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Push for a national Latino museum takes step forward at Senate hearing

"These museums are for all of us," said Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., "to help us understand what it means to be American."

No story in American history doesn't include American Latinos, and adding a museum that tells their stories to the Smithsonian franchise would "send a message we belong," actress, activist and philanthropist Eva Longoria told a Senate committee Tuesday.

Longoria testified before the Rules and Administration Committee, which was considering bills to establish a museum dedicated to American Latinos and another dedicated to women's history.

No action was taken on the bills. With the end of this congressional session nearing, options for advancement of the bills are limited. There is a hope that the Senate will take up the House version of The National Museum of the American Latino Act and consider its passage by unanimous consent, which is used for noncontroversial legislation.

The House approved its version of legislation, which was bipartisan, to create a national Latino museum on a voice vote in July.

Interior concept art of the National Latino Museum.Christopher Paul

Longoria told the panel that history textbooks, national monuments and the country's celebrated statues reflect the Founding Fathers — they are white and male and leave out other extraordinary Americans responsible for scientific breakthroughs, military feats, civil rights accomplishments, artistic achievements and landmark legislation.

"When you don't have representation in the official record, these contributions are effectively erased," said Longoria, who also advocated for the women's museum.

By leaving that unaddressed as tens of millions of people visit the Smithsonian museums every year, "we maintain the status quo in which women and Latinos are left out of our collective perception of American history," Longoria said, "relegated as sidekicks to white male heroes."

In an opinion article Sunday in The New York Times, former Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., and Ken Salazar, a Democratic former senator from Colorado and former interior secretary, wrote: "When we don't have a full picture of our history, we lose sight of our nation's identity."

The Smithsonian, established in 1846, operates 19 museums and galleries, as well as the National Zoo. The last Smithsonian museum to be built was the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016, 13 years after Congress passed legislation establishing it and decades after efforts began for such a museum.

'Nearly unanimous support'

Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said the Latino museum bill has nearly unanimous support from Senate Democrats and six Republican co-sponsors, "an accomplishment that seems barely achievable in today's hyperpartisan climate."

The first bill to create the commission to study creating a national museum of American Latinos was introduced in 2004 by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, Menendez noted.

"Now is the time for Congress to finish what it started almost two decades ago," he said.

The U.S. is home to about 60 million Latinos, 18.5 percent of the U.S. population.

Danny Vargas, chairman of the board of Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino, said that Hispanics are a complex and diverse group of people who are Afro-Latinos, Asian Latinos, blond-haired and blue-eyed, mulattos and mestizo and "everything in between."

Latinos are projected to become 30 percent of the population by 2060.

'An essential thread' of the American fabric

"Contrary to what some might believe, Latinos are not a recent patch being sewn on to the tapestry of America. We are an essential thread woven into the very fabric of America," Vargas said.

In Tuesday's hearing a few of the senators seemed to be aware of the optics of taking up museum bills during the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 200,000 people and infected more than 11 million in the country while forcing others out of work and to struggle economically.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., acknowledged that "we have much to do," including pandemic relief, but she said that during the Depression, one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's main programs was a public art agency, the Works Progress Administration.

"As you mentioned, these museums will take years to build, but I actually think now is a good time to get this started and get this passed," Klobuchar said.

She added later that when families come to Washington and visit the museums, they think they are seeing the complete representation of the nation's history. "Unfortunately, that isn't always the case," she said.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a co-sponsor of the Latino museum bill, said he hoped the bill can soon get to the Senate floor so it could be sent to President Donald Trump for his signature.

Some witnesses and senators participated virtually, while others were in the committee room.

The Smithsonian issued a report in 1994 about the lack of representation of Latinos and their contributions to the country, and in 1999 President Bill Clinton signed an executive order to consider whether a women's museum should be established, Klobuchar said.

There have been arguments that the Smithsonian's backlog of repairs and other needs should be met before another museum is created, but Menendez said that's an excuse made in the past.

Lonnie Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian, who was the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, said that while creating a new museum is challenging, the Smithsonian has "the skill, experience and expertise to do it right."

"Allocating resources between existing needs and new projects will always create tension," Bunch said. He said providing resources for both is important.

The estimated cost of the museum is $700 million. While the federal government provides part of the funding for museums, they also are paid for with private contributions. Menendez said his bill has a 50-50 cost-sharing model.

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., who made history as the first Latina elected to the Senate, said the museums aren't for one group of people — the women's museum isn't just for women, and the Latino museum isn't just for Latinos.

"These museums are for all of us," Cortez Masto said, "to help us understand what it means to be American."

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