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National Museum of the American Latino Clears First of Many Hurdles

House approval in July is first time a bill for a separate building has received a vote

Ideas for the Molina Family Latino Gallery that will be in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History starting in 2022.

Smithsonian Latino Center

The Molina Family Latino Gallery that will be inside the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History starting in 2022 is in the planning stages.

En español | Supporters of a museum on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., that focuses on one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in the United States are hoping to use the momentum of a congressional vote and commemorations around Hispanic Heritage Month to bring it to the finish line.

A national museum that would be part of the Smithsonian and centering on the country's 60.6 million Hispanics — and the 3.2 million Hispanic residents of U.S. territory Puerto Rico — has been in the works for several years, largely in fits and starts. A 1994 report from the Smithsonian Institution Task Force on Latinos concluded that the Smithsonian, the largest museum complex in the world, displayed a “pattern of willful neglect” toward the Latino population in the United States. A direct result of that report was the creation of the Smithsonian Latino Center, which helps design exhibits within existing museums.

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The idea to create a museum focusing on Hispanics, who surpassed Blacks to become the nation's largest minority group in 2003, had been floated for some time but gained momentum after that task force report. Legislation was introduced, including a bipartisan effort by then-Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), but it went nowhere.

Senate bill at a standstill

"For many years, many Americans — Latino and otherwise — believed that the mosaic portrayed in Washington's museums was missing a few tiles,” Becerra, now California's attorney general, told a House committee in 2004.

A commission was created 12 years ago to look into establishing a museum, and supporters continued to push for the idea, including having several fundraisers and enlisting the aid of prominent Hispanics such as artists Rita Moreno and Chita Rivera. The effort gained steam in July when the House approved by voice vote a bill sponsored by Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), himself a native of Puerto Rico.

Where would a Latino museum be located?

HR 2420, the bill passed July 27 to create a National Museum of the American Latino, suggests four sites on or near the National Mall for consideration:

• The Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building, which went through several years of renovations starting in 2009

• A vacant area north of the Capitol Reflecting Pool that is crisscrossed with sidewalks and bike paths.

• Another vacant area southeast of the Washington Monument also crisscrossed with sidewalks

• The U.S. Department of Agriculture main administration building in the next two blocks east

A similar bill in the U.S. Senate, introduced last year, has not been scheduled for a vote. Any legislation that doesn't pass this year would have to be reintroduced in the new congressional session in January. For supporters, that just means a greater push now to get it done.

"At the time the bill passed [in the House], there were 29 cosponsors in the Senate. Now there are 45,” says Danny Vargas, chairman of the Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino. Yvette Peña, AARP's vice president of multicultural leadership, is a board member.

Vargas, who leads the nonprofit that is working to create a national Latino museum in the nation's capital, argues that even with everything else going on — the coronavirus pandemic, the elections, demonstrations — a Senate vote on the museum is the right thing to do now.

"Latinos represent a disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases and a disproportionate number of essential workers that are keeping our food supply going, that are mending our wounds and taking care of our sick. At the same time that we have the social justice upheaval that's going on in the country, the Latino community is impacted by all that,” he says. “The Latino museum is not a side issue. It is interlinked with everything that's going on.

"The Latino community has had a major role in every aspect of our society. Most of the Latino history has gone unreported and unrecognized in our textbooks and not displayed in our museums,” Vargas says.

Latinos’ political diversity part of appeal

One point that supporters consider key to making this bill more viable than previous versions is a requirement for a diversity of political viewpoints. From the text of the bill:

In carrying out its duties, the Board of Trustees shall ensure that the exhibits and programs of the museum reflect the diversity of the political viewpoints held by Latinos of the United States on the events and issues relating to the history of Latinos in the United States.

The legislation also requires the museum's board of trustees to be politically and geographically diverse.

"Never in its history has the Smithsonian been required to ensure that there was a representation of the variety of points of view in a particular community. That has been a bone of contention among conservatives with other museums,” Vargas says. “It'll help from a political partisan standpoint, but it would also help out the museum."

But even if the Senate were to approve a museum today, its reality is still years away. Discussions around a national museum for African Americans, which opened as the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016, began in 1915 with Civil War veterans, and plans for a museum honoring Native Americans — the National Museum of the American Indian opened in 2004 — also date that far back, including the Heye Foundation's museum in New York City founded in 1916 that became part of the Smithsonian in 1989. Proponents of a national museum commemorating Asian Americans, the country's fastest-growing racial group, also have introduced a bill, but that effort has been stalled for more than a year.

Spectators looking at a museum exhibit for the Molina Family Latino Gallery

Smithsonian Latino Center

Supporters of a Museum of the American Latino hope that the Smithsonian's Molina Family Latino Gallery, opening in 2022, will spur a desire among visitors to the National Museum of American History to see more.

Blueprint from museum pioneers

Supporters of the Latino museum say they look at what the African American and Native American communities have done to help in their lobbying efforts.

"There's already a template [of what to do], and we hope that cuts down on the time frame,” Vargas says. In 2022, the National Museum of American History will host a nearly 5,000-square-foot bilingual exhibition of Latino art and culture, an endeavor that supporters call a taste of what's to come in a fully functional Latino museum. “It's like the appetizer before a 10-course meal."

As with the African American museum, the legislation establishing a Latino museum would create a public-private partnership with the federal government kicking in 50 percent of the museum's costs and the other half being raised privately. The bill proposes four possible sites for the museum around the National Mall, including a building that is already a Smithsonian property and a facility under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Wherever it is, it will be grand, Vargas says.

"Five hundred years [of history from] 24 different countries of origin — it'll be complex and multidimensional,” he says. “It'll be one of the most fascinating, eye-opening, inspiring history lessons that plays out on the National Mall. It's the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do and it's the right time to make this happen.”

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