Hispanic Heritage Month: Celebrating Houston legends, changemakers

From astronauts and athletes to artists and educators, we honor eight Houstonians who made a difference.

HOUSTON — From astronauts and athletes to artists and educators, we honor eight Houstonians who made a difference in their communities while representing their culture.

Ninfa Laurenzo

Ninfa Laurenzo, affectionately known as “Mama Ninfa,” turned a modest Mexican food restaurant on Houston’s east side into a multi-million dollar empire. Many credit her with sparking Houston’s never-ending obsession with Mexican food.

Ninfa was only 24 when she and her husband, Tommy Laurenzo, opened the Rio Grande Food Products Company where they made pizza dough and tortillas. Tommy died suddenly in 1969, leaving Ninfa to run the business alone while raising five children.

In 1973, she mortgaged her house to open the original Ninfa’s, a 10-table restaurant on Navigation. Within 10 years, Ninfa’s had expanded to nine Houston locations and one in Dallas.

Ninfa was also beloved for her tireless work on behalf of the community. She received a number of honors, including Business Woman of the Year by the National Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Woman Restaurateur of the Year by the Texas Restaurant Association. She was also inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998. But her children said her proudest moment was being appointed by Vice President George H.W. Bush as one of five goodwill ambassadors to welcome Pope John Paul II to Puerto Rico in 1984.

“Mama Ninfa” passed away in 2001 and the restaurants that bear her name are no longer owned by the family. Her legacy lives on through her son Roland Laurenzo’s El Tiempo Cantina.

Felix Tijerina

Restaurateur, civic leader and philanthropist Felix Tijerina was born in Sugar Land in 1905, the son of migrant farmworkers.

When he was 13, Tijerina moved to Houston to work as a busboy for $9 a week, according to the Texas State Historical Association. Ten years later, he opened his own restaurant called the Mexican Inn on Main Street.

It closed down in 1935 but Tijerina wasn’t giving up. He and his wife, Juanita González, opened Felix’s Mexican Restaurant on Westheimer in 1937 and they later added three more locations.

Tijerina was one of the founders of the Latin American Club (LAC) of Harris County, which registered Mexican-American voters and taught them about the political process. LAC eventually merged with the local chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

Tijerina served as national LULAC president from 1956 to 1960. To counter the high failure and dropout rates among Spanish-speaking children, he founded a preschool instruction program that later became the model for the federal Head Start program.

When asked for advice on how to succeed in the United States, Tijerina said, “Work hard, help yourself, help others, be a good citizen, take an active part in community affairs, and attend a church of your choice regularly.”

Selena

Selena Quintanilla Perez was born in Lake Jackson where her musician father taught his children to sing and play in his Tejano band. Abraham Quintanilla Jr. taught Selena to sing in Spanish and she became the band’s lead singer at the age of 10. After moving to Corpus Christi when Selena was in junior high, they began playing at dance halls and nightclubs.

Selena’s solo career took off in the 1980s and she became known as “La Reina de la Onda Tejana” or  “the Queen of Tejano music.”

The young singer won numerous awards, including the Tejano Music Award for Female Entertainer of the Year in 1987.

In 1994, her “Live!” album won a Grammy for Best Mexican-American Album, making her the first female Tejano artist to win the award and her popularity continued to soar.

On Feb. 26, 1995, Selena performed her final televised concert at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo in the Astrodome. A record crowd of more than 61,000 people packed the dome to hear her perform hits like “Amor Prohíbido,” “I Will Survive” and “Last Dance.” This was also the first and last time Selena wore her iconic purple jumpsuit.

The beloved singer also made her mark off the stage through her work with the D.A.R.E. program and Coastal Bend Aids Foundation.

Tragically in 1995, Selena was fatally shot in the back by her fan club president Yolanda Saldivar just a month shy of her 24th birthday.

After her death, Selena’s family released the RodeoHouston show as an album called “Live! The Last Concert.” Her “Dreaming of You” album was released later that year and it became the first predominantly Spanish-language album to top the Billboard 200 chart.

Selena was inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame posthumously in 2016.

RELATED: How Selena Quintanilla’s legacy has impacted an entire culture

Ellen Ochoa

Dr. Ellen Ochoa is a trailblazer who became the first Latina in space in 1993 and in 2013 she became the Johnson Space Center’s first Hispanic director.

Ochoa grew up in Southern California where she excelled in math and music from an early age, according to Women & the American Story. After getting her undergraduate degree in physics, Ochoa pursued a master’s degree in electrical engineering and then a doctorate at Stanford University.

She was inspired to apply to the NASA Astronaut Training Program after seeing Sally Ride become the first woman in space in 1983.

Ochoa wasn’t accepted to the program the first two times she applied but that didn’t discourage her from chasing her dream. She got a job at NASA Ames Research Center in California and was finally selected to attend astronaut training at JSC in Houston in 1990.

On her first mission to space aboard the space shuttle Discovery, Ochoa and her fellow crew members spent nine days researching the effects of the sun on the environment of Earth.

After three more trips to space, Ochoa was named deputy director of JSC in 2007 and promoted to director five years later. 

Ochoa has received numerous honors, including NASA’s highest award, the Distinguished Service Medal.

In recognition of her achievements, six schools across the country have been named for her, including one in Grand Prairie, Texas.

Jose Altuve

Second baseman Jose Carlos Altuve is one of the best and most beloved players to ever wear a Houston Astros uniform.

Born in Maracay, Venezuela in 1990, Altuve was signed by the Astros as a 16-year-old non-drafted free agent in 2006. He attended the Astros Venezuelan Academy before signing with the team for a paltry $15,000. Omar López, who was the club’s Venezuelan team manager at the time, said Altuve would have signed for free just for the opportunity to play, according to MLB.com. To say the team got a bargain would be a massive understatement.

Altuve progressed quickly through the minor leagues and after being named the Astros 2011 Minor League Player of the Year, he was called up to the big leagues. The 5’6 player packed a punch at the plate and the baseball world took notice.

“Tuve,” as Astros fans call him, now has eight All-Star Game selections and he’s the first player in franchise history to start in five All-Star games. He was the 2017 MVP when the Astros won the World Series and the ALCS MPV in 2019. Altuve also has six Silver Slugger Awards, a 2015 Gold Glove and he won the Hank Aaron Award in 2017, according to ESPN.

We could go on and on but Altuve’s popularity goes far beyond his accomplishments on the field. He was the team’s 2022 nominee for the Robert Clemente Award which recognizes “extraordinary character, community involvement, philanthropy and positive contributions.”

“Years after I got to the big leagues, I started learning and looking for ways to help the community, to give back to the community,” Altuve told Astros writer Brian McTaggart. “It’s good to have the opportunity to pay [the people] back and helping people that really need it.”

Altuve and his wife Nina have hosted a number of charity events and participated in numerous events that raise money for the Astros Foundation.

“It feels good to help people, honestly,” Altuve said. “My family and I, we do a bunch of things back home in Venezuela, but we also do things here in Houston. Just the fact that you’re doing something to impact peoples’ lives, to make some changes in a good way for people, it makes me feel thankful and happy.”

Dr. Nicolás Kanellos

University of Houston professor and award-winning author Dr. Nicolás Kanellos is well-known in the world of literature. He’s credited with introducing many Tejano writers and creating an outlet for all types of Latino written expression.

Kanellos is the founding publisher of the Hispanic literary journal The Americas Review and the nation’s oldest Hispanic publishing house, Arte Público Press, the largest, non-profit publisher of literature in the United States.

In his ongoing efforts to document the history of Latinos and their culture, Kanellos is the director of the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Heritage project. It’s the first national program to recover and publish lost Latino writings that date from the American colonial period through 1960.

He’s received numerous awards the 1988 Hispanic Heritage Award for Literature presented by the White House, the 1989 American Book Award–Publisher/Editor Category and the 1996 Denali Press Award of the American Library Association.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed Kanellos to the National Council on the Humanities.

Lydia Mendoza

Known as “The First Lady of Tejano Music” and “La Gloria de Texas,” Lydia Mendoza was born into a musical family of Mexican immigrants in Houston in 1916.

When she was only four, Mendoza built a guitar out of wood, nails, and rubber bands.

The family moved to San Antonio in the 1930s where they performed in the streets to earn enough money for food. That’s where a Tejano broadcaster heard Mendoza sing and invited the teen to appear regularly on his radio show. At $3.50 a week, she became the family’s main breadwinner.

“With that three-fifty, we felt like millionaires. Now at least we could be sure of paying the rent,” she said later.

In 1934, Mendoza recorded her first hit, “Mal Hombre” (“Evil Man”) for Bluebird Records. Her soulful singing voice and skills on the 12-string guitar turned her into a star along the Texas-Mexico border.

Despite her popularity, the family was forced to stay in private homes while touring in West Texas because of discrimination against Mexican Americans, including signs that said “No dogs or Mexicans allowed.”

After taking a break to raise her three daughters, Mendoza began touring again and she was discovered by audiences all over Mexico, Cuba and Colombia. She moved back to Houston in the 1960s where white college students discovered her during the folk music era.

Mendoza gained national prominence when President Jimmy Carter invited her to sing at his inauguration festivities in 1977. In 1999, President Bill Clinton presented Mendoza with the National Medal of Arts at a White House ceremony.

Other honors included the National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship and induction into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame, the Tejano Music Hall of Fame and the Conjunto Music Hall of Fame.

Throughout her long career, Mendoza recorded hundreds of songs and some 50 albums until she suffered a stroke in 1988 at the age of 72.

GONZO247

The artist known as GONZO247 began spray painting in 1984 with the typical words on walls. Over the years, his art evolved into bold, colorful masterpieces that helped change the way people view graffiti.

The award-winning graffiti artist, whose real name is Mario Enrique Figueroa Jr., is now internationally recognized as a pioneer in the art form and he travels all over for private and public commissions.

GONZO247’s iconic murals all over H-Town are landmarks, Instagrammable backgrounds and even tourist attractions. You can also see his work on canvas, clothing, home furnishings and even an airplane.

GONZO247’s docuseries “Aerosol Warfare” documented the graffiti culture in the 1990s and 2000s. At his EaDo gallery of the same name, GONZO247 showcases and mentors other urban artists. The studio is at the same spot where he co-founded the Houston Wall of Fame in 1993 to give aerosol artists a legal graffiti wall.

The artist also gives back to the community through his volunteer work for Discovery Green, TEDxYouth Houston, DiverseWorks, Fresh Arts, The Orange Show Center for Visionary Art and Project Row House to name a few. In the words of one of his best-known murals, “Houston Is Inspired.”

RELATED: Iconic downtown H-Town mural getting a 10th-anniversary refresh

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