you can now preview the next Latin Museum | At the Smithsonian


A small homemade raft used by two men fleeing Cuba in the 1990s for a better life in America. A crumpled backpack, dusty white sneakers and an MP3 player tossed in the desert during a desperate crossing of the US-Mexico border in Arizona. Passports and plane tickets.

These objects, presented in the exhibition “¡Present! A Latin American Historyand now on display in the Molina Family Latino Gallery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, represent the immigrant journeys that are most often associated with “Latinos” in the minds of many Americans.

But Latinos and Latinas have been in what is now US territory for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

“We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us,” says comedian Cheech Marin, echoing a phrase oft-repeated in the Latino community that refers to the fact that after the Mexican-American War of 1846-48, the United States essentially subsumed northern Mexico – what is now Arizona, California, western Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and Utah – into its territory.

Marin appears in the exhibition’s 12-minute video Somos by Alberto Ferreras which documents the great diversity of Latin American identities and cultures in America. The video is just one of many myth busters in ¡Presente!, which begins its narration with artifacts and artwork dating back to the 17th century and serves as a preview of what would eventually become the Smithsonian’s. National Latin American Museum. “It will take 10 to 12 years to open a museum building,” says new museum director Jorge Zamanillo in a statement, “but the gallery gives the public a glimpse of the museum’s potential.

Makeshift Cuban raft in an immigration exhibit

A tiny homemade polystyrene “balsa” (raft), held together by tar and fabric, was used by two men fleeing Cuba in the 1990s for a better life in America.

NMAL, © Tony Powell

The show will run for at least two and a half years, says curator Ranald Woodaman, who points out that the word Present translates to here or present, as a declarative response to roll call. The National Museum of the American Latino, as well as an American Women’s History Museum, received the blessing of Congress and was signed effective December 27, 2020. The Smithsonian is also responsible for finding suitable locations for museums somewhere on or near the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and recently the institution’s board of trustees announced that he was examining four potential sites for both.

While the focus is on immigration in ¡Presente!, the subject is only a small part of the exposition’s comprehensive examination of a Latino story inextricably linked to the American narrative.

Po'Pay 2180, leader of the Pueblo revolt, Virgil Ortiz

Ceramic artist Virgil Ortiz explores the history of the 1680 Pueblo uprising with his sculpture of Chief Tewa Po’Pay (above).

Po’Pay 2180, Revolt 1680/2180 Series, ©Virgil Ortiz

The history of the United States does not only take place in the 50 states; it was shaped by his foreign policy ambitions, his global trade ambitions and his military aspirations, says Woodaman. Because of this, “much of US history actually takes place in Latin American and Latino spaces,” he says, citing the 17th century story of, for example, leader Tewa. Po’Pay who organized the Pueblo revolt of indigenous peoples against Spanish colonizers in 1680. The ambitious show goes through an examination of indigenous cultures and societies, and studies Spanish and American colonialism and expansionism and its impact on Mexico, Porto Rico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and later addresses Latinos in the history of American slavery and at the intersection of black history. And finally, the show tackles contemporary issues such as LGBTQ rights and social justice.

The 4,500 square foot space is filled with artifacts and stories. There are some 208 objects, says Woodaman.

Artifacts – taken from Smithsonian collections, borrowed from individuals and museums around the world – are enhanced by opportunities for visitors to go deeper, delve down the rabbit hole of their choice through a set of interactive features enhanced with graphics, illustrations and other information.

A set of screens, linked to “Mapping the US Latino Experience”, invite customers to test their knowledge of Latino origins, income inequality, languages ​​spoken by Latinos, how the Covid-19 pandemic affected Latinos and other issues. Responses are cataloged in real time, allowing the user to click on a screen to see how their response compares to those of other visitors.

Interactive displays are designed with the latest accessibility technology to meet the needs of all audiences, from cane-detectable edges for the visually impaired, to 13 QR codes that link to audible descriptions of artifacts and a map of the gallery space. Touchpads that connect to wired headsets and handsets mounted on interactive screens aim to improve the experience for the visually and hearing impaired. All text and audio are presented in English and Spanish. The hope is that everyone feels welcome.

Totemic displays

Visitors can scroll through options on the eight-foot-tall “totems” to hear the storytellers directly.

NMAL, © Tony Powell

Rumba dress

Singer Celia Cruz, who wore this Cuban flag dress, rose to fame in the 1950s and immigrated to the United States after the Cuban Revolution.


Woodaman acknowledges the challenges the team faced in showcasing the complexity of Latin American diversity. “You have this massive range of different experiences, identities and agendas; and we try to piece them all together and graft them into this story,” he says.

Some of the stories are first-hand accounts, delivered with video presentations by a dozen people in the center of the gallery – an area called The Forum, the Forum, designed to look like a town square with benches at one end. Visitors can scroll through options on the eight-foot-tall “totems” to hear storytellers like Yolanda Leyvawho identifies as Chicana and Native, and has created numerous public history projects that highlight frontier histories, and corado rubya Salvadoran immigrant and founder of Casa Ruby, a bilingual LGBTQ support organization in Washington, D.C.

Elsewhere in the gallery are the stories of other important personalities and celebrities like fashion icons Oscar de la Renta, who was born in the Dominican Republic and Carolina Herrera, a Venezuelan, as well as Cuban-American salsa queen Celia Cruz, Mexican American labor leader César Chávez, Puerto Rican baseball player Roberto Clemente and current Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotamayor, whose parents were Puerto Rican.

Showcase full of objects

The 4,500 square foot space is filled with artifacts and stories. There are some 208 objects, says exhibit curator Ranald Woodaman.

NMAL, © Tony Powell

Equally significant are the lesser-known stories of others like Carlos A. Cooks, a black Dominican immigrant who settled in Harlem, followed the principles of black nationalism espoused by Marcus Garvey, and in the 1940s coined the phrase “Buy Black” to promote economic development; and Pedro Albizu Camposa lawyer elected to head the Nationalist Party of Puerto Rico in 1930, and who helped launch the Puerto Rican independence movement.

Woodaman hopes the exhibit with its unifying themes will help non-Latino museum visitors recognize the parallels to their own stories and family history; as well as showing the history and cultural ties that bind Latinos across a diversity of identities, whether Puerto Rican, Colombian, or Nicaraguan.

” Here ! A Latino History of the United States” is on display at the National Museum of American History’s Molina Family Latino Gallery. Companion website includes oral histories, 3D rendered objects, and other stories from the exhibit.


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