In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, below are highlights of the many distinguished Hispanic individuals, past and present, who have made known their dissent from religion. For more information, see FFRF’s Freethought of the Day series.
Actress Jessica Alba, whose California-born paternal grandparents were both children of Mexican immigrants, was raised Catholic. She left the church as a teen, citing its sexism and homophobia. She began acting and modeling as a young teenager. She has starred in TV shows and movies, owns her own business, wrote the book “The Honest Life” in 2013 and does substantial domestic and international charitable work.
“I was into God. I really went for it, man. … The further I got into it, it wasn’t for me.”
— Alba, Glamour magazine (May 6, 2014). Photo: Thierry Caro photo under CC 3.0.
The 18th-century Spanish statesman, who became the 10th count of Aranda, met Diderot and Voltaire in Paris, where he studied the Encyclopédie and Enlightenment movements. Until 1773 he was the most important government minister in Spain, restoring order after Charles III was driven from the capital in a riot in 1766. Abarca worked to suppress and expel the Jesuits, considered responsible for the riot, and was known to American revolutionaries as a supporter.
Photo in the public domain.
Born in Nogales, Mexico, the Iowa State University professor of philosophy and religious studies was a child evangelist who earned a doctorate in biblical studies from Harvard University. He was the founder and faculty adviser of the Atheist and Agnostic Society at Iowa State and also founded its U.S. Latino/a Studies program.
Avalos received the inaugural Hispanic American Freethinkers Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018 in Washington D.C., and was inducted into the Iowa Latino Hall of Fame in 2019.
“Most adults, up until recently, usually end up in the religion they were raised in. It’s not because they came to that religion through a long period of study or research, but they were just raised that way. To me that was not satisfactory. I wanted to know whether it was true or not.”
— Interview, Iowa State Daily (Nov. 9, 2010).
After being arrested and exiled by Pinochet’s regime in Chile, Bachelet finished her medical degree in Germany and returned to Chile in 1990, becoming the first woman to head the Defense Ministry, then the first woman to serve as president, from 2006-10 and from 2014-18. She endured criticism for her open agnosticism and secular reforms, such as making the morning-after pill free at state-run hospitals.
“I was a woman, a divorcee, a socialist, an agnostic … all possible sins together.”
— Bachelet, USA Today (Jan. 15, 2009). Photo by Comando Michelle Bachelet at Descarga y Actua under Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Chile.
A statesman in Chile, he co-founded the newspaper La Libertad, published two monographs, including “Church and State,” and joined the Club de la Reformer, considered the anti-clerical party. Elected to the Chilean Congress in the 1870s and in 1882, he used his powers as minister of the interior to enforce new civil marriage and divorce laws. He served as the 11th president of the Republic of Chile from 1886-91. Eventually, Congress refused to fund his government, civil war broke out, and he died in battle in 1891.
“Clerical influence also turned against him as a result of his radically secular ideas about government.”
— Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. Hugh Chisholm (1911). Photo in the Public Domain.
The Spanish-born actor made several movies with acclaimed director Pedro Almodóvar before being introduced in 1991 to Hollywood in the pseudo-documentary “Madonna: Truth or Dare.” His eighth film with Almodóvar, “Dolor y gloria” (Pain and Glory), earned him the Cannes Film Festival Best Actor Award and Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. He was nominated for a 2003 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for “Nine” and Golden Globe nominations for “The Mask of Zorro” (1998) and “Evita” (1996).
“I have to recognize that I am agnostic. I don’t believe in any kind of fundamentalism. I prefer to take life in a different way, with a sense of humor. I try to teach my kids to be open. Whatever they believe is fine with me.”
— Interview, People magazine (April 6, 2006). Photo: Banderas in 2009 at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in the Czech Republic; photo by Petr Novák, Wikipedia, under CC 3.0.
The actor began his career at age 6, gravitating from television roles to many major film roles internationally, such as “Collateral,” “No Country for Old Men,” and “Biutiful.” He became an atheist by 25. Photo via Shutterstock.
“I always say, ‘I don’t believe in God, I believe in Al Pacino’ — and that’s true.”
— Bardem, Time magazine (Aug. 14, 2008).
The Spanish film director, whose movies often attacked the church and the middle class, directed a film called “Viridiana” in 1961 that was banned for blasphemy in Spain but won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. His well-known films include “Belle de Jour” and “That Obscure Object of Desire.”
“Still an Atheist … Thank God!”
— Buñuel, title of Chapter 15 of “My Last Sigh: The Autobiography of Luis Buñuel” (1982). Photo: Buñuel at Cannes in 1954.
The Spanish poet, who was openly gay in an era hostile to the LGBTQ community, wrote during the post-Spanish Civil War era. He frequently criticized the Spanish dictatorship in his poetry.
“Growing old, dying / is the play’s only plot.”
— Gil de Biedma, excerpt of poem titled “I Will Not Be Young Again.” Photo via Shutterstock.
The Argentinian and revolutionary finished medical school, but traveled throughout South and Central America, becoming aware of poverty and inequality. He joined the Cuban guerrillas and eventually became part of Fidel Castro’s government. One of the most controversial figures of the 20th century, he is remembered by some as a cultural icon and by others as a ruthless ideologue and murderer.
“I am all the contrary of a Christ. … I fight for the things I believe in, with the weapons at my disposal and try to leave the other man dead so that I don’t get nailed to a cross or any other place.”
— Guevara, letter to his mother (July 15, 1956). Photo in the Public Domain.
Actor Óscar Isaac was born in 1979 in Guatemala City, Guatemala, and moved with his parents to the U.S. when he was 5 months old. His Cuban father became enamored of Pentecostal religion, which didn’t take hold in Isaac, who watched preachers and other visitors to his home speaking in tongues and writhing on the floor. He was expelled from a Christian Calvinist school in Florida.
Isaac studied acting at the Juilliard School in New York City and has over 60 acting credits. His performance in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis” brought him a Golden Globe Best Actor nomination in 2014.
In 2015 he co-starred in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and reprised the role in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” in 2017 and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” in 2019. He played Marc Spector/Moon Knight in Marvel Studios’ six-episode series “Moon Knight” in 2022 on Disney+.
“My dad was a man of extremes. And the way my mom was raised, she followed her husband. So if God spoke to my father one day and said we were not supposed to have a TV in the house, it was suddenly gone. … I was never frightened by it. I was more curious why I wasn’t feeling the real thing myself.”
— Isaac, describing the “tent revival” atmosphere in his childhood home. (GQ, Dec. 15, 2015; Kathy Hutchins/Shutterstock.com photo)
The 26th president of Mexico, Juárez was an indigenous Zapotec, who rejected the study of the church for the law, then became an anti-establishment Liberal Party official. As governor of Oaxaca, he ended corruption and invested in roads and schools. He was briefly Supreme Court president before becoming the nation’s president in 1858, serving until his death in 1862.
He was noted for his dedication to the causes of the poor, resisting a European takeover and dismantling the control the Catholic Church held over Mexico. Juárez was keenly aware of the injustices perpetrated by the church, particularly against indigenous people, who had been treated as heretics and killed if they refused to convert to Catholicism.
“Priests of any cult who, abusing their ministry, excite hate or disrespect for our laws, our government, or its rights, will be punished by three years’ imprisonment or deportation.”
— Juárez decree of Aug. 30, 1862. Photo in the Public Domain.
The daughter of an atheist German immigrant and a Mexican/indigenous Catholic mother, Frida Kahlo became an artist after suffering a horrific impalement in a streetcar accident that left her with lifelong pain and disabilities. She married atheist painter Diego Rivera in 1929, divorcing him in 1940, then remarrying him.
Kahlo painted many self-portraits and sometimes wove blasphemous themes into her surreal paintings. She was believed, before her death in 1947, to be the first woman to sell a painting to the Louvre.
“I hope the exit is joyful — and I hope never to return.”
— Kahlo diary entry a few days before her death in 1954. Public domain photo: Kahlo at age 25 photographed by her father.
The actor was born in Bogotá, Colombia, and emigrated with his family to New York City when he was 4. He made his TV debut in 1986 on “Miami Vice.” He hit the stage with his Obie-winning “John Leguizamo: Mambo Mouth,” in which he portrayed seven Latino characters.
His prominent role in Brian De Palma’s “Carlito’s Way” boosted his Hollywood career as a serious actor. He co-founded NGL Collective, a digital media company to help clients reach the Hispanic market. “Last year, Latinx people were 3 percent of the faces in front of the camera and behind the camera,” he told Hispanic Executive in 2020.
“I’m a recovering Catholic.”
— Leguizamo tweet, responding to one that asked if he’s Catholic like most Latinos. (Twitter, Jan. 31, 2018). Photo via Shutterstock.
The attorney, atheist, businesswoman and political activist was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, in 1981. A successful businesswoman, she ran twice as an independent for governor of Puerto Rico to challenge the two major parties’ stranglehold on the office.
“The separation of church and state prevents the state from meddling in church affairs. In the same way, the church can impose rules on its members but not the rest of society.”
Community activist and state legislator Juan Mendez, a first-generation U.S. citizen, was elected to the Arizona House of Representatives in 2012. His godless invocation to open a House session created a stir, earning him FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award. Mendez was elected to the Arizona Senate in 2016, and continues to advocate for the separation of state and church.
“I am an atheist because I’ve found no faith in any deity from Thor to Zeus.”
— Mendez, FFRF convention speech (Sept. 27, 2013). Photo by Brent Nicastro.
José Alberto Mujica Cordano, the 40th president of Uruguay, joined revolutionaries fighting the country’s brutal dictatorship as a youth. He spent 13 years in prison as a result, many of them in solitary confinement, and was freed in 1985 as the dictatorship waned. First serving in the Senate, then as agriculture minister, he was president from 2010-15.
Under his leadership, the economy prospered and he legalized gay marriage, abortion and marijuana.He lived in a one-bedroom house during his presidency and donated 90 percent of his salary to charity, so that his income was similar to that of the average wage earner. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012.
“I still have not been able to believe in God.”
— Mujica, El Espectador, Colombian daily newspaper (May 16, 2012). Photo by Vince Alongi.
The Spanish tennis star who won the gold medal in men’s singles at the 2008 Olympics, has won at least 19 Grand Slam events and has 12 French Open Titles. He’s an active philanthropist who has planted trees in Thailand, built a school in India and has a nonprofit focused on helping Spanish children and the special Olympics.
“It’s hard to say, ‘I don’t believe in God.’ I would love to know if God exists. But it’s a very difficult thing for me to believe. … I say, ‘If God exists you don’t need [to cross yourself] or pray.’ If God exists, he’s intelligent enough to [do] the important things, the right things.”
— Nadal, Sports Illustrated (July 16, 2010). Photo via Shutterstock.
The Nobel Laureate and Chilean poet became involved in the republican cause as an official representative in Spain, later joining the Communist Party and becoming a senator in 1945. He fled the country three years later when the party was banned. He returned to Chile in 1952, supported the presidency of Salvador Allende and represented Chile as ambassador to France. Eight books of his poetry were published posthumously.
“I, the materialist, who never believed / in any promised heaven in the sky / for any human being.”
— Neruda, poem titled “A Dog Has Died.” Photo in the Public Domain.
Perez, a Puerto Rican activist, became “the ‘property’ of the Catholic Church” after her mentally ill mother turned her over to a Catholic orphanage, where she was physically and emotionally abused by nuns. At 19 she was hired to dance on the TV show “Soul Train.” Her big break was Spike Lee’s 1988 movie, “Do the Right Thing.” She’s acted since then on Broadway, in many movies and TV shows, also doing choreography. She wrote a memoir in 2014.
“The abuse that I endured at the hands of nuns made me the type of person where I don’t believe in anybody’s dogma. I don’t buy it. It’s just a form of control. I do believe in energy. That’s my religion. The energy of love is necessary for me.”
— Perez interview, The New York Times (Jan. 13, 2020). Photo by Joella Marano under CC 2.0.
Born in Puerto Rico to Children of God missionaries who became disillusioned with the cult and moved to Los Angeles, he made his film debut in “SpaceCamp” (1986) and has since starred in many successful movies, including “Walk the Line,” portraying country music legend Johnny Cash.
“I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe in an afterlife. I don’t believe in a soul. I don’t believe in anything. I think it’s totally right for people to have their own beliefs if it makes them happy, but to me it’s a pretty preposterous idea.”
— Phoenix, Nylon Guys magazine (Winter 2008). Photo by Everett Collection, Shutterstock.com.
Legendary impressionist painter Jacob Camille Pissarro, whose ancestors were Sephardic Jews forced to convert to Catholicism, was born in the West Indies, began painting in Venezuela and lived the rest of his life in France. He was an atheist who experienced anti-Semitic incidents, particularly after supporting Jewish artillery captain Alfred Dreyfus, falsely convicted of passing military secrets to the Germans.
“He didn’t turn his back to Judaism, but was against the idea of God or organized religion.”
— Pissarro, on his great-grandfather in “Camille Pissarro” (1993). Photo in the Public Domain.
The early 19th-century poet, lawyer and journalist was born in Mexico and was known by the pen name “El Nigromante” (the necromancer) for advocating for educational and economic reforms and women’s rights. Exiled to California during the reign of Emperor Maximilian, he was appointed to the Supreme Court upon his return and continued to champion public education, especially for women and indigenous people.
He created a scandal when, in a speech, he declared God didn’t exist. In 1948, Diego Rivera painted a mural in which Ramirez is depicted holding a sign saying “Dios no existe.” The mural was suppressed for nine years until Rivera agreed to remove the offending words.
“No hay Dios; los seres de la naturaleza se sostienen por sí mismos.” (There is no God. Natural beings sustain themselves.)
— Ramírez, quoted by María Elena Victoria Jardón in “The Encyclopedia of Mexico” (1997). Photo in the Public Domain.
Journalist and author Jorge Gilberto Ramos Ávalos, born in Mexico to Catholic parents, became a U.S. citizen in 2008. News anchor for Noticiero Univision since 1986, he hosts a weekly public affairs program, “Al Punto,” and Fusion’s “America with Jorge Ramos.” He has written 10 books, has a syndicated column, has won eight Emmys and many journalism awards and actively promotes literacy in the Latino community.
“[O]nce I started going to college, and once I realized that nobody really knows if there’s afterlife, that there’s really no explanation, no religious explanation on why children die, why children have cancer, why all the cruelty in wars happen, why all these terrible things that I’ve seen as a journalist. Once you realize that there’s no religious explanation, then I really had no choice but to leave Catholic Church and I became an agnostic.”
— Ramos Interview, NPR “Fresh Air” (Oct. 5, 2015). Public domain photo by Bill Ingalls, NASA.
The iconic Mexican painter became a chronicler of the people via a series of murals, including his monumental stairway mural in Mexico’s National Palace in Mexico City, which unabashedly criticizes religion and Catholicism.The mural depicts the mythical and precolonial, pre-Christian history of Mexico and records the Spanish enslavement of native Indians.
The final panel, which depicts various injustices toward the people, goes after a triumvirate of “Banker, Army, and Church.” A priest is shown cavorting with a woman en déshabillé. He was married to painter Frida Kahlo.
“To affirm ‘God does not exist’, I do not have to hide behind Don Ignacio Ramírez; I am an atheist and I consider religions to be a form of collective neurosis.”
— Rivera, quoted in “Siqueieros: His Life and Works” by Philip Stein (1994). Photo in the Public Domain.
Linda Maria Ronstadt, with family ties to Mexico, was the top-selling female singer of the 1970s, recorded 30 albums, received 11 Grammys and branched out to operetta, jazz standards and an album of Mexican songs she grew up with, “Canciones de Mi Padre.” An early champion of gay rights and liberal causes, she has affirmed her atheism in many interviews, including after a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease that has taken away her singing voice.
“I was an atheist by the third grade.”
— Ronstadt, The New York Times (Dec. 27, 2013). Photo: Ronstadt in 1976; Dutch National Archives.
Born to an Italian father and Puerto Rican mother, the journalist and science communicator rejected Mormonism, earned a degree in psychology, a master’s in neurobiology and is working on a Ph.D in clinical psychology. She was senior science correspondent for Huffington Post and a correspondent on “Bill Nye’s World.” “Talk Nerdy” is her weekly science podcast, with atheism and politics among the topics. She was a science correspondent on National Geographic’s TV series, “Brain Games” and received the 2014 Knight Foundation award from Neil deGrasse Tyson.
“I don’t believe in God.”
— Santa Maria remarks at FFRF’s 40th annual convention (Sept. 15, 2017). Photo used with permission from Cara Santa Maria.
The philosopher was born in Spain and emigrated with his parents to the United States at age 9 in 1872. He earned a Ph.D in philosophy from Harvard University and joined its faculty, writing eloquent philosophical works. He resigned from Harvard in 1912 to travel abroad. His last book was published in 1951.
“My atheism, like that of Spinoza, is true piety toward the universe and denies only gods fashioned by men in their own image, to be servants of their human interests.”
— Santayana, “On My Friendly Critics, Soliloquies in England” (1922) Photo in the Public Domain.