Now the largest minority, Latinos are still searching for a political voice.
Long before Hispanics officially became the nation's largest minority - a milestone announced by the Census Bureau this week - salsa edged out ketchup as the top US condiment and ATMs in rural Vermont asked customers if they wanted to withdraw cash in Spanish or English.
Bilingual education, and opposition to it, was sweeping the nation's schoolrooms. Ricky Martin and Gloria Estefan crossed over into mainstream music superstardom.
But this week is a fresh reminder of the transforming impact on American life of this fast-growing community - even as it remains so diverse that it defies easy racial or ethnic generalizations. In the economy alone, the influence of Hispanic Americans is staggering - and controversial. "The economy of the Sun Belt and California would collapse without Hispanics. They are doing the work of the entire culture," says California historian Kevin Starr.
While their rise has helped fueled America's economic growth for decades, it has also sparked tension, such as concern over whether illegal immigrants and others are depriving other Americans of economic opportunity.
While black and Hispanic groups share an interest in improving education, for example, some African-American activists predict that the higher presence for Hispanics could increase tensions among the two groups.
"Blacks have been denied opportunity in years past just because they were black. Now we are faced with the same type of dilemma just because we don't speak Spanish," says Nathaniel Wilcox, executive director of People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality (PULSE), a grassroots group in Miami. "All of these things create tension in our community."
Still, from harvesting the nation's food supply to manning hotels, restaurants, and construction sites, Hispanics have been a key to the long economic surge of the 1980s and '90s.
"It's not about a population rate, about who's the largest minority group. It's about a population that continues to have influence in cultural, social, and economic aspects of American life." Dr. Louis Olivas, a business expert at Arizona State University and founder of the National Hispanic Corporate Council Institute.