Aug 1, 2023 - World

Smithsonian Latino museum future at risk over funding

Part of the "¡Presente!: A Latino History of the United States" exhibit. Photo: Tony Powell/National Museum of the American Latino

More than two years after Congress voted to establish the National Museum of the American Latino, proponents worry that funding resistance from two Latino lawmakers could stall the project.

Driving the news: On July 19, the U.S. House Committee on Appropriations approved a funding bill that would bar the use of taxpayer money for the the museum until at least September 2024.

  • U.S. Reps. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.) and Tony Gonzales (R-Texas) pushed for the funding halt in response to an exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History that they say depicts U.S. Latinos as "victims of oppression."

That exhibit, called "¡Presente!," is planned as part of the future Latino Museum, but was designed before the bill creating that museum passed and before the museum's first director was named.

  • "¡Presente!" touches on colonialism and U.S. intervention in Latin America; includes testimonies on migration, segregation and the LGBTQ+ experience; features clothing worn by Celia Cruz; and displays copies of novels that have been subject to book bans, such as "Poet X" and "The House on Mango Street."

What they're saying: "The current exhibit, which is a precursor for the museum, has an overarching theme that Hispanics are deserters, traitors, and victims of oppression in the U.S.," the congressmen argued in a news release. "Hispanics are not victims or traitors, instead, they are the backbone of our American society."

  • The lawmakers met with Smithsonian officials late last week to discuss the measure and suggested after they could revisit the funding issue, saying Smithsonian representatives were "committed to rectifying their actions," though they didn't provide details.

Background: Supporters have been pushing for the museum for decades, with plans for it to be funded by the federal government and private donations.

  • But the Smithsonian has yet to get legislative approval to finalize the museum's construction site. The Smithsonian wants the museum to be built at one of two possible spaces on the National Mall alongside other major institutions.

The other side: The Smithsonian said in a statement to Axios Latino that if changes are made to any exhibition, they're done based on research and evidence and are meant to "expand upon text, clarify or add additional context."

  • "The effort until now has been bipartisan, and we want to make sure that continues so we get the museum built," says Estuardo V. Rodriguez, CEO of the Friends of the American Latino Museum, a 501 (c)(3) group that campaigns for the museum.
  • He says that if the funding to finalize a site and break ground isn't set by this September, it'll likely be delayed until after the next Congress.
  • Rodriguez adds that the concerns expressed by the lawmakers serve as a reminder that the museum needs to reflect the diversity of U.S. Latinos.
  • "The work for this isn't just about a group in Washington D.C., it's a responsibility of everyone out there in this community or who's an ally to this community to work to remind people and be heard that this deserves to be on the National Mall so U.S. history is expanded upon," he says.

Díaz-Balart has not responded to a request for comment. Gonzales' office said he was not commenting beyond the press release.

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