Cuatro, a guitar-like instrument

National Museum of American History (cuatro); (background)

Highlighting History

A new exhibit honors Latino history and cultures in the United States. 

What do a raft, an instrument, a pair of boots, and a helmet have in common? They are all part of a new exhibit in Washington, D.C., that celebrates Latino cultures and heritage.

The exhibit is called ¡Presente! (preh-ZEN-teh) A Latino History of the United States. It includes items that celebrate scientists, artists, athletes, and everyday people.

“We’re showcasing stories that are never heard,” says Emily Key, who works at the exhibit. “They are not part of textbooks.”

¡Presente! will become part of the National Museum of the American Latino, expected to open in the 2030s. For now, it is located in the National Museum of American History. 

“The Latino experience is the American experience,” Key says.

Read on to learn about some of the items on display. 

Making Music

National Museum of American History

Puerto Rico is an island in the Caribbean Sea. It’s a U.S. territory. Many aspects of Puerto Rican culture are popular on the U.S. mainland. For example, música jíbara (MOO-see-kah HEE-bah-rah), Puerto Rican country music, can be heard in many U.S. cities. This guitar-like instrument is used to play música jíbara. It’s called a cuatro (KWAH-troh). It got its name because it was originally made with four strings. Cuatro means “four” in Spanish.

Seeking a Better Life

Many people in the island nation of Cuba are struggling. Shortages of food, medicine, and other items are common. People’s rights are limited, and critics of the government can be jailed. 

Many Cubans have risked their lives to try to flee to the U.S., about 90 miles away. Some built rafts called balsas like the one below out of whatever they could find. That included Styrofoam, cloth, plastic, and wood. Thousands of people haven’t survived the journey. The two men who sailed on this raft in 1992 made it about 35 miles from Florida before being rescued at sea by the U.S. Coast Guard. 

Anacostia Community Museum, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Humberto Sanchez

Soaring Into Space


Ellen Ochoa

NASA, used between 1990–2007. Courtesy of Ellen Ochoa

In 1993, astronaut Ellen Ochoa blasted into the record books as the first Hispanic woman to go to space. She traveled aboard the space shuttle Discovery. During her career, Ochoa completed four spaceflights and spent about 1,000 hours in orbit. She wore this helmet while flying in jets during training exercises in the early 1990s.

Celebrating Her Community

National Museum of American History

These paint-splattered boots belong to Chicana artist Judy Baca. She is best known for creating The Great Wall of Los Angeles, in California. It’s one of the largest murals in the world, spanning six city blocks. Baca began planning it in 1974. Over the next 10 years, more than 400 artists and young people helped Baca paint the mural. 

Citizens of the Planet/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

Brian Vander Brug/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

Judy Baca

Baca has said the mural is all about community. It shows how various groups, including Latinos and Latinas, shaped California’s history. Scenes on 86 panels trace the paths of early Native peoples, Spanish explorers, and others.

1. Emily Key says that one goal of the exhibit is to honor everyday people. Choose one featured item from the exhibit and explain how it helps meet that goal.

2. Why do you think many Cubans have traveled to the U.S. in balsas?

3. How did Ellen Ochoa make U.S. history?

Skills Sheets (2)
Skills Sheets (2)
Games (1)