American Latinos' dream: A museum in D.C.

WASHINGTON — Tucked into a vast public lands measure approved by Congress last week was a bill that thrilled Hispanic lawmakers and activists.

The legislation, which the White House is expected to approve, creates a 23-member panel to study the viability of a National Museum of the American Latino Community in Washington. Proponents hope the museum will rise above the din of the illegal immigration debate to highlight the contributions to U.S. society by the 45 million-strong Latino community.

"This could really happen," said Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. "We could really make this come true."

The museum still faces big obstacles, including the lack of space in the Smithsonian complex in Washington, a hefty construction bill and what supporters say is the almost certain opposition by groups who believe it would cast a positive light on illegal migrants. Backers counter that the museum will educate the public on the richness of America's social fabric thanks in part to Latino presence.

California Democrat Rep. Xavier Becerra, who has been pushing for the commission since 2003, said the Smithsonian museum complex struck him as "phenomenal" when he first visited it as a newly minted lawyer in the mid-1980s.

But it presented "an incomplete picture of what it means to be an American."

"This is not an issue of trying to portray one type of American or another," he said. "It's to try and give everyone a better sense of what it's like to be an American."

Congressman Becerra's Web page lists 15 Latino museums around the country, including the National Hispanic Cultural Center of New Mexico in Albuquerque and the Florida International Museum in St. Petersburg. The Smithsonian Latino Center in Washington, with a $1 million annual budget, mainly organizes traveling exhibitions.

Becerra, who has worked with Ros-Lehtinen and other lawmakers to promote the idea, says these facilities do not give justice to the rich contributions of Latinos to U.S. society.

The content, cost and location of a Latino museum will be determined by the bipartisan commission but interviews with museum backers indicate the idea is to showcase Latino culture in the United States rather than the culture of the countries from which migrants originated.

This means displaying not only contemporary icons like labor activist Cesar Chavez and salsa singer Celia Cruz, but also pointing out how Hispanics have been intertwined with America at its earliest inception.

Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), said the St. Augustine Spanish settlement in Florida predates the New England pilgrims. "Our ancestors were here before Plymouth Rock," he said. "Americans have lots of amnesia, they forget."

The Latino museum push has been under way for several years but it took on a sense of urgency after the Senate failed to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul amid a strong backlash, mainly from conservatives.

"Lamentably, now we're mired in this very divisive, nasty, name-calling, xenophobic environment," said Ros-Lehtinen. "That doesn't lend itself to racial and ethnic harmony but I think that this museum could serve as a bridge to other communities so that they get a better understanding of what our community has gone through, what we've endured and what we've accomplished."

"Education breeds tolerance and acceptance and that's what we want," she added. "Ignorance breeds hatred and divisions."

The measure passed the House, 291-117, and earlier was approved, 91-4, in the Senate.

Museums don't come cheap.

The completed National Museum of the American Indian cost $219 million. The National Museum of the African American History under construction is expected to run $500 million by the time it is completed in 2015.

The Raben Group, LLC, a Washington firm that lobbied pro bono for the Latino museum, has already lined up several big-name corporate sponsors on its museum advisory board, including Univision Communications Inc., PepsiCo and Comcast Corp.

Estuardo Rodriguez, a principal with Raben Group, said corporate backing would be crucial, given that Smithsonian finances have come under congressional scrutiny lately.

Resistance to the museum from groups opposed to illegal immigration has so far been muted but Rodriguez says the politics of immigration will constitute a challenge.