The National Mall in Washington is where we inaugurate presidents, march for change and learn about America’s history at monuments and the Smithsonian Institution museums. And yet, even as Latinos have helped shape this great nation, our stories don’t have a permanent home in the capital.
In 1994, a task force outlined the ways in which the Smithsonian “almost entirely excludes and ignores Latinos in nearly every aspect of its operations.” Its report, “Willful Neglect,” offered 10 recommendations for improvement, including that it should support the development of a museum on the National Mall dedicated to honoring and preserving over 500 years of American Latino history and culture.
It wasn’t until a decade later, in 2003, that community, business and congressional leaders began working with advocates like the Friends of the American Latino Museum to establish just such a Smithsonian museum. They intend for it to complement the others, such as the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian.
The African American Museum demonstrates just how powerful, and necessary, monuments to all aspects of our history are. In its first two years, over three million people visited. The museum illustrates how the Black experience is a quintessential American story. It also shows that a public-private partnership in funding a museum can be enormously successful — and it’s the same model outlined in recently passed federal legislation for a National American Latino Museum.
Latinos are an integral part of the country’s economy and prosperity. They work in industries considered essential like meatpacking, poultry, health and elder care services that are among the major reasons Latinos have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic. They have served in our nation’s military, from the Revolutionary War to the present day. They are also innovators, entrepreneurs and political leaders who have championed civil rights and defined public policy.
Too often, these stories are absent from our history books, classrooms and museums. When we don’t have a full picture of our history, we lose sight of our nation’s identity. A museum dedicated to American Latino history and culture would recognize the generations of Latinos and Latinas who have contributed to this country, and broaden our understanding of what 21st-century America looks like.