The Anacostia Community Museum is the least visited of all the Smithsonians, and I think I know why: It’s more than a mile from the nearest Metro station, and that mile involves some very steep hills. On a recent Saturday, I made the climb and arrived at the museum parched and footsore. I was also one of about three visitors, so several staff members greeted me personally.
“Welcome to the Anacostia Community Museum!” they chorused. “Are you here to see anything in particular?” one added. “Water,” I croaked.
After slaking my thirst, I attempted to slip unnoticed into the museum’s main exhibit hall. It didn’t work. Just as I started reading the wall text, another employee materialized and began talking to me.
“This exhibit is called ‘Gateways/Portales,’ and it’s about Latino immigrants in four metro areas: D.C., Baltimore, Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham,” she said. “With so many conversations going on about immigration these days, we thought this would be an important exhibit to do.”
The exhibit begins with a mural featuring the face of a beautiful Latina woman flanked by phrases like “stop deportations” and “social justice” and continues with protest signs and compelling children’s drawings in support of educational opportunities for undocumented immigrants. The only artifacts representing the other side of the immigration debate (that I could find) are racist, typo-laden fliers exhorting people to report illegal immigrants, with labels placed by the museum explaining that “discrimination can be hostile.”
It was surprising to see a largely federally funded museum take on such a contentious contemporary issue.
I was equally surprised to find ordinary objects on display, things like a George Mason University graduation robe. A placard explains that the robe was worn by 2016 graduate Mirella Saldaña Moreno, who was born in Peru and has lived in Falls Church since age 10. She’s not famous — she’s just one of the roughly 2,000 undocumented immigrants who earn degrees from U.S. colleges each year. But by displaying her robe, the museum introduced me to my neighbor and the challenges she faces trying to make her way in a country that’s increasingly hostile to her being here.
With its focus on regular people and the recent past, the Anacostia Community Museum is unlike any museum I’ve ever visited. That fact was driven home when I saw an ordinary tortilla press in one of the “Gateways/Portales” display cases.
“I have one just like it,” I said to one of the ever-present museum staff members. Then I realized that the tortilla press’s ordinariness is sort of the point — it illustrates just how widespread Latin American cuisine is throughout the United States.
By devoting so much care and thought to displaying the stuff of everyday lives, the Anacostia Community Museum is making the case that regular folks are just as interesting as the famous ones, and that our stories are equally worthy of consideration. It also gave me a glimpse into the lives of often marginalized people in D.C. and other urban communities.
That’s no accident: The museum was established, in 1967, as a Smithsonian outreach program for African-American communities in D.C. It’s since served as a central repository for African-American history in D.C., and has broadened its mission to include other urban centers and populations.
I learned a lot about my adopted hometown by browsing the exhibits — which, in addition to “Gateways/Portales,” currently include a display featuring the late Honduras-born, Chicago-based folk artist Derek Webster and a permanent exhibit about D.C.’s large Panamanian population. (Who knew? Not me.)
I also learned about something I probably should have already known about: the Mount Pleasant riots of 1991. I used to live in that neighborhood, and I recall my former landlord talking about “the riots,” but I assumed he meant the ones that happened in D.C. in 1968. I had no idea he was referring to a much more recent event, one sparked when a black rookie D.C. police officer shot an unarmed Salvadoran following a Cinco de Mayo celebration — though the larger catalysts for the outrage were pervasive discrimination and a dearth of social services for Central American immigrants, the exhibit explains. D.C. responded to the riots by creating a bilingual policing unit and a civil rights task force and by taking other steps to lessen the inequality faced by Latinos in D.C.
The museum employee was right: “Gateways/Portales” is a very timely exhibit, one that tells the story of Latino immigrants, and also points to potential solutions for this country’s current immigration quandaries. As I made the walk back to the Metro, I realized another clever thing about the museum: Just getting there put me right in the middle of a community I’ve never really explored before.
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