediterranean (Spanish & Italian) background, to which she attributes her love of sunshine and her addiction to guava pastelitos. Gabby uses her English–Spanish bilingualism in her work with the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic (HIRC), helping immigrants obtain asylum in the United States. She recently started law school at the University of Miami to become an immigration attorney —shocker!-— specializing in asylum law. She enjoys writing, cooking, singing, and playing tennis and guitar. However, Gabby’s favorite activity is traveling to Cuba, exploring her grandparents’ home country and visiting the friends she made while studying abroad at the University of Havana.

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