Push continues for National Museum of the American Latino on National Mall

It’s a concept that’s been in the works for decades, and the process of bringing a museum that tells the story of Latino Americans to the National Mall continues to move forward.

In 2008 a commission was formed by then-President George W. Bush, to study the creation of a museum and on that commission was Fairfax County businessman Danny Vargas.

Vargas said the next year — under President Barack Obama — the commission would convene and travel the nation to hear from the people whose stories would be told.

“What we learned were three basic things; that there was a clear and pressing need for the museum, that it should be part of the Smithsonian Institution and it really ought to be on the National Mall,” Vargas said.

According to Vargas, the Smithosonian began seeing a need for a museum such as this in 1994, with the release of a report that looked into how well its museums were doing in telling the stories of Latino Americans. The name of that final report was “Willful Neglect.”

After his commission presented its report to President Obama, Vargas would then join the board of the Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino. That began years of lobbying to get Congress to approve the building of the museum.

“This is really about illuminating the American story, about telling the stories of the over 500 years worth of Latino contributions to the building, the shaping, the defending of this country,” Vargas —  chairman emeritus of the Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino — said.

Progress was made in 2020, with the passage of the The National Museum of the American Latino Act in the U.S. House, but that bill would later be blocked by one Senator. Vargas said that’s when efforts shifted to getting the museum into the COVID relief-Omnibus bill of 2020, which was ultimately successful, and gave the Smithsonian the green light to begin work to make the museum a reality.

“At that point, it was handed over to the Smithsonian institution to pull together the Board of Trustees and begin the process of site selection and hiring a founding executive director and all that process is ongoing and under way,” Vargas said.

One push that continues, according to Vargas, is for the museum to receive a location on the National Mall so it can be close to other Smithsonian museums.

“It really is being part of telling the American story,” he said.

According the Smithsonian Institute, the site selection process is expected to be completed by the end of this year.

Another big hurdle will be funding, with estimates in 2011 at close to $600 million, and fundraising will need to come up with half the final cost.

According to the U.S. Census the Hispanic and Latino community make up just over 18% of the U.S. population, and that percentage is expected to continue to grow.

“If we hope to remain a strong, thriving and vibrant nation, that segment of the population needs to feel acknowledged, engaged and invested in our future,” he said.

A teaser of the museum will be coming this May to the National Museum of American. The Smithsonian will present its first gallery dedicated to Latino contributions to the United States, the Molina Family Latino Gallery, which it said will “present bilingual stories for multigenerational and cross-cultural audiences.”

Mike Murillo

Mike Murillo is a reporter and anchor at WTOP. Before joining WTOP in 2013, he worked in radio in Orlando, New York City and Philadelphia.

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