Latino History

Latino history in what is now the United States goes back even before early Spanish colonization. As part of the largest ethnic group in the United States, Latinas and Latinos have significantly contributed to the nation’s identity and have played a vital role in shaping American culture. The Latino population in the United States has grown to over 60 million today, leaving a big impact on its democracy, economy, and culture. 
For centuries, Latino culture has influenced all areas of American life, including food, sports, business, politics, science, education, and the arts. Music and dance styles such as salsa and reggaeton have become popular nationwide thanks to artists like Celia Cruz and Bad Bunny. The achievements of legendary athletes like Roberto Clemente and Mariano Rivera have transformed the sports industry. Figures like Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor have been pioneers in their accomplishments. Artists like Roberto Lugo and Judy Baca draw on their unique experiences to push the boundaries of artistic expression. Artists and performers such as playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda and photographer Laura Aguilar have been strong advocates for increasing the representation of people of color in the entertainment industry. Throughout history, Latinas and Latinos have enriched the cultural landscape of the United States. 
While continuing to overcome struggles related to prejudice, injustice, racism, sexism, and ​more, the Latino community has broken barriers and achieved great success. The perseverance, resilience, creativity, dynamism, ingenuity, and more demonstrated throughout Latino history serves as inspiration and have paved the way for future generations of Latinas and Latinos. 
To learn more about how Latino history is ​American​​​ history and its continued impact on the United ​​States, explore some of our online resources: 

  • Early Latino History: Discover the complex and diverse Latino history that has shaped the United States since its founding. 
  • Latino Civil Rights: Throughout the history of the United States, the Latino community has faced injustices. Learn about the ongoing fight for Latino civil rights. 
  • Latino Culture: Explore how Latino culture has contributed to society and culture in the United States. 
  • Latino Art: See how Latino art and artists have shaped American culture through a range of creative art forms, such as music, painting, and pottery. 
  • Latino Immigration: Learn about how the history and unique stories of Latino immigrants have contributed to the culture of the United States. 
  • Latinos in the United States: Explore how the diverse Latino community continues to be an integral part of the United States’ identity. 
  • Famous Latinos: Learn about famous Latinos and Latinas throughout history. 

Early Latino History

Latino history in the Americas stretches back for many centuries before the arrival of European colonizers. The long, rich, and complex history begins with the diverse Indigenous populations, such as the Inca civilization. The gradual combination of unique cultures and traditions throughout Latino history has profoundly influenced and enriched the identity of the United States. 
In the late 1400s, Spanish colonists arrived and forcefully claimed the lands of numerous Indigenous populations across the region, including the Pueblo, Aztec, and Maya civilizations. These interactions and intermixing of cultures created the foundation of diverse Latino ancestry and heritage that has contributed to the multicultural development of the United States. 
Prior to European colonization, each Indigenous civilization had distinct traditions, beliefs, and social structures. The violence of colonization had a deep impact on these communities. Many had no choice but to live under colonial control and were weakened by new diseases brought by the colonists, like smallpox, measles, and influenza. 
At the same time, Africans and their descendants were enslaved throughout the Americas. When possible, they resisted and ​fled to escape slavery, sometimes alongside Indigenous peoples. Together, they worked to remake societies, which resulted in a mix of cultures and traditions. 
Learn about the consequences of Spanish and other European colonization
The Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War have also had a large impact on Latino history. The Mexican-American War resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which granted the United States a significant amount of new territory, including the present-day states of California, Nevada, Utah, and most of New Mexico and Arizona. Many of the Mexicans living in those areas at the time became citizens of the United States. However, many longtime Mexican inhabitants experienced hardships after becoming citizens. As Anglo-Americans and Europeans traveled to these new areas, many Mexican inhabitants struggled to retain their land and other property, political representation, and cultural practices. 
In a similar expansion of the United States, the Spanish-American War ended in 1898 with the Treaty of Paris. Through this treaty, the United States gained several territories and islands, including Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. While the reach of the United States was expanded following this war, it again brought new hardships for the Latino communities living in these areas. 
​​Discover more about early Latino history
Throughout the long, multi-faceted history of the United States, Latinas and Latinos have made wide-ranging and significant ​​contributions to society. ​​Latina and Latino immigrants have arrived in the United States with diverse motivations to leave their home country, such as seeking greater economic prosperity and stability. Each unique story and experience continues to influence areas of American culture like food, music, business, sports, and politics. 
Learn more about Latin American immigration to the United States
The Latino community has made a mark on the diverse fabric of the United States as artists, entrepreneurs, scholars, athletes, activists, scientists, writers, inventors, and more. New generations continue to be inspired by the groundbreaking legacies of many Latinas and Latinos, such as: 

José Martí – Considered by many as the father of Cuban independence, José Martí helped found the Cuban Revolutionary Party in New York after he was exiled from Cuba in 1880. 

Lola Rodríguez de Tió - Rodríguez de Tió inspired revolutionaries as a poet, feminist, and political activist. She was a strong champion for the independence of Puerto Rico and wrote the original lyrics of the Puerto Rican revolutionary anthem. 

Encarnación Pinedo  – As a result of the Mexican-American War, Encarnación Pinedo’s family lost their property and wealth. Despite her family’s challenges, Pinedo went on to publish the cookbook, “El Cocinero Español” (The Spanish Cook). 

Latino Contributions

For centuries, Latinas and Latinos in the United States have been instrumental in shaping the nation at both the local and national levels. Whether ​fighting for justice or being groundbreaking thinkers, ​​artists, athletes, and more, Latinas and Latinos have made a difference in their communities. 
​​​Discover more of the influential Latinos who have shaped the United States. 
Latinas have had a strong and influential presence in the United States since its founding. In areas like business, politics, entertainment, sports, and more, Latinas have broken boundaries and achieved great success in often male-dominated fields. The accomplishments of Latinas have paved the way for future generations and continue to serve as a source of inspiration. Latinas who have been trailblazers throughout the history of the United States include: 

Casilda Luna – Casilda Luna immigrated to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1962. After arriving in Washington, D.C., she organized gatherings in her neighborhood that rallied neighbors and the local Latino community around social issues faced in their area. 

Nina Otero-Warren – A Latina suffragist, Nina Otero-Warren served as head of the New Mexico chapter of the Congressional Union and helped to run bilingual campaigns for the vote. 

Olga E. Custodio - Lt. Col. Olga E. Custodio, U.S. Air Force (retired) was the first Latina pilot in the United States Air Force. Throughout her nearly 30-year career, she logged more than 14,500 flight hours. 

Sonia Sotomayor – As the first Latina and the third woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States, Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor has made history and paved the way for future generations of Latinas. 

Celia Cruz – The “Queen of Salsa” Celia Cruz helped bring salsa into the public eye. Despite being in a genre that primarily included male artists, she thrived and had a significant role in increasing the popularity of Latino music in the United States. 

Dara Torres – Cuban American swimmer and icon Dara Torres has won 12 Olympic medals, three of which were won at age 41 when she competed in the 2008 Olympics. 

​​​Ellen Ochoa – In 1993, Dr. Ellen Ochoa flew aboard the space shuttle Discovery and became the first Latina to travel to space. 

Carolina Herrera – Carolina Herrera arrived in the United States with her family in 1980 and launched a clothing brand one year later in 1981. The fashion designer’s brand continues to be an iconic piece of American culture. 

Meg Medina – Author of works such as “Merci Suarez Changes Gears,” Meg Medina received a Newbery Medal in 2019. She currently serves as the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature at the Library of Congress, working to engage readers across the country through her platform “¡Cuéntame!: Let’s talk books.” 

Margaret “Marge” Villa – Margaret Villa broke gender barriers in the 1940s as one of the few women professional baseball players in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (AAGPBL). The AAGPBL was started at the onset of World War II to keep baseball in the public eye during the war. In her baseball career, Villa set records for RBIs (runs batted in) and total bases in the game.

Latino Civil Rights Movement

Throughout the history of the United States, the Latino community has faced discrimination and inequality. Beginning in the late 1400s with the brutality of European colonization, the fight for Latino civil rights has been ongoing for many generations. 
Inspired by fellow activists such as Martin Luther King Jr., the Latino civil rights movement gained momentum throughout the 1900s. An increase in grassroots organizations and the energy of many youth activists built on earlier efforts to demand equality. 

Beginning in the 1960s, the Chicano Civil Rights Movement took shape as Mexican Americans fought for civil equality. During this time, leaders like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta fought the unfair treatment of Latinas and Latinos in the United States. The tireless work of Chavez and Huerta resulted in one of the first successful labor unions of farm workers in American history. Together, they founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later merged with other organizations to become the United Farm Workers of America, and improved some of the living and working conditions in the Latino community. Huerta is also known for coining “Si se puede!” (Yes we can!), which has become of the most recognizable slogans and has inspired many civil rights causes. 
Other activists like Ginny Montes have continued to make much progress in the fight for equal rights. In 1991, Montes became the first Latina to work as a nation-wide officer for the National Organization for Women. Her efforts to fight for change continue to inspire women leaders. 
The Latino Civil Rights movement has brought many advocacy organizations and events that have shaped the civil rights landscape in the United States, including: 

  • National Council of La Raza – Founded in 1968, the National Council of La Raza, known today as UnidosUS, is one of the largest Latino nonprofit advocacy organizations in the United States. 
  • Mendez vs. Westminster – The World War II-era legal case of Mendez vs. Westminster began when Sylvia Mendez, a child in California, was turned away from a public school that was for “whites only.” This federal court case challenged the segregation of Mexican students and resulted in a ruling that stated the segregation of Mexican American students was unconstitutional. 
  • League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) – LULAC is one of the oldest Latino civil rights organizations in the United States, founded in 1929, and has fought to promote Latino equality across the nation. 

Work remains to be done, and the fight for equality is ongoing as Latinas and Latinos still face injustices. With continued activism, perseverance, and determination, the fight against challenges such as immigration, education, healthcare, housing, and voting rights goes on. 
​​​Learn more about the Latino civil rights movement in the United States. 

Latino Art and Culture

Latino art and culture have had a significant influence in the United States. From graphic artists like Rupert García to writers like Sandra Cisneros, Latinas and Latinos have transformed communities across the country. 
Latinas and Latinos have had a far-reaching impact on American society through many mediums and genres. The diverse range of creative art forms within the Latino community includes music, performance, photography, painting, and sculpting. The innovative style and groundbreaking artistic influences found in the Latino community have meaningfully shaped the arts. Latina and Latino artists who have significantly contributed to the culture of the United States include: 

  • The de la Torre Brothers - Einar and Jamex de la Torre are mixed media artists who were born in Mexico in the 1960s. They have used their bi-national and bi-cultural background to create works that feature a blend of cultural influences, including blown glass, cast resin, and lenticular prints. 
  • Diosa Costello – With performances on Broadway, in films, in nightclubs, and more, Diosa Costello opened doors for future generations of Latina performers. 
  • Marc Anthony –Marc Anthony has helped to shape the musical landscape in the United States as a top crossover artist. He has found success through a combination of Latin rhythms, ballads, and mainstream pop music. 
  • America Ferrera – With an acclaimed career so far as an actress, producer, and director, America Ferrera has had a great impact on the culture of the United States. Throughout her career, she has received numerous awards for her work. In addition to acting, Ferrera has advocated for increased Latina representation in television and film. 
  • Rafael López – Rafael López is known for his vibrant illustrations. Throughout his career, he has celebrated Latino culture and brought diverse characters to children’s books with his artwork. 
  • Selena – In 1994, Selena became the first Tejano artist to win a Grammy. Despite her untimely end, the “Queen of Tejano” opened many doors for future generations of Latina musicians. 
  • Antonio Sotomayor – Through imaginative murals and paintings, Bolivian-born artist Antonio Sotomayor had many contributions to the popularity of Latino Art in the United States. 

​​Discover more Latinas and Latinos who have pushed the boundaries of artistic expression
The layered identities of Latinas and Latinos are shaped by factors such as geography, heritage, race, and gender. The rich and diverse Latino traditions have strongly influenced the United States. For instance, Latino food and special events have become ingrained in the culture of the United States, including: 

  • Arepas – These Venezuelan grilled corn cakes are commonly filled with different ingredients, such as cheese, meat, or beans. 
  • Tamales – Made of mesa wrapped in a corn husk or banana leaves, tamales are commonly filled with a variety of foods, including various meats, beans, and cheese. 
  • Tex-Mex-style restaurants – In the 1800s, entrepreneurs, chefs, and restaurant owners like Adelaida Cuellar brought Tex-Mex-style food to the United States. Tex-Mex-style food has been a staple in American culture with many popular food and drinks, like the margarita
  • El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) – This is a day of celebration for many in the Latino community. It is a time to honor and remember the lives of loved ones and to welcome the return of their spirits.   

Food isn’t the only part of American culture that Latinas and Latinos have influenced. The Latino community has impacted all areas of the nation’s culture, from entertainment to business to sports. For example, athletes like skateboarder Mark “Gonz” Gonzales, professional golfer Lizette Salas, and National Soccer Hall of Fame member Marcelo Balboa have been groundbreakers and role models in the sports industry. Dancer and choreographer Tina Ramirez celebrated Latino communities through dance and founded Ballet Hispánico. Latinas and Latinos across the country continue to shape and enhance the United States through their contributions. 
​​Discover how Latino culture has influenced the identity of the United States. 

Contemporary Latino Communities

Today, the Latino population in the United States is nearly 19 percent of the total population, and North Dakota has one of the fastest-growing Latino populations. By 2045, Latinos, Blacks, Asians, and Native Americans are projected to be over half of the nation’s population, with the Latino population almost one-quarter of the United States population. 
The Latino community is constantly evolving. The diverse Latino identity is complex and has multiple layers. Many Latinas and Latinos identify with more than one label, such as Hispanic or Latino, American, and Afro-Latino or Afro-Caribbean. Somos, a video and photography multimedia project, features the rich diversity of Latino experiences through portraits and interviews with Latinas and Latinos. 
​​Explore more about the United States Latino experience
Throughout the history of the United States, Latinas and Latinos have been faced with limited political representation. Despite the challenges, the number of Latino voters has continued to rise over time. In 2020, a record number of nearly 30 million Latinos were eligible to vote and became the second-largest voting bloc in the country. For the first time, more than half of the eligible Latino voters cast a ballot – about 16.5 million. 
Specific Latino groups, such as women and young people, are driving the increase in the number of eligible Latino voters seen in 2020. Half of the eligible Latina voters showed up to the polls, while only 45 percent of men eligible to vote cast a ballot. 
While there has been much progress in Latino voting rights, there is still work to be done to ensure every Latina and Latino voice is heard and that their votes are counted. 
Learn how the Latino voting landscape in the United States has been transformed over the years