The long walk to a national Latino museum


On a recent trip to Washington, DC, I visited the new Molina Family Latino Gallery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. It opened to the public in June and its first exhibition, “¡Presente! attempts to fit hundreds of years of Latin history in the United States—a narrative spanning from Spanish colonization to the present day—into a single forty-five-hundred-square-foot piece. The exhibit opens with a ceremonial dance dress, handmade by descendants of the Genízaro people, who were enslaved by the Spanish and other tribes in what is now New Mexico, and concludes with an interactive first-person oral history of a dozen prominent Latinx. personalities, including Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Maria Hinojosa. In between, hundreds of objects, photographs, paintings, and prints primarily depict Mexican-American, Cuban-American, and Puerto Rican history and culture. (These are the largest and richest groups; future exhibitions will focus on others.) At the threshold of the gallery there are touch screens where visitors can scroll through information on topics such as this which differentiates the terms “Hispanic,” “Latino,” and “Latinx”; the cultural and socio-economic demographics of various communities; and Latinx voter polling data.

The first section deals with colonization, focusing on the resistance of indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans. Among the striking exhibits are a ceramic bust of Po’Pay, the leader of the Pueblo revolt, in 1680, by Cochiti Pueblo artist Virgil Ortiz, and an illustration of a black man breaking a chain with his clenched fist, produced by Puerto Rican artist Augusto Marín to commemorate the centenary of the abolition of slavery on the island, in 1873. The next section focuses on the independence of Texas and the Mexican-American and Spanish-American wars. The objective here is to show how American expansionism “impacted the history of the oldest Latin American communities”. In an animated video, a man is seen walking, above the caption: ‘We didn’t cross the border. The border crossed us” – a well-known reference to the Mexican population which found itself, as territories were conquered and annexed, in Texas, California, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming. This section also examines the American colonization of Puerto Rico, which began after the Spanish-American War, and the independence movement led by Pedro Albizu Campos. “These historic legacies of slavery, colonization, and warfare continue to shape the history of the United States and Latinos today,” read one description.

After the conquest comes the migration, with a collection of personal objects and stories of people who arrived to flee wars or political regimes, such as Cubans, Nicaraguans and Salvadorans; or who came looking for work and opportunities, as in the case of Dominicans, Mexicans, Peruvians and Venezuelans; or who have just become part of the country, if not full citizens – Puerto Ricans. A final section, on contributions to society and culture, highlights the work of Latinx activists in the national struggle for civil and social rights.

My favorite piece from the exhibition is the one commissioned for her, “The Tree of Life” (“El Árbol de la Vida”), a fifty-three inch high clay sculpture by artist Verónica Castillo , based in San Antonio. Castillo comes from a family of Pueblan artists who have been carving trees of life for three generations. This tree stands on a painted dome base and its branches curl over its trunk in a pretzel-like pattern. Flowers, animals and figurines populate the tree: a butterfly representing the Dreamers and an eagle for the United Farm Workers; a woman holding a megaphone, another with a poster that says “Huelga(“The Strike”); and figurines of farmworker leaders Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, and Emma Tenayuca, who organized a famous strike of pecan shellers in Texas in the 1930s, among others. there’s a small clay poster of the Young Lords, the social justice organization created in Chicago by former Puerto Rican street gang members in the 1960s, hanging from a branch, and another with a Black Power fist and the name of Carlos Cooks, a Dominican immigrant who was a key member of Marcus Garvey’s black nationalist movement in the 1940s.

The tree poetically depicts the ongoing story of the lucha, the struggle for civil rights and recognition. The theme matches not only the history of the Latinx population, but that of the exhibit itself – of how it was housed in what is a repurposed storage room on the first floor of the museum. In fact, the show is a placeholder for a much larger and more comprehensive project, the first Smithsonian National Museum of the Latin American, whose plans were approved in December 2020, after thirty years of effort. But it was the struggle for civil rights, and the academic and political debates that accompanied it, that initially led to a rethinking of how American history had been presented to American audiences. One of the conclusions of these debates was that the Smithsonian Institution – the state-funded museum which was established by the government in 1846 (with a bequest from British scientist James Smithson), and which is now the largest complex in museums, education and research world – had underrepresented, and in many cases ignored, the role of communities of color.

A dress by Venezuelan designer Carolina Herrera.Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History

A bomba dance outfit.Photo courtesy of the National Museum of American History

First came the discovery, during the 1980s, that the Smithsonian held the remains of thousands of Native Americans as part of its collections, and this led to legislation, in 1989, calling for the creation of a museum. American Indian National Museum, which opened in 2004. In 1991, an effort was launched to address the representation of Black Americans at the Smithsonian, which led to the creation of the National Museum of History and African-American culture, which President Barack Obama inaugurated in 2016. In 1993, the Smithsonian appointed a task force on Latin American issues which, a year later, published a report entitled “Willful Neglect”, which revealed that Latinx people have “significantly contributed to every phase and aspect of American history and culture”, and “yet the institution almost entirely excludes and ignores Latinos in almost every aspect of its operations. Between other measures, the ra pport recommended the creation of “one or more museums depicting the historical, cultural, and artistic achievements of American Hispanics.” About twenty-five million Latinx lived in the country then, representing about nine percent of the total population. They were underrepresented not only in museums and history textbooks; in 1996, the association NALEO (National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed) The Education Fund had only 3,783 Latinx elected officials nationwide.

This lack of weight at the national level has resulted in very slow stages. First, the Smithsonian appointed a Latinx adviser to the secretary (as the head of the institution is known), Miguel Bretos, who worked with a task force, to release a plan titled “Towards a Shared Vision” , in 1997. He argued that the Latinx presence should not be concentrated in one part of the Smithsonian but be scattered throughout its museums. As a result, a Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiatives was created. (It was later renamed the Smithsonian Latino Center.) In 2003, a decade after the task force was appointed, Xavier Becerra — who is now President Biden’s health and human services secretary, but at the time was a member of the California Congress – pushed for a bill to create a commission to study the potential creation of a national Latino American museum. It was approved five years later. At that time, there were approximately fifty million Latinx in the country, twice as many as at the time of the “Willful Neglect” report, or seventeen percent of the population. Latinx elected officials had risen to 5,475, an increase of nearly fifty percent from 1996.

A few years passed before the commission submitted a report calling, once again, for the creation of a museum. Henry Muñoz III, a San Antonio designer, businessman, and activist (and son of two prominent labor and civil rights organizers) who chaired the commission, told me that as part of that effort, in 2009, the Latino Center digitized exhibits to create a “virtual museum without the walls of a museum” that was shared across the country, in partnership with community centers. (In 2013, Obama appointed Muñoz as National Finance Chairman of the Democratic National Committee; he now chairs the new museum’s board of trustees.)

Finally, in December 2020, the report’s proposal for a museum was added to the $2.3 trillion omnibus spending package, which passed Congress with bipartisan support. Thus, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Latino was officially created under the presidency of Donald Trump. (The same bill created a Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum.) Victory was only possible because of “the growth in power and influence of the groups that led it,” Jorge told me. Zamanillo, founding director of the museum. The Latin population now represents almost twenty percent of the country, with more than sixty-two million people. Their political representation is still disappointing, but has reached 6,883 elected officials.

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