Campaign Intensifies for Latino Museum on the National Mall

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Rodriguez: New leader of FRIENDS.
National Journal
Courtney McBride
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Courtney McBride
Nov. 4, 2013, 4:02 p.m.

The ca­boose at the end of the im­mig­ra­tion-re­form train that is slowly chug­ging up­hill in Con­gress is a dream that Lati­nos will be of­fi­cially re­cog­nized as a vi­tal part of U.S. his­tory and cul­ture.

It’s a dream that stems from a long-re­cog­nized de­fi­ciency in the col­lec­tions and ex­hib­its of the Smith­so­ni­an In­sti­tu­tion, and it has a name, des­ig­nated by Con­gress in le­gis­la­tion that cre­ated a study com­mis­sion five years ago: the Na­tion­al Mu­seum of the Amer­ic­an Latino.

But a bill to au­thor­ize such a mu­seum re­mains stalled along with the re­form of im­mig­ra­tion laws that seemed so prom­ising just months ago. In an ef­fort to kick-start the bill and gen­er­ate more en­thu­si­asm for the pro­ject, Es­tu­ardo Rodrig­uez has taken over as ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Friends of the Na­tion­al Mu­seum of the Amer­ic­an Latino — known simply as FRIENDS — with a mis­sion of filling the void of His­pan­ic-Amer­ic­an his­tory at the Smith­so­ni­an.

“You can­not con­tin­ue to tell the story of the United States without filling in those gaps,” said Rodrig­uez, a prin­cip­al at the Raben Group, a pub­lic-policy firm that vo­lun­teered in 2006 to lead the ef­fort to cre­ate a Latino mu­seum.

“It’s not a mat­ter of do­ing it just for the Latino com­munity in the United States; it’s a mat­ter of his­tor­ic­al ac­cur­acy,” he said.

One of the chief spon­sors of le­gis­la­tion to es­tab­lish a Latino mu­seum is Rep. Xavi­er Be­cerra, D-Cal­if., who was first elec­ted to Con­gress in 1992 and was in­spired two years later by a re­port titled “Will­ful Neg­lect” is­sued by the Smith­so­ni­an In­sti­tu­tion Task Force on Latino Is­sues. “The Smith­so­ni­an In­sti­tu­tion al­most en­tirely ex­cludes and ig­nores the Latino pop­u­la­tion of the United States,” the re­port said.

“Mil­lions of people are vis­it­ing the Mall to learn about what it means to be an Amer­ic­an,” Be­cerra said in an in­ter­view Monday, “and there is this ab­sence of the full rich­ness of what it means to be an Amer­ic­an.”

Be­cerra and Sen. Robert Men­en­dez, D-N.J., have in­tro­duced com­pan­ion bills in the House and Sen­ate that would au­thor­ize fun­drais­ing to be­gin for a mu­seum, and it is slowly gar­ner­ing bi­par­tis­an sup­port — Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., signed on in mid-Oc­to­ber.

Be­cerra ac­know­ledged that the concept of a mu­seum “takes some time to per­col­ate to the top,” but his fo­cus is on rais­ing aware­ness among law­makers. “This isn’t a par­tis­an is­sue, but it needs bi­par­tis­an sup­port,” he said.

While Be­cerra is mar­shal­ing sup­port in Con­gress, Rodrig­uez is build­ing back­ing for the pro­ject among His­pan­ic-Amer­ic­ans. His firm, the Raben Group, was in­stru­ment­al in the 2008 pas­sage of a bill that set up a study com­mis­sion for the mu­seum, and the pan­el is­sued a re­port in 2011 ur­ging Con­gress to au­thor­ize a Latino mu­seum so that site se­lec­tion and fun­drais­ing for the pro­ject could be­gin.

The com­mis­sion’s re­port es­tim­ated a total cost of $650 mil­lion, of which FRIENDS ex­pects to raise half through a cap­it­al cam­paign. For the site, the pan­el re­com­men­ded either a va­cant tract near the Cap­it­ol at First Street and Pennsylvania Av­en­ue NW, or the Smith­so­ni­an’s Arts and In­dus­tries Build­ing, a red-brick struc­ture opened in 1881 next to the ori­gin­al Smith­so­ni­an Castle. It has been va­cant since Janu­ary 2004, but has un­der­gone ex­tens­ive renov­a­tions and is slated to re­open in sum­mer 2014 to show­case ex­hib­its on in­nov­a­tion. Be­cerra noted, however, that there is “a real com­pet­i­tion for the site.”

A ma­jor part of the FRIENDS’ pro­mo­tion­al ef­forts so far has been a cam­paign reach­ing out to cor­por­a­tions, aca­demia, elec­ted of­fi­cials, and stu­dents to build grass­roots sup­port for a Latino mu­seum, Rodrig­uez said. In the cam­paign, he ad­ded, “our chal­lenge is in com­mu­nic­at­ing how di­verse the Latino com­munity is.”

At­tendees at town-hall meet­ings have as­sumed that a U.S. Latino mu­seum would be ded­ic­ated to Mex­ic­an-Amer­ic­ans, rather than to the wide range of His­pan­ics who share lin­guist­ic and cul­tur­al ties. “The best part of this mu­seum ef­fort,” Rodrig­uez said, “is that we don’t have to choose — be­cause his­tory is his­tory.”

The FRIENDS’ mis­sion is dis­tinct from an­oth­er on­go­ing cam­paign to build a Na­tion­al Mu­seum of the Amer­ic­an People ded­ic­ated to mi­gra­tion and im­mig­ra­tion in the United States. Rodrig­uez said Latino his­tory is much more than a story of im­mig­ra­tion, be­cause many Amer­ic­an Lati­nos have long been res­id­ent in the United States.

“There’s a huge dif­fer­ence between the im­mig­rant com­munity and the U.S. Latino his­tory that we want to tell,” he said.

Rodrig­uez is a nat­ive of Wash­ing­ton, where his par­ents have run busi­nesses for four dec­ades, and he grew up in North­ern Vir­gin­ia where he and his fam­ily live today. After earn­ing a law de­gree at St. John’s Uni­versity, Rodrig­uez joined a fel­low­ship pro­gram at the Hous­ing and Urb­an De­vel­op­ment De­part­ment un­der then-Sec­ret­ary Henry Cis­ner­os.

He went to work for the Demo­crat­ic Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee dur­ing the 2000 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign, then got a job at a small con­sult­ing firm be­fore work­ing on John Kerry’s 2004 pres­id­en­tial cam­paign. Af­ter­ward, he joined the Raben Group, where his cli­ents range from the Na­tion­al His­pan­ic Lead­er­ship Agenda to the Prop­erty Cas­u­alty In­surers As­so­ci­ation.

Rodrig­uez is also cofounder and past pres­id­ent of the His­pan­ic Lob­by­ists As­so­ci­ation. A self-de­scribed World Cup soc­cer “fan­at­ic,” he hopes to at­tend the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil.

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