WASHINGTON – Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said the creation of the Smithsonian Museum of the American Latino has been “set aside for far too long” and is now “far more timely than ever” before.
Menendez and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) are sponsors of the Smithsonian American Latino Museum Act, which authorizes the construction of a national museum to honor the contributions of Latino Americans. Menendez said the bill “shouldn’t be controversial” for anyone who understands that Latinos, the nation’s largest ethnic group, “play an important part” in the past, present and future of America.
“Since the dawn of our democracy, Hispanic Americans have been an indisputable part of American history and new chapters of that history are written every day by the more than 56 million people who make America’s Latino community so strong. For years, I have been fighting this fight with all of you to pay tribute to Hispanic Americans’ extraordinary contributions and pass legislation to make this long overdue museum a reality,” Menendez said at a press conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday.
“At a time when hateful rhetoric so often poisons our airwaves and our newsfeeds, this legislation will send a strong and uplifting message, a message that says to the Latino community that Democrats and Republicans alike recognize their achievements and support their success,” he added.
Actress Eva Longoria has been an outspoken supporter for a national Latino museum and lobbied for its creation in Washington as early as 2009. Actress Diane Guerrero, from Orange is the New Black and Jane the Virgin, joined lawmakers on Thursday to emphasize the need for the museum’s construction.
“I was so excited because this is the kind of thing my friends talk about, you know, we sit around and drink coffee and you know, we’re really angry, we’re like, where’s the Latino museum? Where’s our history? Where can go with our families, where can we go with our friends to learn about our history?” said Guerrero, author of In the Country We Love: My Family Divided.
“So immediately I wanted to be part of this project and do whatever I could to help and spread the message of awareness and the absolute necessity this museum is and what it would mean to our country and our community. Latinos and Latinas have contributed to every aspect of society in the United States,” she added.
Guerrero said she hopes young Latinos will one day be able to visit the museum and learn about the history of former President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order, which was implemented 5 years ago.
“Happy birthday, DACA,” Guerrero said before stressing the strong level of public interest in the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture. “It is clear that a hunger exists across the nation for a deeper telling of U.S. history that gives a voice to untold stories, particularly the stories of people of color. Yesterday’s tragedy also reminds us that we need to elevate the stories of all of us who have come together to create this rich tapestry of the story that is America.”
Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the first Hispanic woman elected to Congress, said the museum would serve as a “symbol” that represents “all of the strife” Latinos faced in their home countries. She explained that the bill starts the process of finding an appropriate location for the museum, which would be built with a mix of public and private funding.
“I left my homeland of Cuba when I was only 8 years old, but whether you’ve come here because of the problems in your country or whether you’ve come here because you are seeking a new opportunity or maybe your family has been here for generations – that is part of the American Latino story as well,” she said. “The Smithsonian – a great enterprise – but it hasn’t told the public the full story of America yet.”
Menendez encouraged Latinos to come together to tell the story of their history or risk someone else doing it for them.
“I personally refuse to let our stories go on untold. We are of America, for America and we make up one of the best parts of America,” he said.
Lawmakers including Reps. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) and Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.) also spoke in support a national Latino museum.
Cornyn was unable to attend the press conference but issued a statement.
“The history and culture of American Latinos are ingrained in the fabric of this great nation,” Cornyn said. “More than one third of the Texans I represent identify as Hispanic, and I’m proud to again join Sen. Menendez as we fight to honor their heritage with this first step for a museum.”