J. Manuel Espinosa, 90, who retired in 1978 as chief historian of the State Department, died of respiratory failure June 8 at his home in Frederick, Md. He moved there three months ago from Washington.

Dr. Espinosa was born in Chicago. He was a graduate of Stanford University, where he also received a master's degree in history. He received a doctorate in history from the University of California at Berkeley.

Dr. Espinosa taught history at Saint Louis University and Loyola University of Chicago. He began working for the State Department in 1944, helping firm up sentiment in Latin American countries against the Axis powers.

He later was chief of escort interpreters and helped set up the Fulbright scholars program. He acted as translator for President Harry S. Truman.

Dr. Espinosa was executive secretary of the board of foreign scholarships during the Eisenhower administration and was later deputy director of the division of educational and cultural affairs. He was named historian in 1971.

Dr. Espinosa taught history at Catholic University and George Washington University.

He wrote four books about Latin American and Southwest American history and edited three books on Indian folklore. He also wrote articles for historic journals.

He was a member of Annunciation Catholic Church in Washington, Phi Beta Kappa, the Academy of American Franciscan History, American Historical Association and the Catholic Historical Association. His interests included stamp collecting.

Survivors include his wife of 61 years, Elizabeth Henry Espinosa of Frederick; four sons, J.M. Espinosa Jr. of Santa Ana, Calif., Raymond F. Espinosa of Frederick, John I. Espinosa of Buckeystown, Md., and Thomas H. Espinosa of Frederick; a brother; a sister; five grandchildren; and a great-grandson. A son, Charles P. Espinosa, died in 1947.