News Column

National Hispanic Museum Finds Friends in Congress

August 20, 2013


An advocacy group is pushing the Smithsonian to open a museum for U.S. Hispanics.
An advocacy group is pushing the Smithsonian to open a museum for U.S. Hispanics.

Lawmakers have reintroduced legislation that would create a national museum at the Smithsonian dedicated to the history of U.S. Hispanics, and an advocacy group is pushing Congress to pass the bill this year.

Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino are advocating for a museum following a Congressional report that Hispanics are the only major ethnic group not represented in the institution.

"This legislation needs to go through before the end of the year," Estuardo Rodriguez, executive director of the Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino, told "That will give us enough time for the Smithsonian to take ownership of the campaign itself."

Under the proposed legislation the museum would be in the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building in Washington, because the law prohibits any new structures at the National Mall. The Arts and Industries Building, one of the oldest buildings at the National Mall, is presently unoccupied because of structural issues, officials said.

The development of a national museum for U.S. Hispanics has been in the works for nearly two decades. A Smithsonian report published in 1994 found that Hispanics were the only major ethnic contributors to U.S. society that were not fully represented by the institution and recommended at least one museum be built. Various museums have been dedicated since then but supporters are still in pursuit of a national museum.

The idea to establish a commission to study the viability of national museum for Hispanics was first brought up in 2003, but, the commission was not formed until 2008. Last year, the commission's request to start a national American Latino Museum was not acted upon by Congress after being presented the year prior.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., are the main proponents in reintroducing the bill in the Senate. In the House, Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif., and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, have advocated passage of the bill.

Although the bill enjoys bipartisan support in Congress, not everyone on Capitol Hill is in favor of the project. In 2011, Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia said the creation of museums designed for specific ethnicities, such as the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, which opened in 2004 and the National Museum of African American History and Culture, opening in 2015, will segregate the museum's visitors.

"I don't want a situation where whites go to the original museum, African Americans go the African-American museum, Indians go to the Indian museum, and Hispanics go to the Latino museum. That's not America," Mr. Moran told The New York Times.

However, Mr. Rodriguez says such a viewpoint undermines the shared interest of visitors to the museums and the diversity of the country.

"The National Mall in Washington D.C. is where everyone comes together," Mr. Rodriguez said. "That's why the African American Art and History Museum makes sense and that's why an American Latino museum will also make sense."

In the era of sharp cuts in federal spending, finding the money to get the museum built is a major obstacle. Mr. Rodriguez says that roughly $650 million will be needed for the project, with $325 million of it raised from private funds.

"The Smithsonian is a federally funded museum network, so once this museum becomes part of the Smithsonian, much of that responsibility will fall back on the government," Mr. Rodriguez said. "But our hope is to not have all of that fall on them, but rather have the community and corporate America also step up."

The Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino has focused on direct lobbying and compiling a list of co-sponsors for the legislation, as well as having supporters contact members of Congress.
Opening the museum, says Mr. Rodriguez, will inspire and motivate the next generation of Hispanics.

"These stories will help this next generation and those that come after understand how they are integral to the U.S., not only to its present-day economy and growth, but its history," Mr. Rodriguez said.

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