National Latino Museum: A Fix for Ignorance and Exclusion

From the New York Times Room for Debate Blog: Arlene Davila is a professor of anthropology and American studies at New York University. She is the author of “Latino Spin: Public Image and the Whitewashing of Race” and the forthcoming “Culture Works: Space, Value and Mobility Across the Neoliberal Americas.”

In the current political context it has become a cliché to put down any ethnic specific project as balkanizing and unnecessary. Yet the growing xenophobia and heightened nativist political climate enveloping the immigration debate and Latinos has shown otherwise.

At the core, current debates manifest the vast ignorance of Latinos’ history in the American mainstream, and their consistent representation as newcomers and foreigners, rather than as a central component of American history and culture. In this context, the debates over whether a National Museum of the American Latino will be built and in what fashion will undoubtedly reflect larger debates over the past, present and future of Latinos in America.

The continued need for and relevance of race and ethnic-specific initiatives stem from racial minorities’ exclusion from the American canon and from its history and institutions. Indeed, the idea of building a Latino museum dates back to 1990s, most specifically to the 1994 Latino task force report to the Smithsonian Institution documenting the institution’s willful neglect toward Latinos.

Almost 20 years later, the situation remains just as dire: not only is there a general lack of Latino curators and programming at the Smithsonian; but the few Latino staff members at the Smithsonian I spoke to insisted that little is even actually known about what specific collections and holdings may be related to Latinos.

This historical ignorance and erasure from existing institutions fuel the need for vibrant ethnic-specific initiatives; they become central to guaranteeing a more unified and informed society. Dismissing the importance of ethnic cultural institutions before we fully address the exclusion of Latinos and minorities from dominant art, history and cultural institutions only leads to a society that is less informed. Ethnic-specific institutions do not exempt mainstream institutions from becoming more inclusive, but they do provide spaces for more exhaustive considerations that can enrich our art and our understanding of history.

This linkage between cultural representations and political standing informed the overwhelming support for a national Latino museum when a public hearing was held on the project at Hunter College last summer. People spoke about the need for an institution that would show Latinos’ contributions to America, one that would facilitate the education of “our children” and be diverse and inclusive, not only for all Latinos, but for all Americans.

In the current political climate, a lack of a national museum may well be the least of Latinos’ current political challenges. It also remains to be seen if the project’s execution can fully represent the dreams and aspirations for inclusiveness of its many supporters.

But if this project can help to finally mark Latinos’ centrality to American history and culture in the public imagination, it would be worth every single cent.

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