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Effort to Create American Latino Museum on National Mall Gets Push in Bipartisan Bill

Sen. Robert Menéndez and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen introduced a bill Thursday to move forward on the building of a Latino museum on the National Mall.
Image: FILE PHOTO: The dome of the U.S. Capitol is seen in Washington
File photo of the dome of the U.S. Capitol.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

While Washington has been focusing on a number of other issues, supporters of a Latino Smithsonian museum have been quietly working behind the scenes, pushing Congress to vote this year on legislation to move the project forward.

Several lawmakers, including Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and Sen. Robert Menéndez, D-N.J., introduced a bill Thursday to create a National Museum of the American Latino on the National Mall. The bill also starts the process of securing a location near the Smithsonian’s other iconic museums, including the National Museum of the American Indian, and the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

While legislation to create a national Latino museum has been introduced in the past, the bills have stalled in Congress. But supporters say they feel confident this is their year.

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“We have a unique opportunity here. We have a Congress that wants to move forward with positive projects,” said Danny Vargas, chairman of the Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino.

“The way we are presenting this to Congress is that this is a way to highlight and celebrate American history. We have in the White House a president who is interested in building up the nation’s infrastructure and this could be seen as an infrastructure project," said Vargas, a communications strategist who recently ran for office in Virginia on the Republican ticket.

"There’s an opportunity here to talk about how an American Latino museum would be an exceptional patriotic infrastructure initiative that would benefit all Americans and all visitors to America,” Vargas told NBC Latino.

A 1994 report by 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. The idea to create a museum focusing on Hispanics had been floated about for some time, but gained momentum after the task force report.

First started by Ros-Lehtinen and then-Rep. Xavier Becerra D-Calif., in 2003, the Latino museum project has enjoyed some bipartisan support and is backed by a bevy of stars in the Latino community, including actors Eva Longoria and Diane Guerrero, of "Orange is the New Black" and "Jane the Virgin" fame.

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A recent fundraiser held in New York City was very successful, said Vargas, who added they are hope raise $10 million over the next two years and show legislators that this is a viable project, and an important one for the Latino community and the country as a whole.

“The current portfolio of museums feels like they’re missing a page from our history books, such as the contributions Latinos have made to the country. Those are not being adequately told. Just like we have the African American museum and the American Indian museum, it’s important to talk about the country’s largest ethnic group," said Vargas. "Latinos have a long history, and it has not sufficiently penetrated into the psyche of America how vital the contributions of Latinos have been. And this is a story for the benefit of everyone, Latinos and non-Latinos alike. This is about an effort to better know American history.”

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