A nation’s story will never be fully told if it excludes or minimizes the stories of all the people who make it a nation.
Throughout most of the history of the United States, the telling of the American story has been incomplete because the roles played by Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans were too often ignored. When they were acknowledged in textbooks, museums and popular culture, it was often done in dismissive, stereotypical fashion.
It’s telling that it hasn’t been until the 21st century that the Smithsonian, through Congress, built the National Museum of the American Indian, which opened in 2004, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened in 2016.
We may still be more than a decade from the opening of a similar museum honoring the long history and rich contributions of Latinos to the country, but we’re closer than ever thanks to delayed but welcome movement in Congress.
Last month, for the first time, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would establish a National Museum of the American Latino. It was done with bipartisan support by voice vote.
The next step would be passage of the version in the Senate, where the lead sponsor is Sen. John Cornyn of Texas. Cornyn should be commended for not only taking the lead on the Latino museum but also co-sponsoring legislation that would make Juneteenth a national holiday.
Like the Native American and African American museums, the Latino museum, when it becomes a brick-and-mortar reality, will have been preceded by years of advocacy, reports and planning, and a lot of fundraising. The time between passage of the bills that established these museums until the times they opened their doors was 15 and 13 years, respectively. The sooner the Senate passes Cornyn’s bill, the quicker we’ll see the new museum.
A 1994 report by a task force appointed by the Smithsonian accused the world-renowned museum complex of “willful neglect’ toward Latinos. It also said, “U.S. Hispanics are the only major contributor to American civilization still un-celebrated by any specific, systemic, permanent effort in this country’s major cultural institution.”
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A 2011 report by the National Museum of the American Latino Commission said there was a need for a new national museum in Washington, D.C., devoted to the preservation, presentation and interpretation of American Latino art, cultural expressions, and experiences; a museum that “illuminates the American story for the benefit of all.”
As it did with the African American museum, the government will fund half of the design and construction of the 310,000-square-foot building, which will be placed prominently in the National Mall.
The history of the United States is too vast, turbulent and grand to be contained and explained in one museum. Museums devoted to exploring and revealing one culture allow the space and time for those cultures to be studied as part of the nation and how they developed apart from the nation.
At 60 million and growing, Latinos are the second-largest ethnic group in the country. Spanish was spoken before English in this land, which became the United States.
For more than 500 years, Latinos have helped define the multicultural American experience, influencing and enriching every part of society, including politics, business, music, literature, food, education, sports, the military, and movements seeking justice and dignity.
By illuminating Latino heritage and showcasing it in its rightful place on the National Mall, we make clearer the full American story.
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