Nuestra América

30 Inspiring Latinas/Latinos Who Have Shaped the United States


By Sabrina Vourvoulias

Illustrated by Gloria Félix

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Celebrate 30 influential Latinas/Latinos/Latinxs in U.S. history with Nuestra América, a fully-illustrated anthology from the Smithsonian Latino Center.

Nuestra América highlights the inspiring stories of thirty Latina/o/xs throughout history and their incredible contributions to the cultural, social, and political character of the United States.

The stories in this book cover each figure’s cultural background, childhood, and the challenges and opportunities they met in pursuit of their goals. A glossary of terms and discussion question-filled reading guide, created by the Smithsonian Latino Center, encourage further research and exploration. Twenty-three of the stories featured in this anthology will also be included in the future Molina Family Latino Gallery, the first national gallery dedicated to Latina/o/xs at the Smithsonian.

This book is a must-have for teachers looking to create a more inclusive curriculum, Latina/o/x youth who need to see themselves represented as an important part of the American story, and all parents who want their kids to have a better understanding of American history. Featuring beautiful portraits by Gloria Félix, this is a book that children (and adults) will page through and learn from again and again.

Nuestra América profiles the following notable figures:

Sylvia Acevedo, Luis Álvarez, Pura Belpré, Martha E. Bernal, Julia de Burgos, César Chávez, Sandra Cisneros, Roberto Clemente, Celia Cruz, Olga E. Custodio, Óscar de la Renta, Jaime Escalante, Macario García, Emma González, Laurie Hernández, Juan Felipe Herrera, Dolores Huerta, Jennifer Lopez, Xiuhtezcatl Martínez, Sylvia Méndez, Lin-Manuel Miranda, C. David Molina, Rita Moreno, Ellen Ochoa, Jorge Ramos, Sylvia Rivera, María Elena Salinas, Sonia Sotomayor, Dara Torres, and Robert Unanue.


Dear Reader,


Latinas and Latinos—native born and immigrant—have played and continue to play foundational roles in nation-building and the shaping of our national culture as patriots, educators, entrepreneurs, laborers, artists, healers, innovators, entertainers, scientists, community activists, and leaders. Since its inception in 1997, the Smithsonian Latino Center has supported ongoing research, exhibitions, collecting, public and educational programs, digital content, and publications that interpret and illustrate the diverse Latino experience in the United States.

Nuestra América is inspired by the Smithsonian Latino Center’s effort to center Latino stories as part of the greater American narrative through the building of the Molina Family Latino Gallery at the National Museum of American History. This gallery fulfills a promise and vision set years earlier—before the creation of what would become the Latino Center. The Molina Gallery’s exhibitions will present stories on many, if not most, of the remarkable Americans featured throughout this book. History is largely made by people, and it is through their life stories that we will be able to paint a more accurate portrait of our country’s past, present, and future. Latino history is American history.

This publication marks a groundbreaking moment in the Latino Center’s history. I can think of no better way to enter the world of youth literature than by collaborating on a publication that showcases thirty illustrious Latinas and Latinos and their impactful contributions. Through these pages, you will learn about the trials, tribulations, and ultimate successes of these individuals in the fields of entertainment, social and environmental justice, sports, education, fashion design, journalism, aviation, literature, politics, space exploration, LGBTQ advocacy, health care, entrepreneurship, music, science, and military service, just to name a few. Limiting our choices to thirty individuals among a bounty of notable figures was incredibly difficult. Our hope is that you will see these profiles as an initial exploration and will go on to learn about many others in the Latino community who have made and continue to make meaningful contributions to strengthening the fabric of this country.

We are immensely grateful to our colleagues at Hachette Group/Running Press Kids and Smithsonian Enterprises for believing in our work and extending this wonderful opportunity to the Latino Center. Special thanks to Jill Corcoran at Smithsonian Enterprises and Emily Key at the Smithsonian Latino Center for their vision and leadership on this project. A thank you to Adrián Aldaba and Natalia Febo at the Latino Center for their efforts in completing this project.

The great labor leader César Chávez once said, “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity of our community.… Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sake and for our own.” I hope that you are inspired by the sense of community that guided the ambitions and propelled the achievements of these distinguished Latina and Latino Americans. In closing, I hope you are moved to set your personal goals high and to always be one with your communities and their needs and aspirations. Keep your eyes on the prize!



Eduardo Díaz, Director

Smithsonian Latino Center


(circa 1957–)


Sylvia remembers being a child and looking up at the night sky. She was in the Girl Scouts, and they were camping out, eating s’mores, and relaxing after a day of outdoor activities. The troop leader noticed Sylvia looking up at the sky, so she pointed out the planets and the constellations. It was the first time Sylvia understood what those twinkling lights really were. Soon enough, Sylvia tried to earn her Girl Scout science badge by launching a rocket. Both rockets and Girl Scouts would end up being a part of Sylvia’s future. But first she’d have to learn to believe in herself.

Sylvia was born in South Dakota but grew up in the desert landscape of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Her mother was a Mexican immigrant, and her father was Mexican American and from El Paso, Texas. They spoke Spanish at home and didn’t have a lot of money. Sylvia’s mother noticed that the kids from their neighborhood (which had dirt streets) seemed to get sick more than the kids from other neighborhoods, so when Sylvia’s sister got sick with meningitis, they moved. Sylvia didn’t like leaving her friends behind, but she soon found her place when she joined the Girl Scouts.

Besides teaching her about the night sky, Sylvia’s troop leader taught her never to walk away from a cookie sale until she’d heard no three times. Sylvia used this technique when she was a senior in high school. “Girls like you don’t go to college,” the high school counselor told her. Sylvia walked into the counselor’s office anyway. The exasperated counselor asked her what she wanted to study. When Sylvia said, “Engineering,” the counselor burst into laughter. But Sylvia went on to get her industrial engineering degree from New Mexico State University in 1979. She became a rocket scientist at NASA’s jet propulsion lab where she worked on the Voyager mission that flew by Jupiter and its moons.


Then she went back to school and got her master’s degree at Stanford University. She had wanted to go there ever since her fourth-grade teacher showed her a photo of the university. There, she became one of the first Latinas to earn a graduate-level engineering degree.

As a systems engineer, she decided to get into tech. There weren’t as many women as men in that industry in the 1980s, and at one of her jobs, there wasn’t even a bathroom for her to use. Sylvia thought maybe they hoped she’d quit her job because of the inconvenience. Instead, Sylvia brought a bike to work and rode it to the nearest bathroom. When the company finally realized she was the type of person who would solve a problem instead of walking away from it, they installed a Porta Potty for her. Sylvia worked for some of the biggest names in tech—IBM, Dell, and Apple—and became a tech entrepreneur. But she never forgot the impact the Girl Scouts had on her life.

She joined the Girl Scouts’ board of directors and eventually became the CEO. Since she has headed the organization, the Girl Scouts have added robotics, coding, engineering, and cybersecurity to the badges girls can earn—while continuing to teach them the persistence and resilience Sylvia has found so valuable in her own life.

Way back when she was working on her science badge trying to launch her rocket, Sylvia needed to figure out how to break gravity’s grip to successfully get her rocket off the ground. Now Sylvia is working to help others break the grip on whatever is holding them down. She’s written a book, Path to the Stars: My Journey from Girl Scout to Rocket Scientist, to inspire middle school girls to believe in themselves and their ambitions.

After all, a Girl Scout is taught to always leave the campground—and the world—better than how she found it.




Friends and coworkers of Luis Álvarez would sometimes open the door to his office at the University of California, Berkeley, and catch him doing a handstand on top of his desk. Not exactly what you’d expect from a Nobel prize–winning physicist, but then, Luis seemed to enjoy standing things on their heads.

Born in San Francisco in 1911, Luis—known as Luie (loo-ee) to his friends—was the son of a physician. He was named after his Spanish grandfather, who was also a physician, but Luie had no interest in medicine. He liked to tinker—he built a radio when he was eleven years old—and during high school he spent two summers apprenticing in the instrument shop of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. This affection for tinkering stayed with Luie, and over the course of his life, he was granted twenty-two patents—for everything from optical devices to a golf training machine developed for President Eisenhower.

After high school, Luie enrolled in the University of Chicago in 1928 to study chemistry. He was a B student, and in his junior year, he switched to physics instead. He took twelve physics courses in eighteen months to make up for his late start in the subject and reportedly read every nuclear physics article that had ever been published. Later, friends would remember that when he quoted an article he had read, he could recollect every detail about it, including whether it appeared on the left-hand or right-hand page of the journal.


He loved physics, insisting that it was a simple science complicated only by the language physicists used to discuss it—the language of mathematics. Luie also loved airplanes (he had a pilot’s license and flew until he was seventy-three), which led him to invent a radar-based system that allowed aircraft to land safely in fog and at night. The military thought this and some of Luie’s other inventions could help the United States during World War I. He was one of a number of scientists who were part of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bombs dropped on Japan during World War II.

But his peacetime projects also gained recognition. In 1968, Luie was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the use of liquid hydrogen in a bubble chamber with which he discovered many short-lived subatomic particles.

Late in life, after he had officially retired from doing research, Luie had the time to use physics to solve mysteries that captured the public’s imagination. For example, he used cosmic rays to help archaeologists figure out if the chambers underneath one of the Egyptian pyramids were empty or full without having to dig the chambers out (they were empty, alas). Working with his geologist son, Walt, he was the first to say that the impact of a massive asteroid had been the cause of the mass extinction of dinosaurs. Many paleontologists initially rejected his asteroid theory. It wasn’t until after Luie’s death in 1988 that an impact crater large enough to uphold such a theory was discovered, making it accepted as the most likely cause of the extinction event.

Throughout his life, Luie happily followed his father’s guidance: “He advised me to sit every few months in my reading chair for an entire evening, close my eyes, and try to think of new problems to solve.”






  • Vibrant illustrations and a lively narrative come together to spotlight the stories of 30 Latinas and Latinos. These men and women have worked in a wide variety of fields, overcome great obstacles, and have contributed to the world in significant ways. Trailblazers include engineer Sylvia Acevedo, clinical psychologist Martha E. Bernal, baseball player Roberto Clemente, and U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Marcario García. Three to four pages are dedicated to each profile, with one page featuring an illustrated portrait of the individual against a colorful background. The text provides information about the early life of each person along with personal milestones, such as education, paths to careers, and accomplishments. Their struggles and contributions to the community are also listed. Each profile flows smoothly; the fascinating narratives are conversational in tone. Readers will gain an understanding of the obstacles these individuals faced as well as the role their heritage and culture played in their lives. A glossary is included as well as a reader's guide that includes a QR code. Discussion questions encourage thought and action with suggested activities.
    VERDICT: An excellent nonfiction title focusing on luminous Latinas and Latinos, whose stories are sure to encourage and inspire hope in young readers everywhere.School Library Journal, starred review
  • A project of the Smithsonian Latino Center, this collection, also released in a Spanish edition, features 30 biographies of men and women who have made their mark in entertainment, sports, education, politics, advocacy, music, science, and social justice. Skillfully rendered short portraits introduce readers to influential figures such as Pura Belpré, the first Puerto Rican librarian hired by the New York Public Library, who wrote children’s books retelling Puerto Rican folktales after seeing a need for wider cultural representation. Familiar figures such as labor leader Dolores Huerta and baseball player Roberto Clemente appear alongside lesser-known subjects such as military pilot Olga Custodio and climate activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez. Highlighted by Gloria Félix’s lush, realistic art, the book’s message, “Latino history is American history,” rings out on every page.—Publisher's Weekly
  • While this book will educate all readers, it importantly provides Latinx American children with inspirational role models from a diverse array of professions. A valuable title to have on the shelf.

On Sale
Sep 1, 2020
Page Count
128 pages
Running Press Kids

Sabrina Vourvoulias

About the Author

Sabrina Vourvoulias is an award-winning Latina news editor, writer, and digital storyteller. An American citizen from birth, she grew up in Guatemala during the armed internal conflict and moved to the United States when she was fifteen. Her journalism and editing have garnered an Emmy, and an Edward R. Murrow award, as well as multiple José Martí, Keystone, and New York Press Association awards.

In addition to publishing short fiction and poetry, she is also the author of Ink, which was named to Latinidad’s Best Books of 2012. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, daughter, and a dog who believes she is the one ring to rule them all.

Gloria Félix was born and raised in Uruapan, a beautiful small city in Michoacán, Mexico, one of her biggest inspirations when it comes to Art. Her favorite things to do growing up were drawing, watching cartoons, and eating, which still are some of her favorite things to do. Currently, she lives and paints in Los Angeles.

Learn more about this author