It's time for a national museum honoring Latinos

Story highlights

  • Congressman again introduces legislation for a National Museum of the American Latino
  • Raul A. Reyes: Such a museum needed given that Latinos are often portrayed negatively

Raul A. Reyes, an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors, writes frequently for CNN Opinion. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Maybe the third time will be the charm. Just in time for Hispanic Heritage Month, Rep. Xavier Becerra introduced legislation last week in Congress calling for the creation of a National Museum of the American Latino.

The proposed new museum would be part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Becerra has tried three times to get this project off the ground, because the California Democrat believes the Smithsonian underserves US Latinos. "There's no better way to learn what it means to be an American than to spend time on the Mall and in the dozen or so Smithsonian museums," he said. "But if you do, you'll walk away without having an understanding of what it means to be an American of Latino descent."
    A National Museum of the American Latino is an idea that makes sense. Latinos have long been overlooked by the Smithsonian Institution and deserve a showcase for our culture and history. The proposed new museum would enrich the experience of Smithsonian visitors.
    Most Americans probably do not know that the nation's first successful school desegregation case centered on Mexican-Americans in San Diego in 1931, or that Latinos fought on both sides during the Civil War. Latinos such as the late Pedro E. Guerrero, the foremost photographer of Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, and pioneering journalist Ruben Salazar, whom law enforcement killed in East Los Angeles in 1970, are worthy of more public recognition -- and not just during Hispanic Heritage Month.
    Smithsonian museum honors African-American pioneers
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      Smithsonian museum honors African-American pioneers


    Smithsonian museum honors African-American pioneers 07:24
    The need for a national Latino museum is acute given that Latinos are often portrayed negatively or erased in our society. The Texas State Board of Education is currently giving consideration to a Mexican-American studies textbook that has been described as "dripping with racism."
    This month, a University of Southern California study on diversity in Hollywood found that Latinos continued to be underrepresented in film and TV. The nominee of a major presidential party has described Mexicans and immigrants as drug dealers and rapists. A standing national Latino museum could help counter such stereotypes by educating people about the contributions of Latinos to this country.
    The Smithsonian is the world's largest museum, educational and research complex. One of the four priorities in its mission statement is "understanding the American experience."
    But historically, the institution has not done a good job of recognizing -- let alone understanding -- how the country's 55 million Latinos fit into the American experience. In 1994, a Smithsonian task force found that the institution "displayed a pattern of willful neglect" toward Hispanics in collections, governance, personnel and resource allocation. The chairman of the task force, Raul Yzaguirre, said this meant that visitors "get a warped, distorted view of America."
    As a result, in 1997 the Center for Latino Initiatives was created. Now known as the Smithsonian Latino Center, it sponsors exhibitions and curates an online gallery. While its work is thoughtful and engaging, it is no substitute for a physical building where visitors can learn about Latinos. Consider that the Smithsonian complex recorded more than 28 million visits last year, and most of these people likely had a richer, deeper experience than they could receive by scrolling online.
    The Smithsonian already recognizes contributions by other groups. The National Museum of the American Indian opened in 2004, and the National Museum of African American History and Culture opens Saturday. Given our rise in numbers and influence, Latinos deserve a museum where we can see ourselves showcased as well. To be clear, however, this would not be a museum for Latinos alone. It would be for all visitors to share in the history and culture of Hispanic Americans.
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    The time is right to go forward on the idea of a Latino museum because bringing such a project to completion is a long process. (Congress approved the National Museum of African American History and Culture 13 years ago.)
    Becerra also has bipartisan support for his proposal, which is co-sponsored in the House by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, and in the Senate by John Cornyn, R-Texas. The proposed museum would rely on a combination of public and private funds, and would not require a new building because it would go into an existing structure, the Arts and Industries Building, now used for special programs on the National Mall.
    True, critics of a national Latino museum have said that represents a balkanization of the Smithsonian.
    "I don't want a situation where whites go to the original museum, African-Americans go the African-American museum, Indians go to the Indian museum, and Hispanics go to the Latino museum," then-Rep. Jim Moran, D-Virginia, told The New York Times in 2011. "That's not America."
    Yet the proposed museum might not have been necessary had Latinos not been excluded from representation in the Smithsonian for so long. More importantly, the renewed effort for the National Museum of the American Latino is not about Latinos being a separate part of the Smithsonian. It is about Latinos being fully part of this esteemed institution. As Becerra said, "The more we give people the chance to see what it means to be an American Latino, the better off we are."
    Latinos deserve full inclusion in the Smithsonian Institution. The National Museum of the American Latino represents an opportunity for Latinos and all Americans to take pride in our shared heritage.