Statement of Congressman Xavier Becerra on H.R. 4863
Statement of Congressman Xavier Becerra
on H.R. 4863
A Bill to Create a Commission to Plan for a National Museum of the American Latino
House Administration Committee 1310 Longworth HOB July 22, 2004
Chairman Ney, Ranking Member Larson, Members of the Committee, thank you for holding this hearing on H.R. 4863, a bill to establish a Commission to develop a plan of action for the potential establishment and maintenance of a National Museum of the American Latino. I introduced this legislation with Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen as a first step toward exploring the feasibility of moving forward with an idea that has long fueled the beliefs and aspirations of millions of Americans.
The Commission to establish the National Museum of the American Latino (“Commission”) would be charged with examining and reporting to Congress and the President the parameters of a plan to establish a new museum dedicated to the art, history, and culture of the Latino population of the United States. The Commission would be comprised of experts from the national art and museum communities as well as individuals with experience in administration and development of cultural institutions. Commissioners would be appointed in a bipartisan manner by the President and the leaders of the House and Senate.
H.R. 4863 was modeled after legislation introduced by Congressman John Lewis of Georgia in the 107th Congress that established a similar commission whose work culminated in the plan for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
I congratulate my friend and colleague, Congressman Lewis, the members of this Committee and all who worked so hard to bring the National Museum of African American History and Culture to its point of success today.
Three years ago, the National Capital Planning Commission gave expression to the primary function of the cultural and historical exhibitions on the National Mall. It said
- The memorials and museums that define Washington's Monumental Core express America's connections to its past and its direction for the future…. [T]hese cultural and commemorative public spaces are physical reminders of our collective past and repositories for our most precious artifacts; they help us understand what it means to be an American.
(National Capital Planning Commission Memorials and Museums Master Plan, 2001; emphasis added).
Latinos have been part of American history since before the founding of the United States. They were present on the American continent for more than two centuries prior to the Declaration of Independence. Spanish colonists founded the first permanent settlement in the territorial United States in St. Augustine, Florida in 1565, four decades before Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. During the American Revolutionary War, General Washington’s army was successful at Yorktown in part because of support from a multi-ethnic army led by Bernardo de Galvez on a southern front against the British, driving them out of the Gulf of Mexico, fighting them on the Mississippi and in Florida. In every subsequent military conflict, Latino soldiers fought along side their American brethren. In fact, there are proportionately a larger number of our nation’s Congressional Medal of Honor awardees that are of Latino heritage than from any other ethnic group.
The commitment of Americans of Latino descent to the defense and progress of the American nation is obvious from its history. Yet many people lack knowledge of this history and of Latino contributions to American society. Latinos are often viewed as merely an immigrant population, with a heritage that is alien to the American way of life.
We are a nation of 290 million people, 40 million of whom are Latinos who share a heritage drawn from a combination of old world and “new world” cultures. Among America’s ethnic groups, Latinos are unique in the fact that you can find mixed strains of cultural influence from Europe, Africa, and the pre-Colombian Americas. The mixture of cultures makes many Latinos more open to change, to adoption of new norms and customs, to add new flavors to the recipes we cook, and to accept differences in others. In a word, Latinos reflect what it means to be an American, a citizen of a nation that welcomes and embraces diversity.
We are yet a young nation when compared to the rest of the world, and our collective past and history is continuously being written. We are in the capital city of a nation that holds dear a set of core principles, such as liberty, democracy, and justice. Generations of new Americans – our children and immigrants – will also embrace these principles, but also add to the expansive definition of “American.” When the children of America visit Washington to learn what our museums have to teach them, they go home believing that they have an understanding about what it means to be an American. Still, you and I know there is so much more to teach.
For many years, many Americans – Latino and otherwise – believed that the mosaic portrayed in Washington’s museums was missing a few tiles. In response, during the 1990s, the Smithsonian examined itself and determined in its own studies that the mirror it was holding up to America was indeed incomplete. In 1997, the Center on Latino Initiatives was launched in part as an effort to respond to studies on the lack of representation of Latinos at the Smithsonian in terms of staffing and exhibitions.
In the last several years, the Center for Latino Initiatives successfully has been promoting a more Latino-inclusive program for the entire Smithsonian. The Center has made the museum community in Washington more reflective of the entire American population and has been at the core of the organization of several important national traveling exhibitions.
The success of the Center is evidence that there is a need and a constituency for more Latino-inclusive exhibits in the nation’s capital. Yet the Center’s success will continue to depend on the willingness and openness of the other institutions in Washington to add Latino-inclusive exhibitions to their established agendas. A more permanent installation would ensure inclusion without depending on annual lobbying by the Center of the various directors of the other 16 Smithsonian museums in the Washington area.
At the same time, I expect that the Commission will propose to create a museum that will complement other Latino-inclusive exhibits at the other institutions. A new museum would provide a permanent space for Latino-related exhibits that also radiates its influence more effectively into the other museums in Washington.
I am not a museum expert, nor an art historian, but there are plenty of talented people in the community that could think seriously about what it would take to begin this project. The Commission would determine how to best reflect culture and historical contributions of the diverse community of 40 million Latinos living in the United States.
The capital city of Washington was visited by nearly 17 million individuals last year – one million from outside of the United States. One in three of these individuals visited an art or historical museum. Over 35 million individuals attend the Smithsonian’s museums and traveling exhibits every year. Ninety percent of these visitors are from the United States. As you can imagine, many are children visiting with their parents or on school trips.
Among our nation’s school-age population, about every fifth student is of Latino descent. In fact, the Census Bureau tells us that every fifth child born today in the United States is an American of Latino heritage. Many of these children will visit the nation’s capital and will take the lessons learned here back home to their communities. When we visit the nation’s capital we should leave inspired by our past with faith in our future. This country has always managed to give the next generation of leaders good reason to be proud of our history and culture.
This legislation, H.R. 4863, is just another building block in developing what has become the American experience – what we teach ourselves and share with the world. Passage of this bill would be the first step toward giving America and all its people a better chance to fully experience what it means to be an American.
Once again, thank you Mr. Chairman, Mr. Larson, and the members of the committee for considering this bill today. I look forward to working with you toward its passage.
|This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).|