Wednesday officially marks the start of Hispanic Heritage Month.
How close is D.C. to getting a Latino museum on the National Mall?
“We’re really excited about the passage of the bill in December that lays out a fast track for identifying a location,” President and CEO of the FRIENDS of the National Museum of the American Latino Estuardo Rodriguez told WTOP. “After 16 years, our organization [is] passing the baton officially on to the Smithsonian. They now own the project.”
The “fast track” is relative, estimating it could still take eight to 10 years to complete all of the necessary planning and fundraising. The goal is 50% private and 50% federal funding.
A 2011 commission estimated the museum would cost $600 million, but the price tag has only gone up due to inflation. His board of trustees will have to raise $350 to $500 million for their private half alone, making the overall cost between $700 million and $1 billion.
“We want to make sure Congress fully funds their half and this museum sits shoulder to shoulder with the African American Museum, the American History Museum and all of the iconic museums on the National Mall that 28 million tourists come to,” Rodriguez said.
His board of trustees features heavy hitters from the world of business and culture.
“Soledad O’Brien has joined, José Andrés the restauranteur, great representatives from the financial sector, José Feliciano, Target has been an amazing supporter,” Rodriguez said. “That group is joined by Sofia Vergara, Eva Longoria [and] Emilio Estefan.”
Where would he like to see the museum eventually located?
“We have always had an idea where it should go,” Rodriguez said. “Across from the African American Museum on the opposite side toward the Holocaust Museum there’s an open grassy space right there. It is perfect. It would complete the beautiful rectangle of museums on the National Mall between the Washington Monument and U.S. Capitol.”
Would Congress ever hand over that piece of land?
“Not without a lot of noise,” Rodriguez said. “There has long been an effort to keep the mall green, but there is a real argument for it. … There are other places, but they do come with challenges. Across from the Botanical Garden there’s the Senate parking lot. Even the African American Museum wanted to go there, but the Senate refused to provide that.”
He says there has long been resistance to new museums on the National Mall.
“Change does not come easy,” Rodriguez said. “Congress comes in all over the country and they tend to dictate what happens with the iconic structures around us. … The Smithsonian is a government body controlled by Congress, the National Mall is also controlled by Congress. The idea of creating another museum created a lot of pushback.”
The aforementioned bill also paves the way for a Women’s History Museum.
“We’ve worked in support of the Women’s History Museum,” Rodriguez said. “We provided them with copies of the report that came out of the 2011 American Latino Museum Commission. We are very excited that the museum was also approved. That does pose a great challenge for Secretary [Lonnie] Bunch. He has to open not one museum, but two.”
What sort of exhibits does he envision inside the Latino museum?
“The biggest goal is to correct the myth that the Latino community is a young immigrant community that just arrived here,” Rodriguez said. “The Latino experience dates back 500 years. … Our role is extensive. … There’s so much that can be part of that … to give people a better sense of how much we truly are part of the fabric of the nation.”
He hopes that the museum will highlight Latino military service.
“Tragically in Afghanistan, with the death of 13 U.S. soldiers … the majority of them [were] of Hispanic descent,” Rodriguez said. “This is the opportunity to tell a more complete story of how much the Latino story has committed, sacrificed and contributed to all sectors of our society, from that patriotic role to everything we enjoy in arts, sports and science.”
Rodriguez was himself a part of our cultural history, appearing in “The Wire” across from the late Michael K. Williams, who played the iconic role of Baltimore gangster Omar Little.
“It’s me and this other Latino hanging out on the streets doing the stereotypical thing of dealing drugs,” Rodriguez said. “Omar comes up to me, I’m looking at him like, ‘What do you want to buy?’ He pulls a gun on me to take everything from me. It’s a comical scene if you look at me today as a lobbyist and advocate of the American Latino Museum.”