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A law cleared the way for a national Latino museum. What happens now?

The "real work" begins in 2021, say the museum's proponents, in a process that will entail years of fundraising, finding a site and then building.
Image: The U.S. Capitol dome on Capitol Hill in Washington.
Congress approved legislation to start the process of creating a national Latino museum in Washington, D.C. as part of the Smithsonian Institution. Jim Bourg / Reuters file

The push for a national Latino museum was decades in the making, but a recent law making it a reality just jumpstarted what will be a lengthy — and costly — process.

The next steps for building a Latino museum as part of the Smithsonian Institution are being taken in the midst of a pandemic, which could affect spending as well as planning that largely has to be done virtually.

“We have gotten to the first plateau of a mountain. We’ve taken the first steps in this movement, but the real work begins now in 2021,” said businessman and activist Henry Muñoz, who has been a leader in bringing about the museum through the Friends of the Museum of the American Latino.

Congress authorized $20 million this fiscal year for planning the museum as part of the law, but it hasn't actually allocated any of that money yet. That has forced the Smithsonian to use their own resources for now.

The museum is expected to cost between $600 to 800 million; half of the funding will come from Congress and the other half from private fundraising. Museum supporters say they’ll have to raise about $350 million to $400 million.

In the meantime, the Smithsonian is going forward. It has made Eduardo Díaz, now director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, the interim director of the museum, to be called the National Museum of the American Latino. He’ll hold that position while the museum’s board is being assembled. A search for a permanent director should be happening soon, Díaz said.

Díaz told NBC News that the Smithsonian will use funds on hand or that can be reallocated to get started.

"We'll go ahead and do that, but Congress is going to have to appropriate later as we move forward," he said. The Congress also established a women's history museum that will need funding.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus chose Rep. Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif., as its representative of the 19-member board. Cárdenas brings his fundraising background, having raised nearly $34 million in six years for Bold PAC, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ political committee, raising Latino political influence with contributions from the PAC to candidates of different backgrounds.

Latinos are an estimated 18.5 percent of the U.S. population and their buying power is about $2 trillion a year, Cárdenas said.

“There’s a lot of amazing corporations across America that love Latinos to spend their money. It’s great synergy for them to show that love back to the Latino community,” Cárdenas said.

Who''ll be involved?

The law creating the museum dictates who serves in six of the board's 19 seats, with Cárdenas filling one of those seats. The board has to be filled within the first six months of this year. The trustees' responsibilities will include curating, buying and selling exhibits and fundraising.

A Republican counterpart to Cárdenas has yet to be named by the Congressional Hispanic Conference, made up of GOP Latinos in Congress, also required by the law. Smithsonian Institute Secretary Lonnie Bunch III will hold a position.

The other mandated spots go to the Smithsonian's undersecretary of museums and research, the chair of the Smithsonian National Latino Board and one member of the board of regents. Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif., was made a regent in 2019.

The remaining 13 members will be recommended by organizations and entities that are "committed to the advancement of knowledge of Latino life, art, history, and culture."

The Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino will send in recommendations, said Estuardo Rodriguez, the group's president and CEO. The group has a number of high-profile members including actor Eva Longoria. It recently named actor John Leguizamo, creator of the one-man Broadway show "Latin History for Morons," to the group's board.

"We want to start strong with the team of people who either have access to the funding that will be necessary or have access to the network that it will take to raise that level of money," Rodriguez said.

The law says the board must be politically and geographically diverse, reflecting states and territories with a significant Latino population. Members will be recommended by the board of trustees and by organizations and entities.

Where will it be?

Finding a site for the museum is a priority, and museum supporters are pushing for the National Mall. A site has to be designated by Dec. 27, 2024.

The legislation specifies four possible sites: the Arts and Industries Building; a spot across from the Capitol Reflecting Pool on the Senate side; a space near the Washington Monument across from the National Museum of African American History and Culture; and the Department of Agriculture administration building.

Each site has its challenges, including language in the law requested by Sen. Lisa Murkowsky, R-Alaska, that prohibits use of an area called The Reserve, in the green space across from the African American museum. Congressional language will be required to use that space.

Muñoz said the work ahead is helped by President Joe Biden's having included creating the museum in his Latino agenda during the campaign.

In the meantime, a Smithsonian Latino Center

While waiting for the law establishing the museum to pass, the Smithsonian created the Latino Center to add Latino collections, curators and exhibitions in its other museums. The center's work has helped identify storylines and collections that should be part of the national museum's narrative, Muñoz said.

Díaz has been directing that work, which has included such things as trying to attract Latino scholars to astrophysics and astronomy through work with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory.

Next year, the center plans to open the Molina Family Latino Gallery at the National Museum of American History, which will help establish a physical presence of Latinos on the National Mall, Díaz said.

“We’ve built up this cadre of very talented, mostly Latinas in these important curatorial positions around the institution, so you know we’ve got a nice infrastructure already from which to build,” Díaz said. “We are going to continue on with young pathway programs to bring young Latinos and Latinas who are interested in the museum field into the museum and the Smithsonian.”

The opening of the national Latino museum could take about eight to 12 years.

Still, the push for the museum is rooted in what proponents see as a real gap in the nation's historical record.

“In the current (Smithsonian) system, as vast and well-funded as it is, with its millions and millions of square feet of amazing works that are there, again, we are invisible,” Cárdenas said.

Cárdenas, who has an engineering degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said his high school counselor had tried to steer him to shop classes to become a mechanic when he told her he wanted to be an engineer. Failure to see Latinos beyond stereotypes, Cárdenas said, is still happening to Latino kids.

When these things don't get corrected, "they don’t get solved," he said.

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