Bipartisan group, Netflix actress back bill for American Latino Museum

Rafael Bernal

The Hill

Jun 15, 2017

A bipartisan group of legislators introduced a bill Thursday advancing the idea of a Smithsonian National American Latino Museum on the National Mall.

The bill follows similar proposals in previous legislatures, with the key distinction being that it carves out a path for federal appropriations to partly fund the museum's creation.

"Smithsonian is a great enterprise, but it hasn't told the public the full story of America yet," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), one of the bill's top House sponsors.

Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.) is the bill's other main House sponsor, while Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) are taking the lead in the Senate.

Despite bipartisan support from high-level members, previous iterations of the bill have failed to get floor votes in either chamber. But the Smithsonian has considered a Latino museum in the past.

In 1993, an internal task force on Latino issues wrote a report panning the institution's museums for failing to recognize Hispanic contributions to American history.

That report set off serious consideration for the museum, although the Smithsonian's process to build new museums on the National Mall is notoriously slow.

The institution's newest addition, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, opened in 2016 but was first proposed in the 1920s and first got serious consideration in the 1970s.

The current proposal's backers say funding is key to speeding up the process.

The bill would authorize a 19-member board of trustees for the museum to work with the Smithsonian Institution's Board of Regents to find an appropriate venue and determine the use of future appropriations.

The proposal would allow the Board of Regents to assign public funding to the museum project, and to collect private donations for the effort.

"We are already in the process of negotiating with high net-worth donors, with a lot of corporations and individuals who care deeply about this effort, those discussions are ongoing. The challenge had been in the past not having a bill that we could turn to," said Danny Vargas, chairman of the board of directors of the Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino.

Vargas said the Smithsonian's experience securing private donations would also play a critical role in funding the project.

"There's a lot to be said for the efforts of the Smithsonian and what they've done to collect donors for the African-American museum as well," he said.

The potential museum's location has also been a point of contention in the past.

Its proponents insist it should have a location on the National Mall.

Under the bill proposed in the 114th Congress, the museum would have occupied the Arts and Industries Building, a recently renovated events venue near the Smithsonian castle that currently hosts no permanent exhibits.

But some criticized that building for being too small to fit a world-class museum, saying that the Latino Museum should have its own building for that purpose.

But few places on the Mall are still zoned for new construction, a problem the bill's proponents said would be best left to the Smithsonian Institution and the National Parks Service.

"Whether it's the Arts and Industries Building that we had initially talked about, whether it's the Senate side, or whether it's a couple of the other sides that we were talking about, we'll leave it up to the experts at the Smithsonian to go through those determinations," said Vargas.

Regardless of its location, the museum's proponents say the Smithsonian needs a Latino museum to tell the full history of the United States, and to provide an inspiration for American Latinos to succeed.

"We need to make this happen," said Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.). "Not only for the Latino community but for the sake of the United States of America."

The proposal also received support from actress Diane Guerrero, who plays a character on Netflix prison drama "Orange is the New Black."

"Latinos and Latinas have contributed to every aspect of the history of the United States," Guerrero said.

Guerrero, an activist for immigration and Hispanic issues, was born in New Jersey to undocumented Colombian parents who were deported when she was 14.

"We're really angry. Where's the Latino museum? Where's our history? Where can we go with our friends, with our family, to learn about our history?" said Guerrero.