September 24, 2023—This is National Hispanic Heritage Month, a time to celebrate the numerous contributions of the Latinx and Hispanic community—the second largest racial and ethnic group after White Americans. But amid this annual commemoration from September 15 to October 15, there is a culture war brewing that is threatening the future building of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Latino and represents a lurking danger for the arts.
According to a recent article in Time Magazine, since the opening of the National Museum of the American Latino, which I wrote about last year for the readers of Arts & Culture Connections, a group of conservative Hispanic government and business leaders, along with commentators, have been attacking the content of the exhibit in the Molina Family Gallery. At issue, according to the article, is a new exhibit planned for 2025. The conservative group, which includes representatives of Congress, The Heritage Foundation and the 1776 Commission, believes the museum is painting Latinos as victims of oppression, while two historians who have been working for the past two years on the new exhibit for the museum believe that the fight against injustice is an integral part of Latino history.
One of the conservative group leaders went so far as to write: “If conservatives are serious about culture wars, they should definitely defund the museum.”
Among the events the historians had planned to highlight in the exhibition were the Young Lords’ 1970 takeover of Lincoln Hospital in New York City, which led to the establishment of a patient’s bill of rights for all people; the 1968 East Los Angeles Chicano student walkouts by more than 20,000 Latino students to protest discrimination in the public schools, and the Mendez family lawsuit against a California school district, which pre-dated Brown v Board of Education.
The major funding for the Smithsonian comes from Congress. The Smithsonian leaders were strong-armed (my word) to participate in a meeting in July to revise the process for reviewing museum content. According to the article, as a result of the conservative pushback, the exhibition about Latino civil rights history and youth activism will be replaced by an exhibition about Salsa music.
This is, by far, one of the most chilling stories about the culture wars that I have read. Marginalized people, events celebrating cultural milestones, books, and now museums—not only is there an attempt to ignore the rich diversity of the American people and their cultural heritage, but also these conservative groups are attempting to uproot, rewrite, and whitewash history.
Think about it – the Smithsonian is the world’s largest museum, and the cornerstone of its mission has been heralding, including, and showcasing the diverse histories of the people who are all a part of American history. If the review process has disrupted a planned civil rights exhibition at the National Museum of the American Latino, which of the other 21 museums that make up the Smithsonian could be next?
Could these conservative advocates stop the building of the National Museum of the American Latino or the American Women’s History Museum? Could exhibitions about slavery or about treaties between the American Indian Nations and the United States be forced to close?
When it comes to culture wars fueled by the desire to control, omit, obscure, or lie, we cannot afford to sit on the sidelines; especially when it comes to the arts. Let’s flip the script: “If arts administrators, cultural leaders, artists, and communities empowered by the arts are serious about winning the culture wars, then we must DEFEND the museum and all other arts and cultural institutions!” I urge you to choose where you will put a stake in the ground and act to protect the arts!
If you want to support Lonnie Bunch, III, the Secretary of the Smithsonian and the first African American to hold that position, and you want to protect the integrity and autonomy of the Smithsonian, please contact your Congressional representative via this link.
PS: The National Museum of the American Latino uses the term “Latino” to describe the diverse residents of the United States with cultural or ancestral ties to Latin America or the Caribbean. For many, the term “Latino” also creates room for acknowledging Black, Indigenous, Asian, and other heritages on equal terms with European ancestry. The term “Hispanic” is used to signal a connection to Spain or the Spanish language. You can learn more at this link.