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National Latino museum bill takes big leap forward

“We’re almost at the final leg of the journey,” said Senator Bob Menéndez.
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A Senate committee advanced legislation on Thursday that would jumpstart the establishment of the long-awaited National Museum of the American Latino.

On a unanimous vote, the committee chose to send to the full Senate the House version of the bill, giving the museum proposal a chance of getting a final vote and landing on President Donald Trump's desk to sign into law.

“My only hope is that that leg of the journey can culminate successfully before the end of this year,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., the highest ranking Latino in Congress and co-sponsor of the bipartisan legislation, who spoke about the importance of the museum at an NBC News panel that aired on Thursday.

Estuardo Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Friends of the American Latino Museum who also participated in the panel, told NBC News following the committee vote that "it can be done quickly, and based on the level of bipartisan support, we're confident it can happen."

Proponents of the museum like Rodriguez have been advocating for its creation for over 16 years. The U.S. is home to about 60 million Latinos, 18.5 percent of the U.S. population. They are the second largest ethnic minority group in the country.

The Smithsonian operates 19 museums and galleries as well as the National Zoo, but none focuses on the contributions of Latinos in the U.S. The last of its museums to open was The National Museum of African American History and Culture, established by Congress in 2003 and open to the public in 2016.

In 1994, a report issued by a 15-member task force appointed to The Smithsonian Institution concluded they had done a poor job of promoting Hispanics and had largely ignored Latino contributions to American art, culture and science,

The 1994 report said the institution "displays a pattern of willful neglect toward the estimated 25 million Latinos in the United States."

A museum showing Latinos' political, cultural diversity

The House bill that the Senate committee advanced includes language that calls for a diversity of political thought and viewpoints in the museum's chronicling of the Latino experience.

"Voto Latino" founder and activist Maria Teresa Kumar, who moderated the panel discussion, asked the bill's co-sponsor, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, why this was important.

“We are a big diverse country. Not everybody thinks the same, as we know," said Sen. Cornyn. "But there are some things that bind us together and that is our appreciation for the contributions Latinos have made throughout our nations’ history.”

“The purpose of the museum is in part to reflect the diversity of the Latino population—Latinos are not monolithic," Cornyn added. "Many of them hail from different parts of the world."

Actress and activist Eva Longoria, who participated in the panel, said she was excited to be on the museum’s commission because it is bipartisan. Longoria noted she is a ninth generation Texan, and stressed the importance of having a record of Latinos' contributions throughout the nation's history.

“If you look at our history’s textbooks, or our national monuments, or our statues, they reflect only one kind of American hero and that hero is white and male," said Longoria. "There are so many extraordinary things that Latino Americans have been responsible for in the history of our country."

“When you don’t have that representation on the official record," Longoria said, "then those contributions are often erased. If Americans can’t recognize our past contributions, then America can’t respect our present significance."

This is particularly important as the nation educates the next generation, said Henry Muñoz III, co-founder of Momento Latino, a coalition of activists and artists. Muñoz helped spearhead the initial effort to create the institution as chairman of the Commission to study the Creation of the National Museum of the American Latino.

“Museums are tools to educate our young people. They are places where we go to create cultural understanding,” Muñoz said, adding it's about "American opportunity."

In 2003, community, business and congressional leaders began working with advocates like the non-profit Friends of the American Latino Museum, to push for its creation.

Decades later, museum supporters are hoping the Senate will pass the bipartisan bill on a voice vote, which usually happens with non-controversial legislation.

There are “hundreds of years of stories that need to be told," said Rodriguez. "And ultimately, what we’re trying to say is we’re not a patch on the American quilt. We are the thread that goes through the entire quilt.”

Having the National Latino Museum in the National Mall will ultimately “fill those pockets that are currently empty in our history books and in our story telling.”

"It is something," said Rodriguez, "that is long overdue."

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