Years away from having a building of their own, Smithsonian staff are already at work on the exhibition ¡Presente! for next year

Eduardo Díaz, the director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, seldom has free time, and despite the pandemic closing the Institution’s museums for much of 2020, his schedule only got busier. He and his team became heavily engaged with creating the center’s first exhibition space. The 4,500-square-foot Molina Family Latino Gallery, envisioned as an introduction to centuries of Latino heritage and culture, and located within the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, had been in the planning stages for years, and construction was well underway for the much-anticipated opening next May.

Then, on December 27, 2020, came news that former President Donald Trump had signed into law a bipartisan bill to create the National Museum of the American Latino. The legislation had languished in Congress since its first introduction in 2011.

This was good news; the Smithsonian Latino Center has always positioned itself as an incubator of Latino curatorial talent and as a predecessor to a Smithsonian museum that would focus on the Latino experience. Indeed, Díaz and his staff consider the new exhibition space as a testing ground for what a future museum might offer. The work involved goes well beyond a dress rehearsal. With such a broad mandate, the center has to carefully weigh what to cover and how to cover a culture made up of different ethnicities and backgrounds.

Eduardo Díaz, portrait
Eduardo Díaz, who holds two posts as head of the Smithsonian Latino Center and interim director of the new Latino museum, sees the upcoming 2022 exhibition as a testing ground for what a future museum might offer. Smithsonian Latino Center

And that’s the easy part. Díaz—who now holds two posts as head of the Latino Center and interim director of the new Latino museum—knows that many moving parts are involved, not just with the gallery, but with the future museum. The 2020 legislation directed the Smithsonian to create an advisory board. In June, the board of trustees was announced, making headlines with such well-known names as José Andrés, the creator of World Central Kitchen, the Grammy Award winner Emilio Estefan, the actor and producer Eva Longoria, TV producer Sofía Vergera, journalist Soledad O’Brien, as well as prominent entrepreneurs, philanthropists and investors.

The question of where to put the museum—on the National Mall or somewhere close by—must be determined by December 2022. A building design has to be decided on. And a lot of money needs to be raised—half the funding will come from the federal government and the other half will have to come from private donations. To open the National Museum of African American History and Culture, board members and staff needed to raise more than $270 million; Díaz says this time around, it’s hard to estimate how much will need to be raised, but it will be in the hundreds of millions.

If past experiences with that museum and with the National Museum of the American Indian augur anything, it’s that both the gallery and museum will be heralded as a triumph, albeit an imperfect one. They will proudly deliver a profound visitor experience, yet no museum could fully grapple with the complexities of Latino experiences in this country. The museum, once finished, will be an inescapable part of the Smithsonian landscape; it will exist and nothing will ever take away from that.

But first, the center has to complete work on its first new exhibition “¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States” opening in the Molina Family Latino Gallery. The gallery, mainly funded by descendants of C. David Molina, founder of the California-based Molina Healthcare and his wife Mary, will feature more than 200 artifacts, such as a refugee raft used by those fleeing communist Cuba, a dress worn by the “Queen of Salsa” Celia Cruz, and a registration form for slaves in Puerto Rico. The show will also feature newly commissioned illustrations of luminaries such as the Indigenous freedom fighter Toypurina, Mexican American muralist Judy Baca, the Puerto Rican educator Antonia Pantoja and the Colombian American drag queen Julio Sarria. The seminal exhibition will be supported by educational and cultural programs and also feature a communal space for gathering and conversation.

Dolores Huerta, portrait
Dolores Huerta by Barbara Carrasco, 1999 NPG, acquisition made possible through the Smithsonian Latino Initiatives Pool, administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center

Devoted to telling the storied history of the Latino experience, the exhibition team had difficult decisions to make over what to include. “A lot of the conversation was originally on how we could best use this space. It’s a limited amount of square footage; real estate is so much of a luxury at the Institution,” says Emily Key, the center’s director of education.

Key says her team realized that a deep-dive approach on every topic ultimately wouldn’t work. So, they set on creating a broad overview that would lead to more specialized sections of the gallery, such as the Mexican-American War or activist movements. Another crucial component was getting buy-in from American Latinos. So, the team engaged with stakeholders who played a critical role in shaping the design and focus of the gallery. Such actions were crucial to not only ensure accuracy but authenticity.

“If you’re building a museum that is culturally and ethnic specific, you need to have that first voice at the table when you’re creating it to really ground the experience in,” Key says.

Ranald Woodaman, the center’s exhibitions and public program director says that staff sat down with many of the various Latino groups, including Mexican Americans, Salvadoran Americans, Afro-Latinos, Bolivian immigrants and Indigenous peoples in an attempt at focus testing.

Puerto Rican Registration Form for Enslaved Persons
A Puerto Rican registration form documents six enslaved individuals, including four children, as the “property of the estate of Don José Anto. NMAAHC

Woodaman recalls showing a group of Bolivian immigrants the phrase, the “U.S. came to us,” but the Bolivians were puzzled. While the phrase evokes a well-trod sentiment, “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us,” among Mexican Americans living on land in the U.S. that once belonged to Mexico, the Bolivians didn’t have the same historical relationship with American expansionism. Despite American intervention in Bolivia during the Cold War, Woodaman says the United States evoked a more benign reaction from the Bolivians.

“So long story short, we definitely changed a lot of elements as a result of people’s responses to this exhibit,” he says.

César Chávez's Union Jacket
The union jacket worn by César Chávez, the founder and president of the United Farm Workers NMAH, gift of Helen F. Chávez

The team also asked questions about what young Americans typically knew or were taught about Latino history. To begin an analysis, Key collected a number of U.S. history textbooks, ranging from the elementary to high school level. Many textbooks, she learned, skimmed over the contributions of organizers like activists César Chávez and Dolores Huerta and left out many others, such as Francisco Menéndez, a Black militiaman fighting for Spain who established the first free Black settlement in the United States, or Arturo Schomburg, an Afro Puerto Rican historian and the namesake of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in New York City.

During our conversatiom she described how the seventh-grade textbook in front of her only devoted one paragraph to Chávez, who along with Dolores Huerta, co-founded the National Farmworkers Association and played a pivotal role in organizing the now famous Delano grape strike. Huerta’s lifelong and ongoing civil rights activism warranted just three sentences. Key feels the exhibition offers a chance to correct those slights.

The ongoing efforts to elevate forgotten figures and correct past oversights are also rooted in the experiences of Afro-Latinos, who compose nearly one-quarter of the U.S. Latino population. Afro-Latino immigrants from the Americas have made their mark, from struggling to outlaw slavery in their countries of origin, to introducing agua de jamaica, or hibiscus juice, to invigorating the popular music and dance culture with genres like Salsa and Bachata.

Judy Baca
Among the individuals appearing in newly commissioned illustrations in the new exhibition is the Chicana artist and activist, Judy Baca. Rafael López, 2021, Smithsonian Latino Center

The criticism about representation that followed the release of the musical film In The Heights, based in the heavily Afro-Dominican New York City neighborhood of Washington Heights, has renewed ongoing discussions within these communities about their experiences and placement within the narrative of Latinidad as well within larger Latino communities.

While the center had always planned to include the contributions of Afro-Latinos, the recent controversy has cast their efforts in a new light.

David Coronado, the senior communications officer for the Latino Center, said that the future gallery will address how race has influenced the crafting of a singular Latino identity and how a more accurate understanding is gaining traction.

“The debates about Latinhood are not new, but they have gained much more visibility in recent years. A part of what we are trying to accomplish through Latino Center programs and the Molina Family Latino Gallery is to bring those debates to light and invite Latino and non-Latino audiences to reexamine what they know about Latino history and what it means to be Latino/Latina/Latinx,” Coronado says.

The Smithsonian has dealt with issues of Latino representation in the past.

In 1994, a Smithsonian task force released a highly critical report, “Willful Neglect,” charging that the Institution ignored “Latinos in nearly every aspect of its operations” and called for a commitment to employ, retain and promote “a critical mass of Latinos” across the organization. During that same year, U.S. senator Jesse Helms blocked the passage of a bill that would have funded the then-proposed NMAAHC. He reasoned that such a museum would open the proverbial floodgates; if African Americans got a museum, then what is to stop other racial minorities from getting their own museums, as if such acts would somehow take away from the Smithsonian’s mission instead of adding to it.

Death of Rubén Salazar, Frank Romero
Death of Rubén Salazar by Frank Romero, 1986 SAAM, © Frank Romero, 1986

Museums centering on ethnic and cultural groups have been around for decades, from El Museo del Barrio in New York, founded in 1969, to the Japanese American National Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate in Los Angeles, founded in 1992. These museums, while meeting different cultural needs, are rooted in all too familiar concerns. Other institutions simply didn’t want or have the capability to reflect their histories in meaningful ways.

Echoes of Helms’ arguments were heard again late last December when U.S. senator Mike Lee of Utah blocked the bill that led to the creation of the proposed National Museum of the American Latino, along with legislation authorizing the Smithsonian’s American Women’s History MuseumNational Public Radio reported that Lee didn’t want such museums to exist amid a time of intense polarization. Lee’s remarks were criticized across the political spectrum, from U.S. senators Bob Menéndez of New Jersey to Susan Collins of Maine, reflecting just how far attitudes had changed in the intervening years. It also illustrated how the same arguments from decades past were being used in attempts to stop the construction of a museum that also centered on people of color.

Díaz says that instead of fragmenting American history, the future museum would tell a truthful story. “We can’t tell all those stories in one place and so I think it’s a good thing for visitors to have choices in the museums that they visit because they then can get a nuanced and even sometimes ambiguous understanding of the history of all of the parts that make up the fabric of this country,” he says.

In many ways, his family’s story represents the type of narratives visitors will encounter in the future museum. His father crossed the border as a child, and his family made their way to Los Angeles, where he became a citizen, overcame prejudice and joined the military during World War II. He met his wife after the war, and they both became teachers highly esteemed for their contributions to bilingual education and civil rights. Díaz himself graduated from San Diego State University in 1972 and came of age during the civil rights movement when he protested against the Vietnam War.

El Foro, the Plaza
The center part of the gallery incorporates a plaza, or el foro, so that visitors can come together and have a dialog, says the Latino Center’s Melissa Carrillo. Smithsonian Latino Gallery

Díaz arrived at the Smithsonian in 2008 and has helped to make appreciable strides in fostering representation. The work of the Latino Center has long been to raise the profile of young Latina and Latino scholars and help them to land important curatorial seats at the Smithsonian’s table of curators, archivists, researchers and educators; while expanding Latino collections in several Smithsonian museums, archives and research centers.

“The Smithsonian American Art Museum now has the largest collection of U.S. Latino art of any major art museum in the country,” Díaz points out.

Díaz also said that while the center and museum will eventually merge, he fully expects the Smithsonian to continue to train and mentor the next generation of Latino museum professionals and curators outside of the planned museum, and support a full range of Latino projects around the Smithsonian.

The center is also thinking digitally as it approaches the new exhibition and museum. Melissa Carrillo, the media and technology director, says that, when it opens, the gallery will feature interactive video portraits of famous figures on what she called digital storytellers, where visitors can access oral histories and perspectives on a variety of themes, such as identity and community. Another installation is a large-scale digital map that interprets demographics and other data so that visitors can better understand how issues of the day, such a Covid-19 and gun violence, impact Latino communities.

“The center part of the gallery, is called el foro, meaning the plaza… the intention is to get the visitors to come together in that central plaza-like space and have a dialogue, and the digital interactive serves as that bridge,” she says.

The experience also reflected the aspirations of the center, which always saw itself as a museum without a museum.

Arts and Industries Building
The Arts and Industries Building, centrally located on the National Mall, is a contender for the location of the new Museum of the American Latino. SI

The Latino museum project obliquely follows in the footsteps of NMAAHC, the Smithsonian’s most recent museum to open. In his 2019 memoir, A Fool’s Errand, Lonnie Bunch, the Smithsonian’s secretary and founding director of NMAAHC, recalled that when he was first appointed director, well before construction had begun, he took the position that NMAAHC already existed, even if the physical building wasn’t there yet. “I was keenly aware that we needed to make visible this invisible museum,” he wrote. “We were more than an idea, more than a concept; we were a museum.”

The Latino museum exists on paper right now, but the gallery’s reception will undoubtedly impact what the museum will actually look like down the line.

One of the main sticking points that remains is the eventual location of the museum. Numerous museum advocates, including Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino, a lobbying group affiliated with the Raben Group, registered strong opinion in favor of a National Mall location.

The legislation that created the museum named four potential sites, including the Arts and Industries Building, which is located on the Mall between the Smithsonian Castle and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. The terracotta Renaissance-style building opened in 1881 as the first national museum but was closed in 2004 for renovations. (This month the Arts and Industries Building welcomes the public back, debuting the much-anticipated “Futures” exhibition.)

Some of the museum’s boosters want an entirely new building that will make an architectural statement, but Díaz points out that repurposing a building will, in many ways, honor the experiences of Latinos, too.

“This kind of adaptive reuse is something that I think many in our community are used to and so I’ve always said it’s more important what’s inside,” he says.

The museum will need many well-educated and experienced museum professionals. Díaz already has his eye on it and considers training the next generation of Latino museum professionals a key goal for the center. “That’s the beauty of the Molina Gallery. It allows us to train these young, Latino/Latina museum professionals that we’re also bringing through the ranks. I can see an Afro Dominican student from City College interning at one of the museums here at the Smithsonian in museum education. And she or he later then becomes a museum educator working at the National Museum of the American Latino,” Díaz says.

The museum is estimated to open within ten to twelve years. Once it does, visitors will be able to see objects, photographs, artwork, archival documents and other material culture that tell stories central to the U.S. Latino experience. They can also see for themselves the often-contradictory nature of the Latino experiences that make up this country, where activists have long advocated for representation, but through oversight or by design, omitted the crucial roles of Afro-Latinos, Asian-Latinos, and women, among others.

And they can also look at items that at first glance seem non-consequential but tell a deeper story.

In August of last year, my own parents retired from their jobs in the U.Sand returned to Mexico. I accompanied my mother south to say goodbye, where she revealed a heartbreaking story of how her parents had fallen ill and died while she was living in New York. She never got to say her goodbyes. She was pregnant with me and undocumented. To go back was to risk never seeing my father or my older brother again. She stayed and endured hardships that even now she has trouble coming to terms with. When I look at my birth certificate, yellowed and held together with tape, it shows my mother’s name as well as the name of the Korean American nurse who helped my mother give birth. But it also shows in concrete terms, what my mother was fighting for.

Memorabilia can tell a lot about ourselves, from our struggles to our triumphs. When someone visits the gallery and the museum, that person might find themselves suddenly stopped in their tracks, seeing something that speaks to them personally. Maybe it might be a brown beret, maybe it’s a can of Bustelo Coffee or maybe it’s a yellowed document. Some might wonder aloud, do these things really belong in a museum that documents American history? Yes, yes they do.