A project to build a national museum of Latino history and culture is up in the air amid a dispute over the museum’s contents that has cast its funding prospects into the larger fight over the fiscal 2024 budget.
The House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday approved an interior and environment funding bill that bans the federal government from spending any taxpayer money on the National Museum of the American Latino, part of the Smithsonian Institution, which was approved by Congress in 2020.
With zero funding for a project that’s been a core priority for many U.S. Latinos, the museum’s immediate future is now at the mercy of highly politicized budget negotiations in Congress.
“This is an unfortunate roadblock: to now be talking about zeroing out funding to the museum,” said Estuardo Rodríguez, president and CEO of the Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino.
At Wednesday’s Appropriations hearing, Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.) introduced an amendment to restore funding to the museum that was defeated 27-33.
“The Latino community is not monolithic. We are very diverse and the fact that Republicans want to drive a stake into the heart of the Smithsonian Museum honoring the Latino culture in America is unacceptable,” wrote Espaillat on Twitter.
With Wednesday’s vote, the fight over funding the museum moved outside the committee’s reach, making it more difficult for any single legislator to reverse the action.
Before the funding fight, the Latino museum was searching for a permanent home, lobbying Congress to approve construction in one of two sites on the National Mall; a parallel push is being made to house the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum, which received funding in Wednesday’s vote.
Republicans stripped the Latino museum’s funding in a dispute over its contents, vision and a gallery billed as “the first physical presence of the National Museum of the American Latino” the Molina Family Latino Gallery at the National Museum of American History.
The Molina Gallery currently hosts the “¡Presente!” exhibit, which seeks to provide an overview of U.S. Latino history in a relatively limited space, but critics have said it reflects an ideological view, with a focus on European colonialism, forced migration and U.S. interventions in Latin America that propped up right-wing dictatorships.
The Molina Gallery’s avoidance of criticism of left-leaning totalitarian governments such as Fidel Castro’s in Cuba angered many Latinos whose communities came to the United States fleeing such regimes.
“I don’t know who did this, I don’t know if they’re Hispanic, but it’s really kind of like a racist portrayal of Hispanics. And also just trying to portray the United States as evil in every way,” said Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart (R-Fla.), who has taken the lead in expressing GOP concerns on the issue.
Díaz-Balart’s issues with the exhibit generally mirror frictions that exist among communities that compose the broader U.S. Hispanic community.
Those differences can stem from peoples’ diverse countries of origin, reasons for migrating, length of time in the United States and other factors.
Broadly speaking, the dispute illustrates competing visions of Latino history, one anchored in the Mexican-American economic migration experience and another in the Cuban-American experience of fleeing the totalitarian regime set up in Cuba after 1959.
Hispanic identity in the United States is a diverse patchwork quilt of cultural experiences from more than 20 countries on three continents that’s created several distinct political and historical viewpoints within the community.
Díaz-Balart said the gallery’s focus on U.S. history of interventionism in Latin America and portrayal of Latinos as victims is offensive.
The gallery is named after C. David Molina and his wife, Mary Molina, the ancestors of the Molina family that funded the project.
Molina was the founder of Molina Healthcare, now a Fortune 500 company, which he started in 1980 to provide medical services to workers in Southern California.
According to detractors, the Molina Gallery shows Latinos through that Southern California lens, distorting the history of the country’s Hispanic community overall.
“For taxpayer money to be used, it’s got to be done well,” said Díaz-Balart.
“I for one have no inclination to support any entity that basically distorts the history and the reality of the Latino communities and of Latinos in the United States and then uses this as an excuse to bash, basically, the United States and make Latinos and Hispanics victims.”
But the museum’s supporters say the project can’t be judged based on one gallery’s contents.
“To hold the Smithsonian accountable to a gallery that was conceived prior to the actual bill passing in December 2020, that was conceived prior to Jorge Zamanillo ever getting the first job interview to be the director of the American Latino Museum, that’s unfair,” said Rodríguez.
Zamanillo, a Cuban-American anthropologist who headed the HistoryMiami Museum from 2016 to 2022, was appointed director of the Smithsonian Latino museum in May of 2022, barely a month before the Molina Gallery opened.
HistoryMiami, formerly the Historical Museum of Southern Florida, is a Smithsonian-affiliated institution that’s the largest historical museum in Florida.
The Smithsonian did not immediately respond to The Hill’s request for comment on this story.
Rodríguez said he toured the Molina Gallery with members of Díaz-Balart’s staff to alleviate Republican worries about the content.
“I had a very good conversation about all of the concerns. I agreed with some of the concerns, but I also said, ‘This is 5,000 square feet. In 5,000 square feet, you’re just not going to be able to give every single exhibit the attention it deserves, right? You’re jamming 500 years of history into 5,000 square feet,’” said Rodríguez.
But Díaz-Balart said the Smithsonian has only given “lip service” to his complaints.
“I would hope that it was done right, but I’m not gonna just roll over – which is I think what they expected,” he said.
“For a long, long time, I’ve been sending every message possible. ‘Hey, folks, this is real. We have a serious problem.’ And it’s not just me, it’s not just me. So here’s where we are, and I hope that they wake up, I do. But as of now, they clearly have not.”
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