A congressional calendar quickly running out of time, infighting among Latinos, and a senator indicted on bribery charges is a surreal trifecta that could derail the national Latino museum in Washington, D.C., before it even gets off the ground. 

Legislation that would move forward with a decision on a site on the
National Mall in the nation’s capital is way on the back burner of the
congressional agenda as members have until mid-November to approve a
slew of spending bills for the new fiscal year that just started. While
Congress averted a government shutdown last week, it could
still happen if there’s no agreement by Nov. 17.

Congress approved the creation of the National Museum of the American Latino three years ago as part of the group of Smithsonian museums but the Smithsonian cannot build a new museum without federal legislation. In the U.S. House of Representatives, California Democrat Tony Cárdenas is a co-sponsor of the bill. 

There is bipartisan support but time is running out, said Estuardo Rodríguez, president of the non-profit advocacy group Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino. 

“If it’s not done now, with (a possible) shutdown (deadline), with
Thanksgiving, Christmas, it wouldn’t happen until next year and you have a
short (congressional) calendar (of workdays) anyway because of the
presidential and congressional elections. We’ve got to move quickly on
this,” he said.

Basically if it doesn’t happen soon, it would have to wait at least
until a new Congress is seated in January of 2025.

The idea of a national museum dedicated to telling the history, story, and contributions of the nation’s diverse and growing Latino community has been in the works for decades. The legislative process was started by then-Florida Republican Rep. leana Ros-Lehtinen and then-California Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra in 2003, and the Latino museum project has long been backed by prominent Latinos, including artists Rita Moreno, Chita Rivera, and Eva Longoria.

A 2018 study by the Chicano Studies Research Center at UCLA largely mirrored a 1994 report by the Smithsonian Institution Task Force on Latinos that concluded that not enough is being done to recognize and include Latino contributions, with the Task Force report going as far as labeling it “a pattern of willful neglect” toward the Latino population in the United States.”
So when Congress approved creating the museum, the Latino museum group inked a 10-year agreement with the Smithsonian – the largest museum group in the world – to use space at the National Museum of the American History to showcase rotating exhibits that would serve as a precursor to the Latino museum and give people an idea and preview of what the museum would look like. 

The new gallery opened last year with a $10 million donation from the Molina Family Foundation, named after the late Dr. C. David Molina and his wife, Mary. The couple started a health care clinic in 1980 in Long Beach, California to assist low-income Latinos and other underserved communities. The number of clinics grew and became Molina Healthcare, a Fortune 500 company and the country’s largest Latino HMO.

The first exhibit, called “¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States,” takes a look at how Latinos shaped the nation. 

And this is where the infighting comes in. A group of conservative Latinos called the exhibit “disgraceful” and one that “elevates only leftist ideologues, celebrates transexual activists, denigrates Christianity, denounces capitalism, condemns the West, portrays the United States as iniquitous and oppressive, and badly distorts history.” They claim it includes pushing an “oppressor-oppressed agenda of textbook Marxism” and contained “distortions and falsehoods” such as “Cubans came here seeking economic opportunity, not escaping communist barbarism.” They called for Congress to defund the whole project. 

Republicans Mario Díaz-Balart of Florida – a Cuban American – and Tony Gonzales of Texas, co-chairs of the Republican-led Hispanic Congressional Conference said they were “deeply disappointed and offended” by the exhibit. Under threat of tanking the whole thing, the legislators recently met with Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III and appear to be satisfied.
“Procedural changes in the review of content and leadership have been made,” … (that would) “allow funding to go further,” they said in a statement.
But that doesn’t mean the controversy is over. A planned exhibit highlighting youth activism and empowerment, including Latino youth groups such as the seminal Young Lords of the 1960s and ‘70s is being replaced by one focusing on salsa music, which critics point to the Smithsonian as “caving” to politics.

“Under pressure by Latino conservatives (the museum) has pulled an exhibit that would have highlighted youth movements, such as the activism of the Young Lords and environmental organizing after Hurricane María. This erasure of factual history —through politically forced omission— is unacceptable,” said the advocacy group Power4PuertoRico in a statement. “There is no question that the Young Lords were a pivotal force in the history of the Puerto Rican Diaspora and shaped policies and practices for the better in US cities. They showed Boricuas how to claim our Blackness, work in solidarity, and unapologetically defend our rights. We insist that the Smithsonian not participate in the dilution, distortion, or omission of the Young Lords and the Chicano, Mexican, and immigrant rights movements that are part of this exhibit.”

The Latino museum director Jorge Zamanillo, who arrived last year from HistoryMiamiMuseum, said he wanted to focus on exhibits with greater reach, an assertion some don’t buy “@Smithsonian’s unconscionable decision to shelve exhibit featuring Latino youth movements, among them #YoungLords, & kowtowing to conservative pressure to “rewrite” history by erasing us from it is unacceptable,” said former NYC Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

All of this is frustrating, Rodríguez said.

“Everyone’s got their own unique stories, and there’s going to be issues and there will be challenges. We’re going to have to work that out but let’s work that out once we get to the museum. Trying to shutter everything right now is going to get us nowhere real fast,” he tells CALÓ News. “At this rate we’re still 10-15 years away before we can open these doors. It’s not helpful right now to focus on the division within our views of U.S. Latino history. Right now we just have to get the location. Until then, what are we arguing about if we don’t even have where to build it?”

And how does a senator facing bribery charges and increasing calls to resign play into all this?

New Jersey Sen. Robert Menéndez has for years been a leading voice in lobbying for a Latino museum and is the chief sponsor of the Senate legislation greenlighting a site – the same legislation that needs to pass before the first hoe hits the dirt.

Raised in Puerto Rico, Patricia Guadalupe is a bilingual multimedia journalist based in Washington, D.C., covering the capital for both English and Spanish-language media outlets. She is also an adjunct...