Cuatro, a guitar-like instrument

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

Highlighting History

A new exhibit in the nation’s capital honors Latino cultures in the United States. 

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

The exhibit, called ¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States, is at the National Museum of American History. ¡Presente! (preh-ZEN-teh) includes objects that highlight scientists, artists, entertainers, and athletes, as well as 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 eventually become part of the National Museum of the American Latino. The museum is expected to open in the 2030s. Key says it’s important to have a museum dedicated to the contributions of Latinos and Latinas in the U.S. 

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

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

Making Music

National Museum of American History

Puerto Rico, an island in the Caribbean Sea, is a U.S. territory. Music is one of many elements of Puerto Rican culture that are popular on the U.S. mainland. For example, música jíbara (MOO-see-kah HEE-bah-rah) originated in the countrysides of Puerto Rico centuries ago. Today, it can be heard in many U.S. cities. This guitar-like instrument, called a cuatro, is used to play música jíbara. Cuatro means “four” in Spanish. The instrument got its name because it was originally made with four strings. 

Seeking a Better Life

Many people in the island nation of Cuba have been struggling for decades. Shortages of food, medicine, and other items are common. Most citizens have limited rights, and critics of the government can be jailed. 

Over the years, countless Cubans have risked their lives to try to flee to Florida, about 90 miles away. Some have built rafts called balsas out of whatever materials they could find. The one below is made of Styrofoam, wood, and other materials. 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 aboard the space shuttle Discovery. Ochoa, whose father’s family is from Mexico, was the first Hispanic woman to travel to space. 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.

Honoring 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’s biggest city. The mural is one of the largest in the world, stretching for six city blocks. Baca began the work of art in 1974. Over the next 10 years, more than 400 artists and young people helped her complete 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 highlights how various groups, including Latinos and Latinas, helped shape California’s history. Scenes on the artwork’s 86 panels trace the paths of early Indigenous (or Native) peoples, Spanish explorers, and others.

1. What does Emily Key mean when she says “The Latino experience is the American experience”?

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

3. How did Ellen Ochoa make history?

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