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'Historic moment': Congress passes legislation to create national Latino museum

"We have overcome tremendous obstacles and unbelievable hurdles to get to this historic moment," said Sen. Bob Menendez, who co-sponsored the measure.
Image: Senate Meets To Vote On Cloture For NDAA
The Capitol on Dec. 11, 2020, in Washington.Stefani Reynolds / Getty Images

Congress approved legislation Monday to start the process of creating a national Latino museum as part of a $900 billion must-pass Covid-19 relief spending bill that President Donald Trump is likely to sign.

"We have overcome tremendous obstacles and unbelievable hurdles to get to this historic moment, but as I've said before, Latinos are used to overcoming obstacles," said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who co-sponsored the bipartisan legislation to create the National Museum of the American Latino with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

“Latinos have contributed significantly to the success of the United States while overcoming systemic discrimination," said Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. "Now, our stories will have a new home with a Latino Museum on the National Mall."

With approval from the House and the Senate, the spending bill now goes to Trump, who would have to veto the bill — which includes pandemic relief for many sectors of the public and would avoid a government shutdown — to halt the museum's establishment.

"As a first-generation Cuban American, I know what it's like to feel invisible in a nation where Latinos are seldom celebrated," said Menendez. "I am enormously proud of my role in getting this legislation over the finish line and cannot wait until the day when I can take my granddaughters to visit the National Museum of the American Latino in our nation's capital."

The U.S. is home to about 60 million Latinos, 18.5 percent of the U.S. population. They are the country's second-largest ethnic minority group. A 1994 Smithsonian report found a pattern of "willful neglect" about U.S. Latinos' history and their contributions.

Lawmakers added the National Museum of the American Latino Act to the spending bill after Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, blocked a scheduled voice vote on the museum and on a bill to establish a women's history museum. Lee said of the Latino museum that the nation was creating "an array of segregated separate but equal museums for hyphenated identity groups."

Supporters have spent decades trying to get congressional approval for the Latino museum.

"Today's passage of the Latino Museum Act is a long-overdue victory for all Americans, one that my friend and fellow New Yorker Congressman José Serrano began fighting for over 20 years ago," Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement.

Serrano, D-N.Y., who has served in Congress since 1990, announced last year that he had been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease and would not seek re-election. CHC chair Castro said the legislation was a "testament" to Serrano's efforts after 46 years in public service.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture, established in 2003, was the last Smithsonian museum approved by Congress. The National Museum of the American Indian was established in 1989.

Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif., a co-sponsor of the museum bill, said the legislation would establish a Board of Trustees to help guide the Smithsonian’s creation of the museum, and would also authorize a 50 percent federal match to privately raised dollars for design and construction costs. "We need a Latino Museum not only for its symbolic significance but, more importantly, for its educational purpose," said Cárdenas.

The bill includes language agreeing not to portray a single political ideology in exhibits and artifacts to reflect the diversity of the Latino experience.

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