Advocates push for Smithsonian museum for Latinos

Patricia Kime

USA TODAY's Hispanic Living magazine

Sep 25, 2017

First proposed by a congressional commission appointed under the George W. Bush administration, the construction of a National Museum of the American Latino is still being debated six years later, despite bipartisan support, a rise in the Hispanic population and increasing pressure from prominent members of the community.

“Hispanic Americans have been an indisputable part of American history, and new chapters are written every day by the more than 56 million people who make America’s Latino community so strong,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., at a June press event to promote the proposed addition to the National Mall.

Menendez has sponsored several bills to make the museum a reality.

Danny Vargas, a Virginia businessman who chairs the nonprofit Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino, says the museum would showcase American history and not artifacts from other countries.

“It’s not going to have art from Colombia or poetry from Spain,” Vargas says. “It would serve to illuminate the American story for the benefit of everyone — Latinos and non-Latinos, Americans and those visiting our country — to get a better understanding of our history, our culture as a people, as Americans.”

In 1994, the Smithsonian Institution commissioned a review of its Latino and Hispanic artifacts and found a lack of permanent exhibits or programs.

“We have filled some of the gaps described in that 23-year-old report which was the impetus behind the establishment of the Smithsonian’s Latino Center,” says Smithsonian Institution spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas.

The center sponsors a Latino museum studies program and a leadership development program for high school students and promotes Latino visibility throughout the 19-museum system. It is staffed with 15 Latino researchers and curators who have spearheaded six exhibits on the Latino experience and are planning more, including initiatives on Latinos and baseball, Caribbean native ancestry and the Spanish-American War.

There are also plans for a Latino gallery at the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., to open as early as next year.

However, Vargas says the exhibits and the center’s online virtual museum are nice, but not enough.

“There is a dire need for a museum,” Vargas says. “Contrary to what some might say, that Hispanics are not a recent patch being sewn onto the United States of America, the reality is we are an essential thread woven into the very fabric of America, and those stories haven’t been told very well.”

The proposals have failed to receive floor votes in either chamber, but the museum initiative has garnered renewed support since the National Museum of African American History and Culture opened with much fanfare and enthusiasm in September 2016. A year later, tickets remain the most sought-after passes in Washington. Latino American museum enthusiasts believe their building would draw similar large crowds.

“We see the numbers … 56, 57 million people of Hispanic origin in this country. Seventeen percent of the population,” Vargas says. “(A museum) just makes sense.”

But not everyone agrees. Mike Gonzalez, a senior fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington, wrote an opinion piece for The Washington Postlast year titled, “We don’t need a national Latino Museum.” He calls the ethnic designation “Hispanic” a “dubious social construct” to describe people from 23 separate countries with their own culture and history, and argues that the division contributes to social fragmentation.

“There is one culture that is uniquely American, and it’s characterized by self-determination, a strong attachment to work and a love of freedom … these values are the reason my parents came here, and they should be celebrated as American values,” adds Gonzalez, whose parents immigrated from Cuba.

Vargas, whose mother immigrated from Puerto Rico, agrees in that he shares those values, but he encourages putting them on display to inspire younger generations of Latinos.

“This is by all means a red, white and blue initiative,” he says. “Imagine the young girl who walks through the doors and learns the stories of those who have gone before her. She leaves proud of her Hispanic heritage and her American heritage and she wants to be a part of that success.”