Bill to create American Latino Museum on National Mall clears the House

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Bill to create American Latino Museum on National Mall clears the House

The Smithsonian Institution’s Arts and Industries in Washington, D.C. pictured in 2015. The historic National Mall-flanking structure is one four sites under consideration for two new Smithsonian museums authorized by Congress in 2020. (Mike Procario/ Flickr/CC BY-ND 2.0)

At long last, a new Smithsonian museum dedicated to Latino history and culture in the United States could be coming to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. If realized, it would be the first new museum for the Smithsonian Institution since David Adjaye and Philip Freelon’s National Museum of African American History and Culture debuted in 2016.

A bipartisan bill (H.R. 2420) to establish the museum, introduced by Rep. José E. Serrano of New York’s 15th District, with 295 co-sponsors and brought to the floor by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, was approved by the U.S. House of Representatives via voice vote on Monday. The legislation, among other things, institutes an 18-month timeline for determining a potential location for the facility and calls for the creation of a Board of Trustees that will guide early exploratory efforts. Per the bill, the museum—dubbed the National Museum of the American Latino—will be half federally funded, with all other costs that will help bring the project to fruition coming from private sources. It also establishes auxiliary educational programs centered on Latinx representation and a grant program that would help to kick-start similar museum projects outside of Washington.

“Today, we reached an important milestone for the Hispanic community with passage of this legislation. After nearly 20 years of work, the National Museum of the American Latino Act was finally considered and approved with overwhelming bipartisan support,” said Serrano, who serves as dean of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and will retire this year after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, in a statement.

Rep. Will Hurd of Texas, currently the only Black Republican in the House of Representative, served as the bill’s lead Republican co-sponsor.

A Senate version of the bill was introduced by senators Bob Menendez of New Jersey and John Cornyn of Texas in May. As noted by the New York Times, the prospects of that bill are unknown although Cornyn, a Republican, is optimistic that it will pass. In a tweet, Serrano urged his Senate colleagues to “finish the job.”

Speaking to NBC News ahead of the bill’s passage, Danny Vargas, chairman of the board of the Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino (FRIENDS), expressed the “the wonderful feeling to know that the House of Representatives has come to realize the importance of an institution that can recognize and commemorate the over 500 years of Latino contributions to the founding, shaping, building, and the defending of this country. We’re elated.”

As Serrano alludes to, the passage of the legislation has been a long time coming. Earnest efforts to establish a national historic and cultural venue dedicated to Latinx life in America date back to at least 1994 with the publication of the 60-page report “Willful Neglect: The Smithsonian Institution and U.S. Latinos.” Executed by a specially formed 15-member Smithsonian task force, the report decried the woeful lack of Latino representation within the hallowed institution, in both operational and curatorial senses, and called for the creation of a national museum focused squarely on Latino history and culture as one method of rectifying this discrepancy. That, obviously, never happened although it did result, as noted by the Times, in the founding of the Smithsonian Latino Center, an entity described as the “corazón of Latinidad at the Smithsonian.” And while not a standalone museum, in 2021 the Center is opening the 4,500 square foot Molina Family Latino Gallery at the National American History Museum. The gallery is described as the “very first dedicated museum space on the National Mall celebrating the U.S. Latino experience.”

Over a decade later, in 2008, progress was made when a presidential commission was formed to explore the viability of creating such a museum. The results of the commission were delivered in 2011 but any subsequent legislation, including a bipartisan bill introduced just three years ago, has stalled in Congress due to concerns over funding and other factors. Pushback, it should be noted, has come from both sides of the aisle.

A statement from FRIENDS celebrating the legislative victory said that “the National Museum of the American Latino Act will take an important step towards righting the disparities outlined in the report and establish a museum dedicated to representing the history of American Latinos.

As noted by DCist, one potential hiccup that could arise as the project moves forward is the lack of available real estate along the Mall. The idea to repurpose the Arts and Industries Building has been floated but adapting that historic structure—completed in 1881, it’s the second-oldest Smithsonian museum—for new usage would require extensive expansion work, either underground or elsewhere.