Trump Could Be the One to Make the First Smithsonian Latino Museum a Reality

A bipartisan group of activists and elected officials have been working to create a national Latino museum for 26 years, and a high-stakes Senate vote this week would leave President Donald Trump to get it across the finish line before his term ends.

The push for a Smithsonian American Latino Museum began with the Smithsonian's own damning 1994 report, "Willful Neglect," which said Latinos predate the British in the Americas and have contributed significantly to every aspect of American history and culture, yet had been excluded and ignored by the institution.

The decades-long fight extends to Democrats and Republicans in Congress, with some champions of the effort, like Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, retiring, only for new elected officials to take her place and try to get the museum done.

A successful Senate vote, which organizers of the effort said could come this week, possibly Thursday, would mean the Smithsonian would take over the concept and initiative of the Latino museum. That would start with a feasibility study to decide where it would go, with the National Mall a possibility, and include how much it would cost and how long the project would take.

As with the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, half of the funds would come from Congress, and half would come from corporations and private funders. Funders of that effort like Target and 3M have reached out to Latino museum organizers to let them know they are ready to help with financing.

Senator Bob Menendez worked on the effort with former Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in 2009 during Obama's first term, back when the African American museum was getting more buy-in and attention, Democrats said.

Menendez spoke to Newsweek about the proposed museum's winding journey. "It feels as long as the journey of Latinos in the United States," he said, noting that he has worked on the effort for nearly two decades and been close to success, only to see it snatched away.

The vote could come this week, he said, and he is "cautiously optimistic" about its prospects, adding that he hopes it passes through unanimous consent, as it did in the House.

Trump signing the bill into law, the senator said, is evidence of the endurance of the Latino community throughout history, despite being the target of attacks.

"In a sense, it manifests the struggle the community has faced for a long time, the twists and turns," Menendez said. "For Trump to be the one that gets to sign it would be part of the twists, particularly on immigration, where we've seen the harsh rhetoric and language. But it's an expression that, no matter what, we are here. No matter what has happened to us. Through the rise of hate crimes and discrimination that has taken place, even so, a President Trump would sign the bill."

Organizers of the Smithsonian American Latino Museum effort said GOP members of Congress like Senator John Cornyn and Representative Will Hurd have been instrumental in getting fellow Republicans on board.

"Close to 40 percent of all Texans identify as Hispanic, and their history is an integral part of Texas history that must be recognized and remembered," Cornyn told Newsweek. "By creating a new museum in the Smithsonian Institution, we can honor American Latino contributions and highlight their stories for future generations. I look forward to passing this legislation through the Senate so we can send it to the president's desk before the end of the year."

The White House did not respond to a Newsweek request for comment on the prospect of Trump signing the legislation if it gets to him. But advocates for the museum and Republicans close to the administration believe the president will do so.

"We're hopeful that the president is also going to come along on this. I haven't heard any kind of resistance," said Daniel Garza, the executive director of the Libre Initiative, who was part of a group of Latino Republicans invited to the White House by Trump as part of his Hispanic prosperity initiative executive order in July.

"This has nothing to do with politics and has merit on its own. When you get that type of support from senators on both sides, you have to see it for what it is. A marker of our American history and representation on the national mall," Garza said.

Organizers are hoping the museum will be on the National Mall, but space is limited and there is no guarantee the Latino museum or a women's museum, which is traversing a similar road, will end up on the mall.

If it does, Estuardo Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Friends of the American Latino Museum, who has been the point man in pushing for the legislation, said his preference is a lot across from the African American museum or the Senate parking lot across from the Botanic Garden.

The Senate marked up the House bill, which included language that appeased conservatives and ensured the museum would feature a "diversity of perspectives," because of a "fear it would be a Cesar Chavez museum," Rodriguez said, speaking of the labor icon beloved by many Latinos.

"We're not monolithic by any stretch of the imagination," said Danny Vargas, a former adviser to previous Republican National Committee chairs, who began outreach to the Trump administration's Jenny Korn during a December 2016 luncheon even before inauguration. "This has been bipartisan—I call it nonpartisan—from the very beginning, with 23 individuals involved, including Democrats, Republicans and independents.

Rodriguez envisions Trump looking favorably at the opportunity to be seen as a champion for Latinos and believes the president could even do a signing ceremony before his term is done. But he noted that George W. Bush created the first commission to study the Latino museum, one that was eventually fully formed under Barack Obama. If Trump signs it, the feasibility study would be completed under Joe Biden.

"It's bigger than Trump," Rodriguez said.

Henry Muñoz III, who was the chairman of the presidential commission to study the potential for a national Latino museum, said there's a reason the 2011 report was titled "To Illuminate the American Story for All."

"If it's just for the Latino community, we're not doing a good job," he said. "Visitors to the African American museum are people of all backgrounds, and that's important because it's a part of the American story."

Those who spoke to Newsweek said it's important to note that story begins not in the English settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, but in 1565 in St. Augustine, when Spanish Admiral Pedro Menendez de Aviles claimed the land for Spain.

It's a story that could be told in full, the good and the bad, the pain and the perseverance, in a Smithsonian American Latino Museum, they said.

"It's about honoring our ancestors and inspiring our descendants," Vargas said.

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Comedian Cheech Marin shows his support for Chicano art, which he collects, on September 15, 2017. KONRAD FIEDLER/AFP/Getty