WASHINGTON — An ambitious plan to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to build the first national museum to honor and recognize the contributions of Hispanics in America won high-level backing Thursday, but faces significant hurdles.
As envisioned by its supporters, the National Museum of the American Latino would rise near the U.S. Capitol and tell the story of the Hispanic experience in America, starting with the arrival of Spanish conquistadors to what is present-day Florida.
For Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a former Colorado senator who endorsed the project Thursday, the museum will help people understand the contributions of Hispanics in America. His ancestors helped found Santa Fe, New Mexico, 400 years ago, Salazar said, but learned little about that legacy at school as a child.
"For the Latino community, much of our history does not get told," he said Thursday as he threw his support behind the proposal, which must win congressional approval before it can be realized. He joined the 23-member federally appointed commission as it unveiled its report to Congress and the president, recommending that the museum be built on the National Mall.
"The mall, more than any other public space in our country does indeed tell the story of America, and yet that story is not complete," said Henry Munoz, a San Antonio, Texas designer who chaired the commission. "There must also be a living monument that recognizes that Latinos were here well before 1776 and that in this new century, the future is increasingly Latino."
Beyond a staging area for artifacts, the commission calls for a "a 21st century learning laboratory," that would display Latino art and culture, as well as point out how Hispanics have been intertwined with America, beginning with Juan Ponce de Leon's landing in what he called La Florida in 1513.
"The vibrancy of the American Latino experience, in all its manifestations, could be presented to show the great range of the human spirit and imagination," the commission's report says.
The obstacles are considerable, including concerns that the National Mall — home to the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument — is getting crowded, a $600 million price tag during a sluggish economy, congressional opposition to creating separate museums for various ethnicities and a strained national debate over immigration.
But supporters counter that the museum will be as much about the U.S. as Latinos, and would educate the public on the richness of America's social fabric, thanks in part to the Latino presence.
"It will show the American dream," said music producer and commission member Emilio Estefan. "More than anything else, showing the history, the culture, will help people better understand the Latino community."
Estefan — who was appointed to the commission by President Barack Obama — said the president has "encouraged us to take the message to everybody."
"I'm looking forward to working hard and raising a lot of money," Estefan said. "Maybe I won't be alive when it happens, but this would be the best heritage I can leave for my daughter, for my son, for the Hispanic community."
He and actress Eva Longoria are lending the project star power — Munoz noted their presence on the panel had boosted interest.
"I learned that when you work with Eva and Emilio, people pay attention, people Twitter," he quipped.
The museum's Facebook page features Longoria, who noted she was a ninth-generation American, growing up in South Texas on land that her family acquired in the 1600s.
"I'm living proof that Latinos have been in America for a very long time," the "Desperate Housewives" star said. "A greater understanding of the long history and significant contributions of Latinos in America benefits all Americans, not just Latinos."
The biggest hurdle may be money. The project — which requires congressional approval — is estimated to cost $600 million and would be paid for by a 50-50 split between taxpayer dollars and private fundraising. But even Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Miami Republican who was among the original sponsors of the legislation setting up the commission, said she had reservations.
"While I enthusiastically support this endeavor of having a museum where Latinos can showcase our achievements and rich history, I will be frank in saying that my priority and that of my colleagues is to cut runaway federal spending and get our economic house in order," Ros-Lehtinen said.
But commission member Luis Cancel, director of cultural affairs at the San Francisco Arts Commission, said the commission took current economic conditions into account and believes most of the initial planning and design could be done using private donations. No federal dollars would be needed until the sixth year, he said.
"We're confident the American economy will allow federal participation, but down the road," he said.
Salazar pledged to help raise money privately. Munoz acknowledged that construction won't be easy, noting that similar museums have taken 20 to 25 years.
"We're not going to be satisfied with that," he said. "We'd like to see it constructed within our lifetime."
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