House holds its first hearing on a Smithsonian Latino museum

"The best gift we can give others is empowerment, and a museum is a visual reminder of that gift," Mari Carmen Aponte, the former acting assistant secretary of state, said.
Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez speaks out in favor of the creation of the National Museum of the American Latino on Capitol Hill on Oct. 17, 2019.
Rep. Jenniffer Gonzalez speaks out in favor of the creation of the National Museum of the American Latino on Capitol Hill on Oct. 17, 2019.@RepJenniffer / via Twitter

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By Nicole Acevedo

The first congressional hearing on the establishment of a Smithsonian National Museum of the American Latino took place Thursday, with some supporters reiterating that "Latino history is American history" and legislators saying the step is long overdue to create a truer story of America.

“For over 500 years, Latinos have played an important role in shaping the history, culture and art of this nation,” said Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., who kicked off the hearing of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands.

“Although Latinos represent the largest ethnic group in the nation, their innumerable contributions are often ignored by our history books and many stories of our country's rich and diverse heritage remain untold or forgotten over time,” Haaland said. “This bill represents us with an important opportunity to create a more inclusive and representative story of America.”

Rep. José Serrano, D-N.Y., introduced a bill back in May to change that.

The National Museum of the American Latino Act seeks to secure a location near other iconic Smithsonian museums, such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian, while fundraising efforts continue.

The bill has more than 200 bipartisan co-sponsors, including Reps. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif., Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., and Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., Darren Soto, D-Fla., in addition to Jenniffer González, Puerto Rico's resident commissioner in Washington, D.C., and a nonvoting member of Congress. A bipartisan Senate companion bill was co-sponsored by Sens. Bob Menéndez, D-N.J., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Catherine Cortez-Masto, D-Nev., among others.

Speakers at the hearing included labor leader and civil rights icon Dolores Huerta, as well as Mari Carmen Aponte, a former acting assistant secretary of state of Western hemisphere affairs and a former ambassador.

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Aponte reminded lawmakers that the historic hearing is the product of 25 years of efforts from civil rights activists and scholars, as well as historians and advocates, raising concerns over “the egregious absence of exhibits, stories, films and displays of the 500 years of U.S. Latino history throughout the halls of the Smithsonian Institution.”

Yale historian Stephen Pitti told members of Congress that he was there to underscore "that Latino history is American history, and that any serious attempt to document and interpret this continent’s history over the past five hundred years requires serious engagement with Latino experiences."

Latinos have long pointed to the presence of Spanish, Latin American and Caribbean settlers whose roots in the United States predate some of the American states, as well as families whose roots go back centuries.

Aponte said that recently, there have been milestones to celebrate: the ascendance of Justice Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court, the first Latina astronaut Ellen Ochoa taking the helm of NASA’s Johnson Space Center and Alex Cora of the Boston Red Sox as the first Puerto Rican MLB team manager to not only head a team but also to lead it to a World Series championship.

“These are truly historic times we are witnessing,” Aponte said, adding that a historic number of Latinos have been elected to Congress, “and most recently, a Latino candidate is running for president of the United States.”

“Unfortunately, what we have not seen in these 25 years is the creation of a Smithsonian National American Latino Museum which could host all of these amazing stories,” she said. "The best gift we can give others is empowerment, and a museum is a visual reminder of that gift."

During the hearing, Huerta stressed that having a Smithsonian museum is central to giving Latino history a permanent place in the nation's history.

"We have to erase ignorance from our country because it is very dangerous," Huerta told lawmakers. "This is something that would live on beyond you, beyond your time in Congress."

The Census Bureau estimates that about 58 million Latinos live in the country, making up 18 percent of the nation’s population. By 2060, Latinos are expected to make up about 30 percent of the U.S. population, according to the agency. In recent years, Latinos' growing economic, social and political clout has been more evident, according to the data firm Nielsen.

Eduardo Díaz, director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, said that a feasibility study is needed to determine how much money is exactly needed to finance the museum.

"It really depends where the museum it's going to be sited, if it's going to be new construction, it's going to be in an existing building, how big the museum will be — there are lots of considerations," he said.

The design and construction of the National Museum of African American History cost half a billion dollars, $250 million of which was appropriated by Congress, Díaz said to give an idea of how much money is needed.

Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, said that "the funding part of it is always the challenge."

After Young learned during the hearing that one-fifth of the nation's population is Latino, he suggested that "sending a letter to every Latino saying they'll get a lifetime pass for $200" could be an effective fundraiser for the museum's construction "because we can raise that private money and match it with the federal money."

So far, the National Museum of the American Latino Act proposes that the Smithsonian Institution should receive $20 million for fiscal year 2020, as well as $15 million to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, in order to establish the museum.

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