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.