WASHINGTON — California is a culturally rich state full of different views and backgrounds, and as such, congressional lawmakers stated it should be easier to appreciate and learn about one another.
What You Need To Know
- Southern California lawmakers are renewing their push for a Smithsonian National Museum of the American Latino in Washington
- One former Florida Republican played a vital role at the start of this proposal
- This summer, the House passed the National Museum of the American Latino Act and now awaits a response from the Senate
- Rep. Ros-Lehtinen said the fight will continue with California playing a vital role
The Latinx community makes up 39 percent of California’s population, according to the latest census estimates, and Southern California lawmakers are renewing their push for a new investment in diversity: the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Latino in Washington, D.C.
Former Florida Republican Congresswoman – and mother of two – Ileana Ros-Lehtienen played a vital role in the museums’ proposal. As a Latina, Ros-Lehtienen is proud of her origin.
“We don’t have a very big family, but we have a very close-knit family,” she said.
Ros-Lehtienen’s heritage is a part of the reason why she got involved in politics and ultimately became the first Cuban American and Latina ever elected to Congress in 1989.
“It’s a source of pride for me, but thank goodness there have been many other Latinas now in Congress,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
During her tenure, Ros-Lehtinen was a champion for her district through her work on the Foreign Affairs Committee and with the Cuban Democracy Act. But perhaps one of her most prized proposals was a bill she introduced in 2003, for a commission to look at the feasibility of a new National Smithsonian Museum of the American Latino.
Ros-Lehtinen said the idea dawned on her one day when she was taking her kids around Washington.
“Gosh, there's no good place to take them so that they find out about their heritage,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Even though you know someone might be from Spain and someone might be from Brazil and Honduras and Cuba, but we all have a lot in common.”
After the commission was approved and the researchers released the feasibility report in 2011, Ros-Lehtinen joined then-California Democrat Xavier Becerra and then-New York Democrat Jose Serrano, to establish the actual museum.
Time and time again, the bill failed. Becerra served until 2017 when he became California’s Attorney General, and Ros-Lehtinen retired in 2019. Serrano introduced the bill one last time in 2019 before he retired due to Parkinson’s disease.
The bill was addressed on the House floor this summer in July where lawmakers, like San Bernardino Democrat Pete Aguilar, expressed support for the museum and the people behind the initiative.
“Representative Serrano announced his retirement, where he told the committee ‘If you want to give me a going-away present that I will cherish forever, give me a museum’,” Aguilar said.
Aguilar, who’s a part of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said they’re picking up the torch.
“All of us have our stories and that’s what I love about the Hispanic Caucus. We have a shared identity and shared culture. We tease each other and love each other,” Aguilar said.
The Latinx community amounts to 18 percent of the nation’s population, 5 percent more than the African American population, according to 2019 Census estimates. In 2003, the National Museum of African American History and Culture was established.
Critics of the bill said the Smithsonian should focus on improving the museums it has now, rather than spin off specialty museums. They also worry it could be too costly, as this museum is estimated to be $600 million, according to the 2011 feasibility report. But Aguilar said half of that will be covered by private investors.
“I mean all of these influences are so important to tell their entire story. So what I would envision is just rich mosaic of stories from across this country,” Aguilar said.
This summer, the House passed the National Museum of the American Latino Act with 295 cosponsors, including 61 Republicans, and now awaits a response from the Senate. There is some bipartisan support in the Senate for this bill, but skeptics said it’s not enough.
Ros-Lehtinen said the fight will continue with California playing a vital role.
“California plays such a pivotal role; such a great concentration of Hispanics and Latinos living in California. They are very supportive in a bipartisan manner, and we’ve always had good support from the California congressional delegation,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
“I think the main message that folks will come away when they view this museum is: ‘Wow. I had no idea that Hispanics were here, even before there was the United States of America. Wow, I did not know that there were Hispanic astronauts. Wow, I did not know that we had some of the leading researchers at Johns Hopkins in medical research on COVID or AIDS or any of our Hispanics. And boy, this is something I want my, my grandkids to know about.’ I think people will be blown away by the depth and the breadth of Hispanic contributions to American society.”
If the bill isn't signed into law this year, Aguilar said he and the Hispanic Caucus are determined to introduce the bill again next year.
The Smithsonian Latino Center, which is a team that tries to incorporate Latino influence into the national museums, said they're planning to open their first physical gallery to explore the diversity of Latino history in Spring 2022.
Ros-Lehtinen said that’s a step in the right direction, but is holding out hope for this national museum.