Supporters of Latino Museum Brace for a Long Climb

Posted May 14, 2008 at 11:08am

Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) has grown to love Washington’s many museums.

“They help portray the American life, the American experience in a way that very few other people can,” he said.

But one aspect of American life — the roots and contributions of Latino Americans — is missing from the mix, he said. That’s why five years ago he set out to examine the possibility of creating a museum to honor the cultural contributions of the estimated 45 million Latinos living in the United States.

“To me, it would be an important accomplishment to say when we reflect on what it’s like to be an American, we have a full picture of the American experience,” he said.

Becerra’s dream inched one step closer to reality last week, when President Bush signed legislation establishing a commission to weigh the feasibility of a museum honoring Latino art, culture and history. But the project still faces a long road.

The law calls for a bipartisan panel of 23 art and museum experts to complete a two-year study examining development and construction possibilities.

Though it is just a first step — finding a location for the museum and securing funds are among the hurdles that will remain — supporters hope the bill’s enactment will jump-start what has so far been a drawn-out process.

Becerra originally introduced the legislation (H.R. 512/S. 500) in 2003 to commemorate Hispanic Heritage Month.

“If progress is measured in baby steps, I think it’s fair to say that the president’s pen today has brought this important project into its adolescence,” Becerra said in a statement. “It is my hope that the commission will begin its work soon so that this vision, this dream, will further mature into full reality. It is truly an incredible day.”

David Ferreira, vice president for government affairs at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, called the law the first step toward creating an institution that would be of great importance to the entire Latino community.

“We want to make sure that especially because of all the discussion of immigration that people see the contributions … of the Hispanic community,” he said. “We know that the Hispanic community has offered a lot, and now with a museum like this we are able to ensure that the history and role of the Hispanic community is properly represented.”

The challenges ahead could be substantial, the project’s backers acknowledge. They cite the struggles faced by the National Museum of the African American History and Culture, which is expected to be completed in 2015. But they say the groundwork has been established.

Estuardo Rodriguez of The Raben Group offered pro-bono services to help organize the the National Museum of the American Latino Advisory Board, the coalition that helped to secure the bill’s passage.

“It’s pure excitement” now that the bill has been signed, Rodriguez said. “We’ve got a couple of things that we still have to take care of here, but this is very exciting for us. We don’t want to take any of that away, but there’s a lot of work.”

Rodriguez has spent the past two years building the infrastructure behind the movement, creating a database of supporters, soliciting support from Latino celebrities and reaching out to Latino leaders through visibility events and conferences for groups such as the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

The next immediate challenge, Rodriguez said, will be securing the recommended $3.2 million needed to fund the two-year commission study.

“So now with the bill actually signed off by the president, we’re still going to be doing some lobbying in terms of the appropriations,” he said. “We want to do what we can to get support for that expenditure.”

The museum will not definitely be developed as part of the Smithsonian Institution, but Becerra, who sits on the institution’s board of regents, has said he hopes to someday see a museum representing Latino culture on the National Mall.

Becerra said, however, that despite his personal preferences, the law intentionally does not specify whether the museum should be part of the Smithsonian and is drafted to “let the experts give us all the good advice” at the end of the study.