The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The American Latino museum should get a place on the National Mall

On Cinco de Mayo, President Biden missed an opportunity to call for that to happen.

One of the ads that calls for American Latino museum to be built on the National Mall. (Courtesy of Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino/Courtesy of Friends of The National Museum of the American Latino)

On Cinco de Mayo, President Biden stood in the White House Rose Garden and spoke about what his administration had done for Latinos and what Latinos had done for the country. He described Latino entrepreneurs as leading the way for “a boom of new small businesses in America” and reiterated the need to create a “pathway to citizenship for immigrants” who contribute to the economy.

“We are an immigrant nation,” he said to gathered guests. “We say that, but people act like they don’t believe it. We are an immigrant nation, and that is our strength.”

The president then, just before wrapping up his speech, addressed the creation of the National Museum of the American Latino.

“Mexican American culture is a great contribution to America, and soon we’ll also see the broader Latino community culture celebrated through the creation of the newest Smithsonian museum — the National Museum of the American Latino,” he said. “It’s a big deal. And I look forward to seeing it take its rightful place here in Washington …”

The crowd applauded. His words, it seemed, had hit all the right notes.

Except, they hadn’t. His speech had stopped short of doing that.

The site of the yet-to-be-built museum has not been determined, so what Biden didn’t say about the location mattered as much as what he did say. What he said: The museum will take “its rightful place here in Washington.” What he didn’t say: The museum belongs on the National Mall.

The Mall may get a Latino museum — someday. These Latina curators aren’t waiting on it.

Over the next few months, people in the Washington region will start noticing ads that describe Latinos as “the missing piece” on the Mall. Those ads will appear in Metro stations and at Bikeshare hubs, and they will feature the faces of well-known figures, offering reminders of the many contributions Latinos have made to the arts, sports, science and more.

The Friends of The National Museum of the American Latino, a nonprofit that is not affiliated with Smithsonian, launched the “Missing Piece” campaign April 27. Already, it has gained support from prominent Latinos, including Rosario Dawson, John Leguizamo and Eva Longoria.

“Our stories belong on the National Mall where our nation’s story is told,” Longoria says in a video that recently appeared on the Latino Museum Twitter page along with the hashtag #BuildItOnTheNationalMall. “Latino American history and artifact belong on the same main stage across from, and equal in prominence and magnitude to, the other great Smithsonian museums.”

She is right.

Latinos should be on that stage. Not blocks away. Not tucked out of sight. Not in the shadows, where so many generations of Latinos have lived and worked and raised their children.

Consider the point of pride and educational hub that the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which sits on the Mall, has become. Tourists walk out of the museum carrying more understanding than they walked in with. Even the D.C. police department sends officers there to learn.

Latinos have long waited for their own national museum — a place that will hold the evidence of their existence and tell their complex and diverse stories. As a Mexican American from Texas, my family’s history is vastly different than that of someone from Puerto Rico or Peru. It is also misunderstood by many, which I’m reminded of each time someone asks me about the border my family crossed. Several years ago, I wrote about one of my ancestors, Juan Vargas, to show how simplistic narratives of our history omit important context and leave Latinos having to constantly prove their American-ness.

What does it mean to be American? The story of two men named Juan.

Juan Vargas arrived in San Antonio when it was still part of Mexico, and as he raised his family, he watched Texas become its own republic and then part of the United States. When Mexican troops swept in to fight at the Battle of the Alamo, they took Juan captive and forced him to wait on them. I imagine those Mexicans saw him as American and Americans saw him as Mexican. In an interview that was published in the San Antonio Light newspaper in 1910 and reprinted in a book, Juan said he refused to fight at the Alamo on behalf of the Mexican troops.

“For this they threatened execution when the day was won but could not at that time waste a shell on me,” he said. “One shell might mean victory or defeat.”

The Smithsonian has a weighty task in front of it. It has to find sites for two museums approved by Congress in 2020 — the National Museum of the American Latino and the American Women’s History Museum. Of the two dozen sites that have reportedly come under consideration, four are on the Mall. One is the Arts and Industries Building, another is the Agriculture Department facility, a third is the North Capitol site located across from the U.S. Botanic Garden, and the fourth is the South Monument site located across from the African American Museum.

Estuardo Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Friends of the Museum of the American Latino, said both museums should get a place on the Mall, which is where millions of tourists who come to D.C. each year from across the world go.

“Everyone knows what the National Mall means,” he said. “Every single tour bus knows where the National Mall is. When asked ‘What does the National Mall represent?’ those who have been there understand it represents to a certain extent the totality of our American story.”

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A statement from Biden saying the museums belong on the Mall would go far in making that happen, he said. Rodriguez was among the guests at the White House on Cinco de Mayo and he described Biden’s failure to directly address the museum’s location as “a missed opportunity.”

“I’ve been talking to this White House for months and I’ve been telling them do not let this opportunity go by,” he said. In those conversations, he said, he has also reminded them of how Bush showed support of the African American Museum.

“We have a chance to build a fantastic museum, right here in the heart of Washington, D.C., on the Mall,” Bush was quoted as saying in a 2005 Washington Post article while locations were still being considered. The article went on to say: “Bush’s declaration was then interrupted by sustained applause. He paused and smiled, aware of the passionate and tangled discussions of where the museum should go and what signal a placement off the main street of American history would send.”

At that Cinco De Mayo event, first lady Jill Biden also spoke. She didn’t mention the museum, but her words illustrated why the location of it matters.

“A few years ago, at the National LULAC Conference, I met with a young group of Mexican Americans and other Latino leaders,” she said. “They told me about the issues that were on their minds: education, climate change, health care, and jobs — just like anyone their age. But what struck me was that they said that they didn’t often feel seen or heard. And that touched my heart. Don’t we owe them better?”

She ended her speech by quoting former U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera.

“Diversity really means becoming complete as human beings — all of us,” she said. “We learn from each other. If you’re missing on that stage, we learn less. We all need to be on that stage.”

She is right. We all need to be on that stage.