What Americans Don’t Know about Latino History Could Fill a MuseumRoundup
tags: Smithsonian, Latino/a history
Stephen Pitti is a professor of history, American Studies, and Ethnicity, Race and Migration at Yale University. He is a former chair of the National Historic Landmarks Committee of the National Park Service. @latinohistory
On Thursday, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) blocked a bipartisan congressional effort to establish a new Smithsonian National Museum of the American Latino, declaring that “the last thing we need is to further divide an already divided nation with an array of segregated, separate-but-equal museums for hyphenated identity groups.”
Warning of the dangers of a new Latino history museum, he accused its supporters of ascribing to a “so-called critical theory” that “weaponizes diversity,” that “sharpens all those hyphens into so many knives and daggers,” and turns “college campuses into grievance pageants and loose Orwellian mobs.”
Lee’s exaggerations sidestepped every available fact about Latinos in the United States. They caricatured the views of the museum’s supporters, including historians, museum professionals, community leaders and business executives. He was the only senator to oppose a bill embraced by a majority in the House and Senate (including most of the California congressional delegation), President-elect Joe Biden and the Smithsonian’s leadership. President Trump is expected to sign the bill if it lands on his desk.
We have heard this kind of thing before — the view that fully recognizing the importance and primacy of the histories of Americans of color is automatically seen as divisive. An adjunct of that idea is that public institutions should promote a single message like ideological epoxy. But museums of history should neither be monuments to timeless truths nor ideological glue sticks. They should be educational and research institutions, equipped to present truths and complexity about the past and present.
Unfortunately, ignorance of the history of Latinos in America — from the development of the West to the cultural and economic contributions of Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Central Americans, Dominicans and other Latinos — is widespread. And that ignorance affects how we understand, or fail to understand, Latino communities in the present day.
A new national museum would be able to tackle this complex narrative under one roof. It may not be able to present every aspect of this vast history, but it could greatly expand public understanding of a central part of this country’s heritage.