Conservative lawmakers in Washington, DC, have voted to defund the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Latino (NMAL), a project that has been in development since it received Senate approval in December 2020. The historic museum’s future is in limbo after the Republican-majority House Appropriations Committee passed a bill last Wednesday, July 19, that prevents the federal government from using taxpayer funds for the coming year on both the forthcoming museum and the existing Molina Family Latino Gallery at the National Museum of American History.
During last week’s hearing, New York representative Adriano Espaillat attempted to reestablish funding for the gallery and the museum through an amendment that was consequently outvoted 27-33, according to the Hill. The bill will then head to Congress, where it may be further amended, and voted on by the Republican-led House of Representatives before heading to the Senate, which has a Democratic majority. It comes as conservative politicians across the country are launching a variety of attacks on historical education in schools, libraries, and other public institutions, particularly seeking to erase any material related to critical race theory.
The Molina Family Latino Gallery initially opened last June as a 4,500-square-foot space dedicated to Latinx history while the museum is in development. A physical place for the NMAL is still at least a decade away as the institution searches for a site on or near the National Mall, where most of the Smithsonian museums are located. In the meantime, the National Museum of American History is housing the NMAL gallery as “the first physical presence of the National Museum of the American Latino.”
Currently, the gallery is hosting ¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States — a bilingual exhibition focusing on the historical and cultural legacy of Latinx heritage in the US that is on view until December 1, 2024. Centered around four themes relating to colonialism, immigration, imperialism, and national impact, the multimedia exhibition features an array of historical objects, biographical stories, and interactive displays that delve into the diverse, varied experiences of Latinx Americans throughout history.
In 2021, the US Latinx population reached 62.5 million, representing a 19% increase since 2010, according to the Pew Research Center.
Some Republican politicians have scrutinized the gallery’s representation of the US, such as Florida representative Mario Díaz-Balart, who told the Hill that he believes ¡Presente! conveys “a racist portrayal of Hispanics.”
“I, for one, have no inclination to support any entity that basically distorts the history and the reality of the Latino communities and of Latinos in the United States and then uses this as an excuse to bash, basically, the United States and make Latinos and Hispanics victims,” Díaz-Balart said.
On Twitter, Estuardo Rodriguez, the president and CEO of the Friends of the NMAL organization, reiterated the need for bipartisan support of the initiative, underscoring the essential role that both parties play in the museum’s advancement.
Last week’s bill was passed on the same day that the Florida Board of Education unanimously approved a new history curriculum, one section of which teaches students that enslaved people “developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit,” among other racist perspectives. The decision resulted in immediate outrage from political leaders, civil rights advocates, and school educators. Derrick Johnson, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), called the new curriculum rules “an attempt to bring our country back to a 19th century America where Black life was not valued, nor our rights protected.”