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The Ten Most Influential Latin Americans in History

They Changed Their Nations and Changed Their World

By

The Ten Most Influential Latin Americans in History

Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas

The history of Latin America is packed full of influential people: dictators and statesmen, rebels and reformers, artists and entertainers. How to pick the ten most important? My criteria were that the person had to have made an important difference in his or her world, and had to have international importance. My ten most important, listed chronologically, are:

  1. Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484-1566) Although not actually born in Latin America, there can be no doubt about where his heart was. This Dominican friar fought for freedom and native rights in the early days of conquest and colonization, placing himself squarely in the way of those who would exploit and abuse the natives. If not for him, the horrors of the conquest would have been immeasurably worse.
  2. Simón Bolívar (1783-1830) "The George Washington of South America" led the way to freedom for millions of South Americans. His great charisma combined with military acumen made him the greatest of the different leaders of the Latin American Independence movement. He is responsible for the liberation of the present-day nations of Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.
  3. Diego Rivera (1886-1957) Diego Rivera may not have been the only Mexican muralist, but he was certainly the most famous. Together with David Alfaro Siquieros and José Clemente Orozco, they brought art out of the museums and into the streets, inviting international controversy at every turn.
  4. Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006) Chile's dictator between 1974 and 1990, Pinochet was one of the leading figures in Operation Condor, an effort to intimidate and murder leftist opposition leaders. Operation Condor was a joint effort among Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia and Brazil, all with the support of the United States Government.
  5. Fidel Castro (1926 - ) The fiery revolutionary turned irascible statesman has had a profound effect on world politics for fifty years. A thorn in the side of American leaders since the Eisenhower administration, he has been a beacon of resistance for anti-imperialists.
  6. Roberto Gómez Bolaños (Chespirito, el Chavo del 8) (1929 - ) Not every Latin American you'll ever meet will recognize the name Roberto Gómez Bolaños, but every one, from Mexico to Argentina, will know "el Chavo del 8," the fictional eight-year old boy portrayed by Gómez (whose stage name is Chespirito) for decades. Chespirito has worked in Television for over 40 years, creating iconic series such as El Chavo del 8 and el Chapulín Colorado ("The Red Grasshopper").
  7. Gabriel García Márquez (1927 - ) Gabriel García Márquez did not invent Magical realism, that most Latin American of literary genres, but he perfected it. The winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize for Literature is Latin America's most celebrated writer, and his works have been translated into dozens of languages and have sold millions of copies.
  8. Edison Arantes do Nascimento "Pelé" (1940-) Brazil's favorite son and arguably the best soccer player of all time, Pelé later became famous for his tireless work on behalf of Brazil's poor and downtrodden and as an ambassador for soccer. The universal admiration in which Brazilians hold him has also contributed to a decrease in racism in his home country.
  9. Pablo Escobar (1949-1993) The legendary drug lord of Medellín, Colombia, was once considered by Forbes Magazine to be the seventh-richest man in the world. At the height of his power, he was the most powerful man in Colombia and his drug empire stretched around the world. In his rise to power, he was greatly aided by the support of Colombia's poor, who viewed him as a sort of Robin Hood.
  10. Rigoberta Menchú (1959 - ) A native of the rural province of Quiché, Guatemala, Rigoberta Menchú and her family were involved in the bitter struggle for indigenous rights. She rose to prominence in 1982 when her autobiography was ghost-written by Elizabeth Burgos. Menchú turned the resulting international attention into a platform for activism, and she was awarded the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize. She continues to be a world leader in native rights.

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