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Although many believe that Latinas, women of Latin American heritage in the United States, arrived only recently, in fact thousands of Latinas can trace their ancestry in territories that became part of the United States back to the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, well before the great waves of European and Asian immigrants. It is difficult to find direct evidence of women from the sources for this period, even in a culture whose members retain their mother's lineage as a second last name. Nevertheless, historians know that countless women among the descendants of the original settlers, the Indians who lived with them, and others who had joined them were indispensable to the establishment and maintenance of their communities. Women labored under often difficult circumstances, particularly when other colonizing powers or indigenous peoples such as the Comanches and the Apaches attacked their homes. Some evidence of the influence of Latinas during these times can be gleaned from such manuscript and microfilm collections in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress as the Spanish Archives of New Mexico (1621-1821), the Santa Barbara Mission Collection (1768-1844), and the East Florida Papers (1737-1858).

Latina Settlement

The first Latinas were born in Saint Augustine, Florida, after its settlement by Spaniards in 1565. When missionaries founded the Nombre de Dios Mission there in 1566, female members of the Timucua-speaking Indian nobility such as Chief Doña María were converted to Christianity and married Spanish soldiers, in her case Clemente Bernal. On April 2, 1606, the mission held a service of confirmation for two hundred Indians, two hundred Spaniards, and Doña María and her children in the church in Saint Augustine.

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Mapa que comprende la Frontera, de los Dominos del Rey, en la America Septentrional, segun el original que hizo D[on] Joseph de Urrutia, sobre varios puntos observados por èl, y el Capitan de Yngenieros D[on] Nicolas Lafora, y sobre los mas veridicos, y diarias noticias, que pudieron recojer en el tiempo de la Expedicion, que hizieron por dicha Frontera à las ordenes del Mariscal de Campo, Marques de Ruby. [Northern Mexico and S.W. United States]. 1769. Geography & Map Division

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Since then, the extent of Latina settlement in the United States has broadened considerably, as shown on this map. From 1598 to 1810, Spanish explorers, missionaries, and settlers built communities in present-day Texas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and California and explored all the way to Alaska. These areas became part of the Provincias Internas, the northern frontier of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. For example, Spanish-born María Feliciana Arballo and her mestizo husband were scheduled to make the trek from Tubac in present-day Arizona to Southern California with Juan Bautista de Anza in 1775. When her husband died before the trip began, Arballo won the right to travel with her two daughters. She eventually left the Anza party in San Gabriel, California, where she married a soldier. (For more on Arballo, see the essay “Women on the Move”).

Sovereignty Change

In 1820, the United States absorbed Spanish Florida; the following year, when Mexico gained its independence from Spain, the communities of the Provincias Internas chose to stay with Mexico rather than become independent themselves. These communities continued to develop during the years between Mexican independence in 1821 and the Mexican-American War in 1846-48. As soon as Mexico became independent from Spain, settlers from the United States (Anglos) emigrated to Texas, still part of Mexico, to settle on large tracts of rich land the government offered at bargain prices to populate the territory.

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“‘La Tules’ [Gertrudis Barceló] Dealing Monte in Her Santa Fe Gambling House.” Bill Hughes. Illustration for Walter Briggs et al., “Venal or Virtuous? The Lady They Called La Tules,” New Mexico Magazine 49:3 (March/April 1971; F791.N3), 8-9. General Collections.

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“La Tules”

The most famous woman of the period, María Gertrudis Barceló (known as “La Tules”), started her first gambling casino in the Ortiz Mountains of New Mexico in 1825. In 1836 the Anglos living in Texas defeated the Mexican army and proclaimed themselves independent. Meanwhile, La Tules opened a casino in Santa Fe under the protection of Governor Manuel Armijo, catering to Anglo traders on the Santa Fe Trail and local residents alike. Over time she became a folkloric heroine and was mentioned nearly a century later in Federal Writers' Project interviews held by the Manuscript Division (see Literary Patrons section). In 1845 the Lone Star Republic, as the Anglos in Texas called their country, decided to join the United States, setting the stage for the Mexican-American War, which broke out the following year. When the fighting began, the other areas of the Provincias Internas became fair game, so that following the victory of the United States in 1848, the northern nation had conquered not just Texas, but California, Arizona, New Mexico, and parts of Colorado, Utah, and Oklahoma.

U.S. Control

U.S. control soon led to alterations in legal systems, official language, education, and a constellation of social and economic mores. James McHall Jones, delegate to the California Constitutional Convention of 1849 and later judge of Southern California, confided to his mother in the first of his Two Letters . . . ., dated August 26, 1849 (San Francisco: Grabhorn Press, 1948, p. 8; F865.J75 Rare Book), that his knowledge of Spanish in the now-Anglo territory would give him a real advantage when “there will be titles annulled, judgments reversed, property seized [and] I'll have a whole fist in the pie.” Women who lived under Spanish and then Mexican sovereignty owned property in their own name even after marriage, held a 50 percent stake in whatever their spouses managed to accumulate during their life together, and had the right to make wills, a privilege that had only begun to be granted during the 1840s in the rest of the United States (see Property Law and Married Women's Property Laws in the Law Library section). Although law codes in the new territories appeared to reflect Spanish practice, historians must look at other evidence to see what happened when justice was administered in English to people who knew only Spanish.

These new Latinas suffered in other ways as well. In the 1850s, the pregnant Josefa Segovia became the first woman hanged in California for having killed an Anglo who had assaulted her. In 1862 Chipita Rodríguez, convicted for murdering an Anglo horse trader, became the only woman hanged in the state of Texas, despite the lack of any direct evidence linking her to the crime. Some Latinas spoke up about the twofold discrimination they suffered as women and as people of Latin American descent. María Amparo Ruiz de Burton (1832-1895) published anonymously (although a Library of Congress cataloger penciled her name on the catalog card) the first novel written and published in English by a Latina. Her book, Who Would Have Thought It? (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1872; PZ3.B9545 W GenColl), offered a bitter critique of U.S. racism while supporting women's suffrage.

Cubanas and Puertorriqueñas

Latinas played an important role in fostering the Cuban and Puerto Rican independence movements. In New York, Emilia Casanova de Villaverde (1832-1897) established the Liga de Hijas de Cuba (League of Daughters of Cuba) in the 1870s. Descriptions of the league's sessions can be found in the anonymously written Apuntes biográficos de Emilia Casanova de Villaverde (New York, 1874; F1785.C33 GenColl). After Cubans were defeated in their first war of independence against Spain (1868-78), more than one hundred thousand emigrated to the United States. According to the Memoirs of Bernardo Vega (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984; F128.9.P85 V4313 1984 GenColl), before the next war, Cuban and Puerto Rican women founded additional clubs such as Mercedes de Verona at 235 East 75th Street in Manhattan and Hijas de la Libertad (Daughters of Liberty) at 1115 Herkimer Street in Brooklyn. In 1895 Cubans began their second war of liberation, which sparked the Spanish-American War. Following the U.S. victory in 1898, the island of Puerto Rico, first explored by the Spanish in 1503, became a commonwealth of the United States, and in 1917 Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens. Cuba, too, became increasingly aligned with the U.S. economy and social customs during this period.

Puerto Rican and Cuban women worked long hours for extremely poor pay in the tobacco industry in Tampa and New York. Under the leadership of Luisa Capetillo (1879-1922) and others, women demanded that the males-only Unión de Tabaqueros (Union of Tobacco Workers) represent them as well. Capetillo once ran a boardinghouse on 22nd Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, where she regaled her lodgers with revolutionary and anarchist speeches. Some of her collected writings appear in Amor y anarquía: Los escritos de Luisa Capetillo, edited by Julio Ramos (Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Ediciones Huracán, 1992; HQ1523.C372 1992 GenColl Overflow).

Many immigrants who came to the United States throughout the twentieth century experienced great dislocation and loneliness. The Puerto Rican poet Julia de Burgos (1914-1953) wrote three volumes of poetic reflections on the inherent tension between an island upbringing and exile in the Nuyorican (New York) setting. Others, such as the folklorist Pura Belpré (1899-1982), considered the first Puerto Rican librarian in the New York Public Library system, and Lillian López (b. 1925), also a pioneering librarian, founded many organizations dedicated to preserving the island's heritage for children growing up on the mainland. They vividly remember their life in the New York of the 1930s and 1940s in “Reminiscences of Two Turned-On Librarians,” in Puerto Rican Perspectives, edited by Edward Mapp (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1974; E184.P85 M36 GenColl). During the late 1940s and 1950s, Puerto Ricans relocated to the United States in much greater numbers. In 1961 teacher and activist Antonia Pantoja (b. 1922) created a new group, ASPIRA (Aspire), to assist Puerto Rican children to go on to higher education.


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“Mexicans at the U.S. immigration station.” El Paso, Texas. Dorothea Lange. June 1938. Photograph. Farm Security Administration Collection. Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USF34-018215-E.

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From 1910 to 1930, more than a million Mexicans came to the United States to escape from the Mexican Revolution, or to join neighbors and other family members who had already made the trek northward, and settled where plentiful and financially rewarding jobs in mines, railroads, and farms held the promise of a better life. Some of these women and their descendants were pictured in the 1930s and 1940s by the photographers of the Farm Security Administration whose work is found in the Prints and Photographs Division (see FSA/OWI in the Prints and Photographs section), and others spoke to interviewers from the Federal Writers' Project whose texts are housed in the Manuscript Division (see discussion in Literary Patrons section).

By 1926 Latinas in Los Angeles had founded La Sociedad de Madres Mexicanas (the Society of Mexican Mothers), a civil rights group that raised money to pay for the defense of Latinos charged with crimes. In 1929 Alonso Perales organized what would become the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) in South Texas, the first national Mexican American group to fight for civil rights. That same year, María and Pedro Hernández, also activists in the region, left the new group because it focused almost exclusively on improving men's lives and founded the Orden de Caballeros de América (Order of the Knights of America), the first to espouse a feminist perspective. Condemnations of LULAC's sexist stance written by Alice Dickerson Montemayor (always known to LULAC as Mrs. F. I. Montemayor) of Laredo, Texas, appear in the LULAC News in the 1930s. On April 28-30, 1939, Luisa Moreno (1907-1992), whose long experience with labor struggles had given her contacts throughout the Latino community, founded El Congreso de Pueblos que Hablan Española (the Spanish-Speaking Peoples Congress), the first national organization of all Latinos.

Struggling Together

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La Ofrenda II. Ester Hernández. Screenprint, 1990. Fine Prints (unprocessed). Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USZC4-8201. Copyright © 1990. Courtesy of the artist.

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During the 1960s hundreds of thousands of Cubans emigrated to Puerto Rico and the U.S. mainland, settling mostly in Florida and the East Coast, to escape from the Cuban Revolution. That same decade witnessed the growth of the civil rights movement when many Mexican American women activists who wanted to emphasize their dual Indian and Spanish heritage began calling themselves Chicanas to demonstrate their commitment to the struggle for racial, ethnic, and gender equality. This identity is brilliantly represented in the screenprints of Ester Hernández (b. 1944), ten of which are held in the Prints and Photographs Division. Many members of that group still identify themselves as Chicanas, while others continue to prefer the term “Mexican American” or “Mexicana.” Similarly, Puerto Rican women committed to similar causes used the term “Boricua,” derived from the Native American name for the island. Women of Hispanic heritage in New Mexico use the term “Hispana,” whereas those in Texas describe themselves as “Tejanas.”

According to the U.S. Census of 2000, Latinas represented 15,810,000 or 11.4 percent of a total female population of 138,979,000 in that year. The Latinas, however, are far younger with a median age at almost 27, as opposed to that for all women in the U.S. at 35.8 years. Mexican American women are the most significant Latina population in the country by far, numbering 10,058,000 or 63.6% of all Latinas, with a median age of 24.5 years. The next largest group to be identified by a single origin were the Puerto Rican women, who represented 1,602,000 or 10.1 percent of Latinas, with a median age of 29.5 years. Cuban women formed the third largest single group at 713,000 or .45 percent of Latinas, with a median age of 41.5 years.

The three-volume Gale Encyclopedia of Multicultural America, edited by Robert von Dassanowsky and Jeffrey Lehman (2nd ed. Detroit : Gale Group, 2000; E184 .A1 G14 2000), further subdivides Latinas into groups ranging from Argentine Americans to Salvadoran Americans, and it includes both Portuguese and Spanish Americans from the Iberian peninsula.7

As might be expected, younger Latinas sometimes experienced significantly less discrimination than did their female relatives of past generations. As part of the study Working in Paterson, N.J.: Occupational Heritage in an Urban Setting done by the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, Beatriz Meza, an attorney, told her interviewer that despite the discrimination she suffered before completing law school, “I feel that being a Latina gives me an advantage, because I am bilingual and know another culture.” [audio] As the Latino population continues to increase, perhaps more Latinas will experience less discrimination and ever greater professional success.


Clayton, Lawrence A., ed. The Hispanic Experience in North America: Sources for Study in the United States. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1992. E184.S7 H57 1992 HISP Ref.

Kanellos, Nicolás, and Claudio Esteva-Fabregat. Handbook of Hispanic Cultures in the United States. 4 vols. Houston: Arte Público Press; 1994. E184.S75 H365, 1993 HISP Ref, MRR Alc.

Matos Rodríguez, Félix V., and Linda C. Delgado, eds. Puerto Rican Women's History: New Perspectives. New York and London: M.E.Sharpe, 1998. HQ1522.P84 1998 GenColl.

Ruiz, Vicki L. From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998. E184.M5 R86 1998 GenColl.

Stoner, K. Lynn. Cuban and Cuban-American Women: An Annotated Bibliography. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2000. Z7964 C85 S76 2000 MRR Alc.

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