A first look at the Latino museum
By Patricia Guadalupe
Some may not know that Latinos settled in the Southwest long before the Pilgrims landed, or that Bernardo de Galvez helped win the Revolutionary War, or that we’ve won more Congressional Medals of Honor than any other minority group. Having a place where all can learn about Latino history -- and how it’s inseparable from American history – moved one step closer when Congress unanimously approved the creation of the National Museum of the American Latino in December 2020. It will be nuestro museo, our museum, and make all Americans proud.
While the museum is years away from completion, a precursor opens this June in Washington, D.C. Known as the Molina Family Latino Gallery, it will be housed in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, one of the most-visited museums in the country. A variety of exhibits and interactive displays will rotate approximately every two years, explains Eduardo Díaz, Deputy Director of the National Museum of the American Latino, and formerly the director of the Smithsonian Latino Center.
“It has a dedicated education space, with a small theater, and many digital elements, because we have a big story to tell in 4,500 square feet. It sounds like a lot of space, but our story is huge and digital technology allows us to deliver a lot of content. We developed the gallery like a mini-museum,” says Díaz, who says it will be completely bilingual, and allow the visually and hearing impaired and those with learning disabilities to fully partake.
Díaz affirms it will be a showcase for all, offering a full picture of the Latino community: “We are present and we’ve been present even before there was something such as the United States. We belong, and we contribute.”
Ultimately, it will be part of the National Museum of the American Latino, which is the culmination of many years of work. A 1994 report from the Smithsonian Institution Task Force on Latinos concluded that the Smithsonian, the largest museum complex in the world, displayed a “pattern of willful neglect” toward the U.S. Latino population. A direct result of that report was the creation of the Smithsonian Latino Center, which helped design exhibits within existing museums. The idea of creating a museum focusing on Latinos soon gained momentum. The legislative process was started by then-Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and then-California Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra in 2003, and the project has been backed by prominent Latinos such as Rita Moreno, Chita Rivera, and Eva Longoria. A decision on the final location of the museum is expected by the end of the year, and supporters say it will open its doors in eight to ten years.
The new gallery began with a generous donation from the Molina Family Foundation, named after the late Dr. C. David Molina and his wife Mary. The couple started a healthcare clinic in 1980 in Long Beach, California to assist low-income Latinos and other underserved communities. The number of clinics grew and became Molina Healthcare, a Fortune 500 company and the country’s largest Latino HMO. Their son Mario, also a medical doctor, works with the foundation and is also on the board of trustees of the Latino museum.
“We did this in part because we could, and it’s something that the whole family feels is very important,” Mario Molina tells LATINO Magazine. “The story of Latino contributions hasn’t been adequately told. That’s why there’s a need for this. I’m hoping that people who don’t know will get a better understanding of contributions Latinos have made to this country. I’m hoping that people will realize Latinos are a diverse group. We have more in common than we realize and that our commonalities are far greater than our differences. I hope that Latinos have a sense of pride and that see that they do belong.”
The Molina Family Latino Gallery was also made possible by generous support from individuals, foundations and corporations, including a $2 million commitment by Wells Fargo to the National Museum of the American Latino. “Wells Fargo is very proud to be a Corporate Founder of the Molina Family Latino Gallery,” says Ruben Barrales, Senior Vice President for External Engagement. A three-year veteran of the bank, he was formerly Director of Intergovernmental Affairs in the White House under President George W. Bush.
Support for this project is a matter of personal pride for Barrales, whose parents emigrated from Mexico. “They started with nothing, worked as manual laborers, and started a bank account at Wells Fargo,” he recalls. “I’ve come to appreciate the of a bank to build generational wealth in this country.”
Barrales hopes that the Latino museum will ultimately be located on the National Mall, known as “America’s front yard,” and explains why this is important: “When students come to the Mall to see the Lincoln Monument, we want them to see our museum as well. Latino history is American history and American history is Latino history. The two have been inseparable for hundreds of years. It’s not just about the past, but the future as well.”
At Wells Fargo, he serves on the Latino Executive Forum, a group of Latino employees regularly convened by CEO Charles Scharf. Barrales recalls Scharf’s commitment that Latino voices be heard was important to making the donation to the Latino museum. The bank has over 41,000 Latino employees, 17% of the total.
Also critical was the enthusiasm of Wells Fargo’s network for Latino employees known as the Latin Connection, led by Patty Juarez, Executive Vice President and Head of Diverse Segments -Commercial Banking. “We are proud to support the National Museum of the American Latino and we honor our Latino employees and customers with this commitment. Wells Fargo’s success is tied to the success of the communities we serve,” she says.
“It’ll be very informative and inspiring,” adds Danny Vargas, chairman emeritus of the board of the nonprofit Friends of the American Latino Museum, “and in a fantastic location. It’s a first taste of what the museum is going to be.” Vargas, a veteran of the U.S. Air Force, says he is also happy to see that there will be a separate section devoted to the contributions of Latinos in the military.
Mario Molina believes his parents would be very happy about the Latino museum, adding, “My father would say it’s about time.”