Shaping the Nation

Latinas and Latinos are making their voices heard in every corner of the United States.   

Latinas and Latinos have shaped U.S. history. They set new standards for excellence, creativity, and civic participation. They are activists, artists, athletes, military veterans, small business owners, and many others. Despite cultural and political differences, most Latino communities have organized around shared issues. At the same time, Latinas and Latinos have also fought alongside other Americans in national movements for justice and inclusion. The stories displayed here show how Latinas and Latinos have energized U.S. culture and democracy.

Tree of Life in 3D

Verónica Castillo (b. 1967) is an award-winning ceramicist. Castillo created this Tree of Life (El Árbol de la Vida in Spanish) for the National Museum of the American Latino’s debut exhibition, ¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States. This Tree of Life, titled Raíces, historia y justicia latinas (Latino Roots, History, and Justice) visualizes themes from ¡Presente!




Latinas and Latinos have long used the arts to express themselves while addressing critical issues in their communities. From iconic murals retelling the history of the Latino community, to impactful woodcut work, to dance expressions that celebrate their rich cultures, Latino art is full of joy, struggle, resilience, and perseverance. Explore Latina and Latino artists’ stories and learn more about their contributions to U.S. history.

Josefina López 

Josefina López is a formerly undocumented Chicana playwright. López moved from Mexico to East Los Angeles, California as a child. López’s writing career took off with her best-known play, Real Women Have Curves. Her play became a film in 2002. In 2000, López founded Casa 0101 Theater in Boyle Heights, the neighborhood where she grew up.

Visual Description: Illustration of formerly undocumented, Chicana playwright Josefina López. López stands, body slightly angled to the left, facing the viewer. She has a medium skin tone and long, dark straight hair. She wears a V-neck, short sleeved t-shirt with colorful, floral print. Behind her, a red building with a sign reading, “Casa 0101 Theater.”

Naúl Ojeda

Ojeda (1939–2002) was an award-winning Uruguayan printmaker. In the 1970s, amid growing political turmoil in Uruguay, Ojeda began his life in exile. He lived in several countries before settling in Washington, D.C. Ojeda described the creation of his distinctive woodblock prints as a "dialogue” between himself and the wood.

Visual Description: Illustration of Uruguayan printmaker Naúl Ojeda. Ojeda stands, smiling, with his head slightly turned to the right. He holds a woodblock with a sun motif carving. He wears a black cap, blue shirt with band collar, and canvas, dark green apron with paint splatters. Behind him, an illustration of a woman and a sun hangs from the wall.

Luz F. Soliz-Ramos

Luz F. Soliz-Ramos is a Garifuna dancer, dance instructor, and choreographer. Born in Trujillo Colón, Honduras, she joined her parents in the United States at 15. She has dedicated her career to sharing Garifuna dance, history, and language. In 1992, she founded Hamalali Wayunagu Folkloric & Modern Dance Company (now called Wabafu Garifuna Dance Theater) in New York City.

Visual Description: Illustration of Garifuna dancer Luz F. Soliz-Ramos standing slightly turned to the left. She smiles, facing the viewer. She wears a yellow headwrap, white shirt with yellow floral motifs on the chest and long, gold earrings. Behind her, a New York City skyline and sun shining.

Jesse Treviño

Jesse Treviño is a Mexican American artist based in San Antonio, Texas. He demonstrated exceptional artistic talent at a young age. He received a scholarship to the Art Students League in New York, but after a year was drafted and sent to Vietnam. There he sustained life-threatening injuries, including partial amputation of his right arm. Having lost use of his dominant hand, he went on to teach himself how to paint left-handed. Today, his work is a part of several renowned collections.

Visual Description: Illustration of San Antonio artist and veteran, Jesse Treviño. He stands hands on hips, facing the viewer. He has a medium-light skin tone, straight, black bangs, neck-length hair, and a beard. Treviño wears a gray t-shirt. Black shoulder straps attach to his prosthetic right forearm. Behind him, a blue wall with an uncolored mural sketch depicting an angel. A wide, floating paintbrush drips green paint on the right.


LGBTQ Leaders

Latinas and Latinos have contributed to a more equitable and inclusive society by fighting for the rights of the LGBTQ community and others. Their long history of activism has focused on issues like homelessness, unemployment, economic exclusion, food insecurity, and HIV prevention. The stories of LGBTQ community organizers and activists like José Julio Sarria, Lorena Borjas, and Adela Vásquez remind us of Latinas and Latinos’ role in shaping and redefining U.S. ideals of justice and equality.

José Julio Sarria

World War II veteran José Julio Sarria (1922–2013) was the first openly gay person to run for public office in the United States. Of Colombian ancestry, Sarria worked in the restaurant business and was a well-known drag queen.

Visual Description: Illustration of José Julio Sarria standing in a blue dress and crown, holding a scepter, near a sign reading, “Black Café” with an illustrated cat.

Danny Sotomayor

Born in Chicago, Danny Sotomayor (1958–1992) was a political cartoonist and AIDS activist of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent. He used his platform as the first nationally syndicated and openly gay political cartoonist to speak out against government inaction on the AIDS health crisis. He was also the co-founder of ACT-UP Chicago, an AIDS awareness activist group. He died in 1992 at the age of 33 from complications due to AIDS.  

Visual Description: Illustration of Puerto Rican and Mexican AIDS activist and cartoonist, Danny Sotomayor with arms crossed; he holds a paintbrush in his right hand. He has a medium-light skin tone and wavy, short cropped, black hair. He wears a black watch on his left wrist and a white t-shirt reading, “ACT UP CHICAGO” in black and white letters. Behind him, a painted red handprint.

Lorena Borjas

Lorena Borjas (1960–2020) was a Mexican-born community organizer and activist. She was known as the mother of the transgender Latinx community in Queens, New York. Borjas arrived in the United States in 1981 seeking safety from persecution as well as safe medical treatment. For 30 years, she fought on behalf of transgender women, undocumented immigrants, sex workers, and those living with HIV/AIDS.   

Visual Description: Illustration of transgender community leader, Lorena Borjas, smiling at the viewer. She has a medium-light skin tone and auburn, wavy hair, pulled back with white flower behind her ear. She wears large, gold, earrings, red, polka-dot hairband, and tunic-style shirt with green and pink flowers and black piping. An orange shawl drapes around her neck and left shoulder. Behind her, city tenement buildings and a blue night sky with a full moon.

Adela Vázquez

Adela Vázquez is a Cuban transgender HIV/AIDS activist. She left Cuba in the 1980 Mariel boatlift. Vázquez eventually settled in San Francisco. Her activism began with supporting trans women who were battling AIDS. Vázquez later joined the staff at Proyecto ContraSIDA Por Vida (Project for Life Against AIDS). Proyecto (1993–2005) was a Latinx HIV prevention organization in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Visual Description: Illustration of Cuban transgender HIV/AIDS activist Adela Vázquez who has a light skin tone, short, purple, straight hair, and wears a sleeveless colorful dress with wide straps. She also wears gold teardrop earrings. Behind her, a purple background featuring San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.



From cookbooks to political treatises, and from newspapers to poetry, Latinas and Latinos have invigorated writing, journalistic, and literary traditions in the United States and beyond. In the hands of authors such as José Martí, Lola Rodríguez de Tió, Dr. Carlos E. Russell, and Encarnaciόn Pinedo the pen and paper are incredible tools to express cultural pride and call for political and cultural change. Discover how Latina and Latino writers react to injustice and, in turn, shape U.S. history.

José Martí

José Martí (1853–1895) was a Cuban political writer and poet of Spanish descent. Exiled as a teenager, Martí spent years living abroad. For over a decade, he promoted Cuban independence while living in New York City. In 1892, Martí founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party which organized for Cuban and Puerto Rican self-rule. He died fighting in Cuba’s War of Independence from Spain (1895–1898). Martí’s later writing warned of U.S. imperialism in Latin America.

Visual Description: Illustration of Cuban patriot, José Martí standing with his right arm across his chest, a document rolled up in his fist. Barbed wire curls across his chest and arm. He has medium skin tone black hair, moustache, and patch of facial hair under his lower lip. He wears a navy-blue suit jacket, high-collared white shirt, and black bowtie. Behind him, pink sand, blue ocean, green palm trees, and distant mountain peaks. The illustration header reads, “Patria” (Homeland).


Lola Rodríguez de Tió

Lola Rodríguez de Tió (1843–1924) was a Puerto Rican writer, poet, and independence advocate. She wrote the lyrics to “La Borinqueña,” which calls for Puerto Rico’s freedom. De Tió also wrote a celebrated verse describing Cuba and Puerto Rico as “two wings” of one “bird.” Today, this is a popular phrase linking both islands. Exiled multiple times from Puerto Rico for her revolutionary activities, de Tió eventually settled in Cuba.

Visual Description: Illustration of Puerto Rican writer, Lola Rodríguez de Tió, from bust-up, holding a book open toward her. She has black, straight hair, pulled back, and a medium skin tone. She wears a gray, button-up dress, white collar, and a puffy necktie. Behind her, yellow, pink, and green leaves, and branches.

Encarnaciόn Pinedo

Encarnación Pinedo (1848–1902) grew up during the mid-1800s in California’s Santa Clara Valley. Her family, like many Californios, lost land, wealth, and privilege after the Mexican-American War. Nonetheless, Pinedo dedicated herself to cultivating her culinary and writing talents. She published El cocinero español (The Spanish Cook) in San Francisco in 1898. Pinedo's Mexican, Spanish, and Basque recipe collection preserved Californio culture by way of food.

Visual Description: Illustration of Californiana cook, Encarnación Pinedo facing the viewer, holding a cookbook and stone pestle. She has a medium skin tone, and black hair tied up with white flowers. She wears a white, pleated, button-up dress with black lapels and high-collared, white blouse. Behind her, waist-high clay jars. Red chile peppers hang from ceiling.

Dr. Carlos E. Russell

Dr. Carlos Enrique Russell (1934–2018) was a Panamanian-born newspaper editor, professor, and diplomat of West Indian descent. He contributed to Black civil rights in Panama and the United States. He immigrated from Panama to Chicago, Illinois on a student visa in 1955. In 1969, he founded Black Solidarity Day to combat the systematic oppression of Black people.

Visual Description: Illustration of Panamanian-West Indian activist Carlos E. Russell. Russell is speaking, looking to his right, with left arm bent and index finger extended slightly. He has a medium dark skin tone and short, dark afro. He wears a dark grey jacket, red and green “Black Solidarity Day” button, white button-up shirt, and blue, striped tie. 


Latino communities have been built by local leaders. These leaders have been teachers such as Jaime Escalante, doctors like Juan Romagoza, business owners including Anesta Samuel, and activists such as  Luisa Capetillo. Together, they and many others have worked to make a difference. For many Latinas and Latinos, the concept of community goes beyond ethnicity or nationality. It finds purpose in bringing people together to build a just society for all.

Juan Romagoza

Juan Romagoza was a young doctor escaping El Salvador’s civil war when he arrived in the United States in 1983. Years earlier, he had been detained and tortured by El Salvador’s National Guard. In 1987, he was granted political asylum in the United States. From 1987 to 2007, he served as director of Clínica del Pueblo, a free public health clinic serving Latin American immigrants in Washington, D.C.

Visual Description: Illustration of Salvadoran physician, Juan Romagoza, looking to the left, smiling. Romagoza has a medium skin tone and short, gray hair. He wears a white button-up shirt; black, wire frame glasses, and a red, patterned necktie. Behind him, “La Clínica Del Pueblo (The People’s Clinic)” written on a wall. There is a drawn logo near the words and a yellow swirl representing a dragon-like figure with sun rays made of orange leaves surrounding it.

Anesta Samuel

S. Anesta Samuel (1917–2004) grew up in the Panama Canal Zone. Her father moved from Montserrat to work on the canal. The U.S.-controlled Canal Zone was racially segregated, and Black Caribbean workers were paid lower wages. As a teenager, Samuel rejected this system and opened her own beauty salon. In 1950, she immigrated to Brooklyn, New York. There, she founded a scholarship organization for Panamanian students, called Las Servidoras (later renamed The Dedicators).

Visual Description: Illustration of Panamanian community organizer S. Anesta Samuel. Samuel stands with her body turned to the right, facing the viewer. She has a medium dark skin tone and short, dark afro. She wears a multicolor, long-sleeved tunic and white round earrings. Behind her, the Empire State Building in the distance, and a street sign reading, “S Anesta Samuel Avenue.”

Jaime Escalante

Jaime Escalante (1930–2010) grew up in La Paz, Bolivia, the son of Indigenous Aymara schoolteachers. He moved to the United States in 1963. In the 1970s he became a nationally recognized math teacher at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. He motivated his students by reminding them that “ganas (drive) is all you need.”

Visual Description: Illustrated portrait of Jaime Escalante writing calculus equations on a blackboard while looking directly at us. Other equations are superimposed over his portrait

Luisa Capetillo

Luisa Capetillo (1879–1922) was a Puerto Rican of European descent. An organizer and feminist, she worked with the Free Federation of Workers. This important Puerto Rican labor organization was founded in 1899. Capetillo connected with workers by reading in tobacco factories. During the early 1900s, she rejected gender norms and supported labor strikes. Capetillo also published books and edited the magazine La mujer (The Woman).

Visual Description: Illustration of Puerto Rican feminist writer and labor activist, Luisa Capetillo, seated on a wooden chair on a platform, facing the viewer. She holds a newspaper in her lap. She has a medium skin tone, short, straight, brown hair. She wears a beige suit, black tie, white shirt, black lace-up boots, and wide-brim hat. Behind her, a plank-wood wall.