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Riding wave of excitement over African American Museum, backers try again to create an American Latino museum

This undated photo provided by the Smithsonian Institution shows the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building in Washington, the proposed site for an American Latino museum. (AP Photo/Smithsonian Institution)
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Tapping into the enthusiasm surrounding the opening of the African American museum, two longtime backers of a National Museum of the American Latino are trying again to get their project through Congress.

U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-California) introduced legislation Tuesday that calls for a new Smithsonian museum in the Arts and Industries Building, a historic structure on the southern edge of the Mall. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

Becerra has been trying to establish a Latino museum since 2003. He said the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture on Sept. 24 is helping to generate momentum for his cause.

“It provides inspiration, and it really does give you locomotion to try to move this forward,” Becerra said. “So many (of the African American museum’s supporters) have come to me and said, ‘You’re next.’ It pumps you up.”

[A first look inside the Smithsonian African American museum: Stunning views, grand scale]

The Smithsonian Institution created a task force on Latino Issues in 1993.  A year later, that group released a report, “Willful Neglect,” outlining the failures of the museum complex to focus on the culture and history of Latino Americans. The Smithsonian created a Center for Latino Initiatives (now the Smithsonian Latino Center) in 1997.

In 2003 – the same year Congress finally passed the African American museum bill – Becerra sponsored a bill to create a commission to study the potential of a museum, following the same path as the American Indian and African American museums. The commission’s report in 2011 called for Congress pay for half of an estimated $600 million budget. It offered several locations, including a plot on the northeast corner of the Mall adjacent to the Capitol and the Arts and Industries Building. On the heels of that report, Becerra and Menendez introduced bills in 2011, and again in 2013. They did not pass either house.

“You never give up if you believe in your cause, and when you’re speaking on behalf of 57 million Latino people and all Americans,” Becerra said about his third attempt in Congress. “There’s no better way to learn what it means to be an American than to spend time on the Mall and in the dozen or so Smithsonian museums. But if you do, you’ll walk away without having an understanding of what it means to be an American of Latino descent.”

He said the same was said about African Americans and American Indians, and now their stories are on view. “It’s so important to see yourself reflected in the jewels American uses to display her beauty,” he said.

[Smithsonian hires director for long-dormant Arts and Industries Building]

Becerra said the new bill calls for the use of the Arts and Industries Building and an underground annex. The building was an early site for the African American museum, which was eventually built on a plot adjacent to the Washington Monument. Although the historic building is large, its soaring ceilings and skylights are inappropriate for exhibitions. After major renovation, it is currently being used for special programs.

Becerra’s bill does not include a financial promise, but instead would start the process and give the new museum time to establish a fundraising plan.

In a statement, Menendez said the time has come to renew the push.

“The story of Latinos and Latinas is deeply intertwined into the fabric of what makes America great.   And while it’s important that we recognize the contributions of Latinos during Hispanic Heritage month – I believe that this year we must do more, by renewing our commitment to building a Smithsonian Museum for the Latino American on the same Mall where the story of Native Americans and African Americans are being told,” he said.