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National campaign to build Latino history museum comes to LA

U.S. Rep Xavier Becerra (standing) makes the case for a national museum devoted to the history of the American Latino.
U.S. Rep Xavier Becerra (standing) makes the case for a national museum devoted to the history of the American Latino.
Josie Huang/KPCC

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For something that doesn’t even exist, the National Museum of the American Latino sure is popular.

The Facebook page for the proposed Smithsonian museum is up to 129,000 “likes” – many more than well-established institutions can claim.

But as supporters of the would-be museum said at Friday’s town hall meeting at the University of Southern California, those “likes” must turn into dollar signs. The estimated cost of the project tops a half-billion dollars.

"If we can show that we can put money on the table - probably half of that - then we can probably work in Congress to get the other half,” Congressman Xavier Becerra told an audience of about 100.

Becerra, D-Los Angeles, is lead sponsor of a bill in the House that would authorize the Smithsonian Institution to operate an American Latino museum out of the vacant Arts and Industries Building on the National Mall. 

“You know in real estate, it’s location, location, location,” Becerra said. “But if we’re stuck out somewhere in the boonies with the Museum of the American Latino, it’s going to be tough for people to really get to know who we are."

If approved, a Latino museum would be the third Smithsonian museum focused on an ethnic or racial group. The National Museum of the American Indian opened in 2004. The National Museum of African American History and Culture is supposed to be built by 2015.

Estuardo Rodrigeuz, executive director of Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino, said Congress will hopefully approve Becerra’s legislation next year with bipartisan support.

Even though the museum idea has been around for decades, Rodriguez said Republicans are more interested in reaching out to the Latino community now.

“That gives us some opportunity to call them and see if they will support something like this that is very much tied to telling the stories of the Latinos in the United States,” Rodriguez said.

Panelists at the town hall meeting also included academics and museum experts such as Pilar Tompkins Rivas of the LA County Museum of Art. She said that a museum devoted to Latino art is as critical as ever.

"Having a Latino museum would give us a platform so we're not relegated to having a one-off exhibition that happens every 10 years -- which has been the case thus far in institutions in California," Rivas said.

But others question how much value an American Latino museum would bring. Some critics feel the experience of Mexican-Americans will dominate the museum because they are the largest Hispanic subgroup.  Others say that museums should not be split up by ethnicity and prefer another proposal pending in Washington: the National Museum of the American People would look at the immigration experience across different racial backgrounds. 

Still others say a Latino museum will gloss over atrocities committed by Spanish colonists, and ignore the experience of indigenous people.  Olin Tezcatlipoca of the indigenous rights group,  Mexica Movement, was allotted time to close Friday's meeting.

"The intent of this museum is cultural castration of our people as indigenous people, of our people’s identity," Tezcatlipoca said.

Rodriguez said that is not the intent, but the specifics of what the museum features will have to wait until after it’s approved.

“Then we can decide how the stories are presented within the walls of the museum,” Rodriguez said. 

Even if fellow politicians vote for Becerra’s bill, a Latino museum still faces years of hurdles ahead.

A study on the feasibility of housing the museum at the Arts and Industries building could take 18 months. There's also the challenge of raising capital for the museum, given a lackluster economy. (Current fundraising is going to a public awareness campaign.)

So under even the best circumstances,  Rodriguez said, a Latino museum could be a decade away.