Wandering through the Washington Hilton's terrace level Tuesday evening, you would have stumbled upon the following: a bunch of huts that looked like canopies crowned with coarse grass; a bunch (some 1,650) of partying people dressed to kill, almost all speaking espanol; Mariachi Los Coyotes, a colorful band whose many members were decked out in deepest scarlet; and a bunch of pretty friendly politicians.

This was the 13th annual Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Inc.'s fund-raising dinner, just one in a series of festivities going on here all week to celebrate National Hispanic Heritage Month. In terms of importance, this gala was el grande Papa of them all, for sure. And probably the most fun. The huts alone were worth the price ($200 a plate) of admission. These were tropical mini-bars whose tenders whipped up such slushy-icy-sweet delights as authentic pinåa coladas and, naturally, Cuba libres. If you weren't in the mood before, you would have been afterward.

Not that the folks there needed much goading. Take Catalina Vasquez Villalpando, wearing a quilted black dinner suit and adorned in pave' rhinestones from earlobe to wrist. She's the treasurer of the United States, incidentally.

"This feels wonderful," she said, her enormous eyes taking in the even more enormous International Ballroom. "My dad was always very strict with me. He always forced me to go to church. We were so poor -- I have three sisters and two brothers -- we were all sent out to work very early. It was very good discipline, though. Now we each try to give something back." She added that hers is the longest signature ever to appear on a dollar bill. She had to sign her name four times before making the final selection.

The theme of the evening -- "Unity in Diversity: Challenges for the Nineties" -- was rooted in bipartisan concern for future generations of Hispanics. Which is precisely where the proceeds of the dinner are headed: to sustain and promote an educational clearinghouse and to administer internship and fellowship programs for Hispanic youth. The programs bring Hispanic kids from all over America to Washington to study and become exposed to the political system up close.

"We have poets, professors, actors and musicians, yet the negative stereotype is still there," said Rep. E "Kika" de la Garza (D-Tex.), who is the chairman of the institute. He said that when the movie "La Bamba" came out, Anglos just loved it. But what he wanted to ask those who became suddenly infatuated by the Latino culture portrayed in the film was, " 'Where were you people? We were here all along.' We have a long way to go, but I think we're on the way. And we're going to make it more possible to see our kids succeed with nights like these."

Rita Moreno, who was awarded the 1990 Hispanic Heritage Award medallion for excellence in the arts Monday night at the Organization of American States, was the emcee Tuesday night. She sparkled in a skin-tight, low-cut Bob Mackie sequined red dress. Coca-Cola can red. Which was appropriate, since the Coca-Cola Co. sponsored the gala.

"It's important to be represented in the administration by your own people," she noted. "We Hispanics desperately need a leader that will give us a strong self-image, just as Martin Luther King did for black people. As Hispanics, we still have feelings of inferiority and invisibility, and there's no one to unify us."

Two medallions of excellence -- one for national role model and another for distinguished service -- were presented by de la Garza to Sidney M. Guitierrez, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force and a NASA astronaut, and to Antonia C. Novello, the U.S. surgeon general.

But someone forgot to bring the medallions.

"Ay, Dios," wailed de la Garza. "Colonel, we owe you a medal!"

Guitierrez took it all in stride. "When Americans land on Mars," he said, "Hispanics will be there. Just like 500 years ago, when we landed in the New World." He wore a jacket strewed with colorful medals.

Novello had on medals too, lots of them. And gold bands around the wrists of her jacket. She got a standing ovation. "I have gotten a lot of medals in my life," she said, deadpan. "But I never dreamed I'd get an imaginary one from Hispanics! But, as we say, better late than never."