How likely is a national Latino museum?
Professor Roberto Suro, director of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at the USC Price School of Public Policy, led a town hall discussion Dec. 6 at Lewis Hall about the possibility of creating a Smithsonian National Museum of the American Latino on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
Suro moderated a conversation featuring academics and museum experts, but the highlight of the event was an unscheduled appearance by Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.), the local congressman who is lead sponsor of the Smithsonian American Latino Museum Act.
“What’s in front of us is to show private and public support to move forward with the idea of a museum,” Becerra noted.
According to Suro, “Whether or not this museum happens, the discussion of what it could be, what it should be and what people think should be in it, is a really interesting conversation about the nature of Latino identity in the United States.
“Beyond that,” he added, “the museum itself is potentially a very important project that, at some future date, will have a big impact on the way American history is written and the way this population is viewed.”
Also participating in the discussion were Chon Noriega, director of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center; Evonne Gallardo, executive director of Self Help Graphics & Art; David Hayes-Bautista, director of the UCLA School of Medicine’s Center for the Study of Health and Culture; Pilar Tompkins Rivas, coordinator of cultural initiatives for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Moctesuma Esparza, CEO of Maya Cinemas North America; and Estuardo Rodriguez, executive director for Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino.
One aspect they all agreed on was that an American Latino museum should focus more on the working class than typical museums that feature items from the rich and powerful.
“I think we must bring a new sensibility, a new standard for what is important that is reflective of our particular history,” Esparza said. “Our journey has been one of working-class people. There are, of course, now people who are beginning to be successful, who are accumulating wealth, but even they at this moment are not more than a generation away from their working-class roots.”
Suro, who grew up in Washington, D.C., recalled visiting the Smithsonian with his father in 1961, going building to building and finding the experience incomplete because the museums didn’t properly convey his family’s history.
“We Latinos have stories that are not told, stories that beg to be told, with our own colors and our own voices,” he said.
The idea of having a Smithsonian museum to recognize the history and contributions of Latino-Americans on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., began nearly two decades ago. In 1994, the Smithsonian-appointed Task Force on Latino Issues published a report, which asserted that the institution, at that time, “almost entirely excludes and ignores the Latino population of the United States,” according to the document.
Becerra first proposed his legislation to reserve the Smithsonian Arts and Industries building for an American Latino Museum in 2003. The legislation languished for the rest of the decade, but is picking up steam with the increased stature of Latinos in the country. The Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, the oldest think tank on Latino issues in the United States, reported that Latinos now compromise the nation’s largest minority population and its fastest growing, with one-quarter of all Americans expected to be of Latino origin by 2050.
By law, no new structures can be constructed on the National Mall. Any future museum would have to use an existing structure, and the only vacancy at the moment is the former Arts and Industries building. There is much competition for the site, including proposed museums representing immigrants, women, children and innovation.
Rodriguez said he hopes Becerra’s bill will pass by the end of 2014. And if it does pass, there would then need to be an 18-month study to determine the costs and ways to convert the building, along with an initiative to secure funds for the project.