It’s officially Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. That heritage includes the history of Latino engagement in civil rights struggles here in the U.S.
I find it deeply troubling that two right-wing Hispanic American Republican politicians—Reps. Mario Díaz-Balart of Florida, and Tony Gonzales of Texas— decided to attack and censor segments of history being presented by historians who have developed programs for The National Museum of the American Latino, which has not yet been built. They have also called for Congress to defund the entire project.
We are already faced with the suppression and expulsion of Black American history from classrooms in red states like Florida, with Gov. Ron DeKlantis as a leading cheerleader. This latest right-wing move will simply piggyback onto those efforts, since Afro-Latinos in the U.S. Caribbean diaspora and Indigenous-ancestored Latinos have long been targets of both historical and contemporary racism and erasure.
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This latest effort from the right was highlighted in Olivia B. Waxman’s in-depth Sept. 15 story in TIME.
Inside the Controversy Over the National Museum of the American Latino
The National Museum of the American Latino doesn’t even have a building yet, but its work is already controversial.
For the last two years, historians had been working on an exhibit about the history of Latino youth movements that would help serve as a preview for the new museum. The show was supposed to be the largest federally funded Smithsonian exhibit on Latino civil rights history, and it drew input from the nation’s top Latino historians and veterans of the movement. It was set to feature student walkouts, efforts to integrate schools, and environmental and immigration activism.
But after pushback from conservative Latinos in the private sector and the halls of Congress, that exhibit is on hold. A new one on salsa and Latin music is being developed in its place, the Smithsonian confirmed to TIME.
The incident is part of a larger fight that will determine who gets to tell the history of Latinos in the museum dedicated to it. The fate of the museum itself may be at stake. On one side are liberal historians like Johanna Fernandez and Felipe Hinojosa, two of the scholars who helped develop the paused exhibit. On the other are conservative Hispanic political activists and Cuban-American politicians like Florida Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart, who voted to defund the museum this summer. “If conservatives are serious about culture wars, they should definitely defund this museum,” says Alfonso Aguilar, the President of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.
The New York Times’ culture reporter Jennifer Schuessler wrote:
Partisan battles over America’s past, and divisions among Latinos, are affecting this new institution set to be built on the National Mall.
For the Latino museum, authorized by Congress in 2020, the Smithsonian has identified two possible sites on the Mall. Construction is expected to cost roughly $800 million, with half coming from federal sources. (So far, $58 million has been raised.) While no timetable has been announced for its opening, the Smithsonian estimates it will take about 12 years. In the meantime, the museum operates a 4,500-square-foot gallery inside the National Museum of American History. The gallery — the first space at the Smithsonian dedicated to Latino history and culture — opened in June 2022 with “¡Presente!,” a broad survey of Latino history.
The civil rights show, which had the working title “Latino Youth Movements,” was to follow in 2025. Planning began in July 2021, and involved in-house curators as well as two historians hired as guest curators, Johanna Fernandez and Felipe Hinojosa.
Ms. Fernandez, a professor at Baruch College in Manhattan and the author of a prizewinning book about the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican counterpart to the Black Panther Party, had previously helped curate a well-received exhibition about the group at the Bronx Museum of the Arts. Mr. Hinojosa, a professor at Baylor University in Texas, is the author of a recent book about the occupations of churches by Latino activists in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Houston in the late 1960s. Mr. Hinojosa said that the growing literature on the Latino civil rights movement tends to tell regional stories. “This was the first exhibit of its kind to bring all stories together under one roof,” he said. As Ms. Fernandez put it, “This is history that nobody knows.”
Power4PuertoRico is “a national coalition of the Puerto Rican Diaspora and allies working full-time and year-round for federal policies and legislation that will support Puerto Rico’s just recovery, economic growth and self-sufficiency.”
The group issued a Sept. 18 statement in response.
STATEMENT ON SMITHSONIAN “PAUSING” EXHIBIT ON LATINO YOUTH MOVEMENTS
Washington DC— As reported at the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, the National Museum of the American Latino under pressure by Latino conservatives has pulled an exhibit that would have highlighted youth movements, such as the activism of the Young Lords and environmental organizing after Hurricane Maria. This erasure of factual history —through politically forced omission— is unacceptable.
There is no question that the Young Lords were a pivotal force in the history of the Puerto Rican Diaspora and shaped policies and practices for the better in US cities. They showed Boricuas how to claim our Blackness, work in solidarity, and unapologetically defend our rights.
The revelation of this latest attempt to erase our community’s history and impact comes as we prepare to remember the thousands we lost after Hurricane Maria and during largely silence around the 125th anniversary of the US invasion of Puerto Rico. In states like Florida, our community has had to push back against the elimination of a children’s book on baseball legend and humanitarian Roberto Clemente, and in Texas, we also had to protest a Latin American literary event excluding Puerto Ricans.
It is the duty of Puerto Ricans, Latinos, and allies to vocally stand up against this erasure, in the way our ancestors fought for the visibility of our flag. Otherwise, we can surely expect even more egregious attempts to omit truths about our experience.
We insist that the Smithsonian not participate in the dilution, distortion, or omission of the Young Lords and the Chicano, Mexican and immigrant rights movements that are part of this exhibit.
In the interest of transparency, I must point out that I am also taking this attack personally. I am neither Caribbean nor Latina. However, I am weighing in on this whole mess because I am embroiled in it due to pressure to erase The Young Lords Organization and Young Lords Party as important parts of the political history of Puerto Ricans in the diaspora. And as you may have read before, or noticed in the image above, The Young Lords is an organization I was a leading member of.
RELATED STORY: The Young Lords' health care fights of the 1970s rage on today
Johanna Fernandez is both a good friend and superb historian of the Young Lords, who were a key part of the history of addressing issues around systemic racism targeting Boricuas and race and racism within the Puerto Rican (and Latino) community, as well as in building alliances with Black American activist groups.
To erase us is to erase not only that history, but to ignore the fact that this struggle is ongoing.
RELATED STORY: 'Mapping Resistance': Activism past and present and the New York Young Lords
Fernandez hosts a one-hour radio program, “What’s Going On! Friday,” on New York City’s Pacifica radio station, WBAI-FM. Last Friday, her guests were historian and professor Felipe Hinojosa and journalist Ed Morales. They discussed the cancellation of the Smithsonian’s “Latino Youth Movements” program.
Fernandez and her guests also discussed August 2022’s “The Smithsonian’s Latino exhibit is a disgrace,” an opinion piece published in The Hill with a triple byline: Alfonso Aguilar (president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles), Mike Gonzalez (a senior fellow at The Heritage Foundation), and Joshua Trevino (chief of Intelligence and Research at the Texas Public Policy Foundation). On Sept. 5., the trio posted a follow-up: “Don’t make taxpayers fund Smithsonian’s Marxist Latino museum.”
Pardon me for not quoting their rants. Instead, here are two clips with Fernandez on Tuesday’s “Democracy Now.”
Other high-profile Latinos, like Maria Teresa Kumar, founding president and CEO of Voto Latino, are speaking out to push Congress to authorize the museum’s construction.
I hope you will support the efforts to push Congress to authorize construction of the National Museum of the American Latino, and to stop right-wing politicians from suppressing the important work of historians and curators who seek to educate each of us about all of us.
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