In 2005, the U.S. House of Representatives officially designated June as Caribbean American Heritage Month, a time when Americans celebrate Caribbean history, culture and the vast contributions Caribbeans have made to American society.
Some of the United States’ greatest achievements — in education, literature, LGBTQ+ rights, public health and science — were made possible thanks to its Caribbean American population.
To celebrate Caribbean American Heritage Month, ShareAmerica features five of the many Caribbean Americans who have helped shape the United States.
Miguel Cardona currently serves as the secretary of education in the Biden administration. Born to Puerto Rican parents in Connecticut, Cardona struggled to learn English as a child in kindergarten. Drawing on that experience, Cardona went on to write his dissertation for his doctorate in education on the learning disparities between English-language learners and their native English-speaking classmates.
Before becoming the 12th secretary of education, Cardona led the state of Connecticut through the COVID-19 pandemic as its commissioner of education. Under Cardona, Connecticut became the first state to provide students at home with learning devices to ensure equitable access to education.
Dr. Antonia Novello
Dr. Antonia Novello made history in 1990 when she became the first female and first Hispanic surgeon general. Having suffered from serious illness as a child in Puerto Rico, Novello dedicated much of her career to advocating for sick children, first as a pediatrician and later as a public health expert. As surgeon general under President George H.W. Bush, Novello was a fierce advocate for women, children, and minorities, and was among the first to raise awareness of AIDS in women.
Novello is still an active public health advocate; she traveled with a government relief mission in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and more recently administered and publicly promoted COVID-19 vaccinations.
Julia Alvarez is a renowned writer, poet and essayist whose work draws on her Dominican American identity. She came to the U.S. as a child when her family left the Dominican Republic, and much of her work explores the immigrant experience in America. She has written stories for both children and adults and is best known for her first novel, How the García Girls Lost Their Accents.
In 2014, President Barack Obama awarded Alvarez the National Medal of Arts, the highest U.S. government honor for artists.
Sylvia Rivera fought for equality as a trans woman long before liberation movements in the U.S. had embraced transgender rights. Born to a Puerto Rican father and Venezuelan mother, Rivera was orphaned at a young age and taken in by her Venezuelan grandmother. Facing discrimination from her grandmother and community for her gender identity, Rivera left home at the age of 11 and was taken in by a community of drag queens in New York City.
As a teenager, Rivera became an active member of the Gay Liberation Movement and was present at the Stonewall riots. She, along with her close friend and fellow drag queen, Marsha P. Johnson, went on to establish the political collective Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, a community for gay and gender nonconforming people. Today, Rivera is celebrated as one of the leaders of the transgender rights movement.
Camille Wardrop Alleyne
Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago, Camille Wardrop Alleyne immigrated to the United States when she was 17 and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering. One of only two people in her master’s program to be hired by NASA, Alleyne became one of the first women of color at the agency in a leadership role. Since then, Alleyne has led NASA’s lunar commercialization efforts. She currently oversees the organization’s sustainability of space commercialization efforts.
Alleyne has received numerous awards throughout her career. Trinidad and Tobago named her one of the Caribbean’s icons in science and technology. Using her “star power” to inspire young women in 2007, Alleyne established the Brightest Stars Foundation, dedicated to educating girls in math and science.
This article was written by freelance writer Megan Fosha.