News ID: 273748
Published: 0804 GMT September 05, 2020

American Latino museum awaits US Senate review

American Latino museum awaits US Senate review
William Henry Powell’s Discovery of the Mississippi by De Soto (1853)

Although integral to the economy, represented on the Supreme Court and a vibrant force in American culture, the nearly 60 million-strong Latino population in the US is often overlooked in the narrative presented in the nation’s museums, many argue.

The Latino presence in America dates to well before the arrival of British settlers, stretching back over 500 years, and it is expected that Latinos will make up as much as a third of the US population by 2060, up from nearly a fifth today. But exhibition programming highlighting their contributions has been woefully deficient, lawmakers and scholars say, ignoring that they are active participants in every walk of life as artists, veterans, athletes, jurists, business leaders, scientists, doctors and service workers, reported.

The US House of Representatives has taken a major step towards rectifying that imbalance, moving in a voice vote on 27 July to create a National Museum of the American Latino that would rise on the National Mall under the umbrella of the Smithsonian Institution. Now a companion bill awaits action in the US Senate when it reconvenes this month.

The House bill, introduced last year by Democratic Representative José E. Serrano of New York, drew 295 co-sponsors and broad bipartisan support in the 435-seat Democratic-majority chamber. Advocates are now lobbying to muster backing in the 100-seat Senate, where 51 votes are needed for passage and 43 co-sponsors have been enlisted so far, according to Estuardo Rodriguez, the president and chief executive of the nonprofit Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino.

“Sixty-seven is a magic number for us,” he says, referring to the co-sponsors his organization hopes to recruit. Bipartisan support will again be crucial: The measure was introduced by a New Jersey Democrat, Robert Menendez, and the Senate has a 53-member Republican majority. Rodriguez says he hopes momentum will build in anticipation of the start of Hispanic Heritage Month on September 15.


Hispanic heritage

The consensus that Latinos are underrepresented in museum programming dates back to at least 1994, when a Smithsonian task force issued a report stating the institution displayed a pattern of “willful neglect” and “almost entirely excludes and ignores Latinos in nearly every aspect of its operations”. The legislative push to establish a fully-fledged museum began in 2003 but then faltered.

Lawmakers approved a bill to create a commission to study the possibility in 2008, and the panel issued an in-depth report in 2011. Subsequent legislation to create the museum never won passage, but lawmakers revived the campaign with the introduction of the House and Senate bills last year.

If the Senate passes the bill and it is signed by President Donald Trump, a board of trustees for the museum will quickly be formed and fundraising will begin in earnest, says Danny Vargas, the chairman of the Friends’ board. He says that four sites are currently under consideration on the National Mall.

The legislation calls for the new museum to forge a narrative illuminating the contributions of Latinos to US history and culture by forming a collection, organizing exhibitions and events, and championing research and publications while collaborating with other museums and cultural centers across the country. “There is such a need to tell the Latino story,” says Rodriguez. “The media, Hollywood, politicians – everyone presents their version of who the Latino American community is. An accurate narrative is vital for every American.”

A fuller accounting could also help counter prejudice in an era when even the nation’s president has railed against Hispanic immigrants.

Rodriguez notes the recent one-year anniversary of a mass shooting by a Texas man who targeted Hispanic shoppers at a Walmart store in El Paso, killing 23. “That man was driven by not just hatred but also an inaccurate understanding of our history,” he argues. “The fact that he believed there was an invasion [of immigrants] happening showed he had no understanding of that region of our country, the Mexican American footprint, and how it has always been, dating back hundreds of years.”

Campaigners estimate that $700m would be needed to establish and construct the museum, hire its staff and create its initial programming. The legislation calls for half the funds to be provided by Congress and half by donors.

“If Congress were to pass legislation, and if the president were to sign the bill, we would embrace a museum dedicated to Latino art, history, culture and scientific accomplishments,” the Smithsonian said in a statement.

The museum could also illuminate the role of Latinos in the Civil War and the Second World War, says Professor Stephen Pitti, who is a historian of Latino communities in the US. Also critical, he adds, are Latino migration stories, shedding light on how religious, culinary and other cultural practices changed as people moved from their original home countries to New York or Arizona or California, and in some cases later moved back.

It will be a major challenge to incorporate the many ethnicities involved, Pitti notes. “But it’s the same challenge most big ambitious museums face in the 21st century.”



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