The constellation of museums and galleries that comprise the Smithsonian Institution tell the story of American history and culture, with a notable exception: Not one is dedicated to the largest minority group in America.
There is no national museum that reflects the tableau of Hispanic Americans, who have been here longer than anyone and represent a venerable thread running through the fabric of our story.
Senator Robert Menendez has tried to change that for 26 years, and this year he is leading a bipartisan legislative effort to build a National Museum of the American Latino placed on the National Mall. Dave D’Alessandro of the Star-Ledger Editorial Board spoke with Menendez about it last week, with comments edited for brevity:
Q. Latinos have been here since they settled St. Augustine nearly 500 years ago, yet it’s a chore to find monuments or markers of their contribution. How and why have they been so easily overlooked in our history?
Menendez: What spurs part of the effort to create the museum is that our history as a people in this country is virtually ignored. The Smithsonian itself had a report about it entitled, ‘Willful Neglect.’ The Smithsonian is an amalgam of museums that tells the American story, but in each and every one of those museums, there is virtually no representation of the history, the contributions, the service of Americans of Latino descent. Just think militarily: Start with David Farragut, the Admiral who led the Union’s naval effort against the South – he was of Spanish descent. Or you talk about Bernardo de Gálvez, the governor of Louisiana who led an all-Spanish division against the British during the Revolution. Or consider that Latinos were only 10 percent of our forces in Vietnam, but represent 20 percent of the names on the Vietnam Memorial. The list goes on.
Q. You’d win a lot on Jeopardy for knowing that Farragut — the Damn The Torpedoes guy — was a Latino American.
Menendez: Maybe, but with my luck they wouldn’t have that category.
Menendez: Yes, if you don’t have people at the table with specific knowledge, it doesn’t percolate up in exhibits and programing and all the things the Smithsonian is known for. You can’t talk about the Civil War without Farragut. You can’t talk about the Korean War without the Puerto Rican 65th infantry regiment, Los Borinqueñeros (The Borinquineers), one of the most highly-decorated units in U.S. history. But that won’t come up unless you have people at the table who know.
Q. Describe the legislative journey this project has taken.
Menendez: It’s been a 20-plus year journey, starting in my days in the House — first to create a commission to study the proposition, and culminating with a unanimous vote in the House of Representatives in July. In today’s acrimony, to get 435 people to say yes to anything is a miracle. Then it went through the Rules Committee, which had jurisdiction in the Senate, and also passed by unanimous voice vote. But when it came to the floor, we had one Senator object over some ideological opposition, with arguments on the floor that were specious.
Q. Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) blocked a pro-forma vote that would create the Latino Museum and another dedicated to women’s history because he said it would “divide the nation” and would create “identity balkanization.” What does that say to you?
Menendez: At one point, he said that if the Smithsonian wants to celebrate Latinos, we can add more floors. There are more than a dozen  Smithsonian museums. We have an African-American Museum. We have a Native American Museum. We have an Air and Space Museum. These museums tell the American story, and Latinos are part of the American tapestry. All his arguments fell short, and I’m beginning to take it personally. When I pushed for Sandy recovery, he was the one who stopped it and insisted on offsets, when we never offset natural disasters. I remember trying to get something about carbon monoxide monitoring in public housing, he objected to unanimous consent. So I don’t know if it’s a personal thing, but in this case, it’s unacceptable. He also did it with the women’s museum proposal from Sen. (Susan) Collins as well.
Q. Lee’s objection evokes Jesse Helms from 1994, when he stated that “Once Congress establishes a museum dedicated solely to African-Americans, every other minority will ask taxpayers to pony up for a special museum.” How far have we’ve come, exactly?
Menendez: You know, sometimes it is others who move further away by standing still. I thought we were well past that moment, and I thought looking at this as a point of celebration and not of division, and something that would continue to tell the American story. But this is a dream that is going to happen. It would be nice to start now, because it’s going to take another decade to site the location, do the planning, and raise the money. It’s time to start.
Q. This will be the first museum to have enshrined in its charter a requirement “to ensure representation from the conservative viewpoint.” Why was that important?
Menendez: Well, as you know, legislating is the art of the possible. It was one of the issues that brought John Cornyn as my main Republican co-sponsor, along with others. To use their words, they didn’t want this to be the Cesar Chávez Museum. And I said, ‘Listen, Latinos are liberals and conservatives and moderates and everything in between. I would think any museum should have that full galaxy of expression as part of its history, so if this is what you need, so be it.’ I think it’s unnecessary, but look, it seems Latinos are often asked to do what others are not asked to do.
Q. Chávez already has a Navy ship named for him. Will they complain if he just gets his own wing?
Menendez: Mark my words: Cesar Chávez will have a very significant presence, no doubt. The farm workers, the Bracero Program, civil rights — it’s a critical part of American history.
Q. Is it quixotic to think that a Latino Museum might change American attitudes in areas that you work in all the time, such as immigration reform, foreign aid, and refugee resettlement?
Menendez: That’s not quixotic at all. Think about the feeling one gets coming out of the Holocaust Museum, a dynamic institution that gives you a sense of man’s inhumanity to man that you wouldn’t ordinarily experience. Or just think about the African-American History Museum: It’s so moving that even now, you have to reserve tickets because of the volume, unlike the other Smithsonian museums, where you can walk right in. And the stories you hear from non-African Americans are compelling: They find it to be a window to our history, which makes us think about the issues we deal with today. So no, that’s not quixotic at all.
Q. Have you explored the possibility that you’re related to the founder of St. Augustine, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés?
Menendez: I’m doing a title search to see if I can get any property down there. Seriously, the Menendez name is very prominent in Avilés, and I started looking into it once, and will again. It would be interesting.