Statement of Congressman Xavier Becerra on H.R. 2134

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Mr. Speaker, I thank my colleagues, the gentleman from New Mexico (Mr. Pearce) and the gentlewoman from the Virgin Islands (Ms. Christensen) for providing me time to speak in favor of H.R. 2134, the National American Latino Heritage Museum Commission Act.

I am also grateful to the leadership and members of the House Committee on Resources and the Committee on House Administration for bringing this legislation to the floor today.

I first sponsored this legislation with my good friend, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, during Hispanic Heritage Month nearly three years ago. Since then, we have been hearing from many supporters, not just in the Latino community, but throughout the nation. The Senate version of this bill was sponsored by Senator Ken Salazar and Senator Mel Martinez.

We have a good, bipartisan group of co-sponsors, but I would like to emphasize that this is non-partisan legislation that will benefit all Americans. Our national museums have great influence over what Americans know and believe about our collective history and cultural life. When the children of America visit the capital 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. H.R. 2134 would bring light to the issue of whether our national museums are doing all they can to provide future generations a more complete portrayal of American Latino contributions to American life, by showing that American Latinos are and always have been a part of the American experience.

The bipartisan Commission created by this bill (“Commission”) would be charged with examining and reporting to Congress and the President their recommendations on whether and how to establish a new museum dedicated to the art, history, and culture of the American 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.

Along with the question of whether a new museum is warranted, the Commission would examine such issues as the capacity for fundraising for a new museum, the availability of a collection to exhibit, whether a new museum should be part of the Smithsonian Institution or independent, the cost of establishing and maintaining a museum, and where a museum might be located in Washington, D.C. or its environs. Congress then may choose whether to act on the recommendations as it sees fit.

American Latinos will play an ever increasing role in the whole of our society. Americans of Latino heritage are a very youthful population and are projected to be more integral to the nation’s economy, workforce, and electorate. Almost half of American Latinos are under the age of 25. American Latinos have a higher proportion of preschool aged children among their population then any other group. Similarly, 11 percent of the Latino population is under the age of five. Among our nation’s school-age population, about every fifth student is Latino. In fact, the Census Bureau tells us that every fifth child born today in the United States is an American of Latino heritage.

Americans of Latino heritage 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. The first church in North America was constructed by the Spanish in 1598 at San Juan Pueblo, 30 miles north of Santa Fe. One of the sixteen windows in the Colorado State Capitol depicts Casimiro Barela, a Hispano and former Governor and member of the state senate from 1876 to 1914, who was instrumental in the state’s decision to publish all laws in English, German and Spanish.

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 Spanish General 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. The town of Galveston, Texas is named for him.

In every subsequent military conflict, American Latino soldiers fought along side their American brethren. One of the first U.S. soldiers to die in Iraq, Jose Gutierrez, was an orphaned Guatemalan who at the time of his death was not even an American citizen. American Latino participation in our armed forces is not a new phenomenon. More than 10,000 Americans of Latino heritage fought for both the North and the South during the civil war. It has been estimated that anywhere from 250,000 to 500,000 American Latinos served in the armed forces during World War II. Over 53,000 Puerto Ricans served in World War II during the period 1940-1946.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center, while Latinos make up 9.5 percent of the actively enlisted forces, they are over-represented in the categories that get the most dangerous assignments (infantry, gun crews and seamanship) and make up over 17.5 percent of the front lines. This is likely the reason why, as a proportion of their total numbers, American Latinos have earned more Congressional Medals of Honor than any other ethnic group.

Presently, Latinos have one of the highest retention rates in military service. Their dedication is rooted in their deep belief in protecting American values demonstrated by post enlistment surveys which illustrate that Latino recruits note "patriotism" and "service to country" as the top two reasons for joining, as well as "duty" and "honor."

The richness of American culture also has benefited greatly from contributions made by the American Latino community.

New Orleans jazz legend Jelly Roll Morton said that our quintessential American music, jazz, was born with a “Spanish tinge.” The famous jazz saxophonist Stan Getz released several albums in the 1950s that integrated Brazilian samba into traditional jazz, and used the paintings of a Latina, Olga Abizu, for his album covers.

Many of our old American icons were also influenced by American Latino culture. The term “buckaroo” is derived form the Spanish word “vaquero” or cowman, from which we also got the word “cowboy.” Cowboy garb, boots and wide brimmed hats are all derived from the traditions of the northern Mexican charros and caballeros.

In science, the ground-controlled radar systems used for aircraft landings, and the meteorite theory of dinosaur extinction were both discovered by an American Latino, Californian Luis Walter Alvarez. Without American Latino ingenuity in bringing large-scale irrigation systems, or acequias, to the Southwest, the semi-arid climate would not have supported the crops that allowed colonization. The earliest acequias in Texas were dug by Pueblo Indians in 1680, portions of this system which were still in use in the early 1990s.

The civil rights era was a time in which American Latinos also made contributions. Before Brown v. Board of Education, California schools were desegregated by Mendez v. Westminster School District, a federal lawsuit brought by the parents of Mexican American students.

American Latinos also are investing mightily in the American economy. American Latino purchasing power nationally will top $1.08 trillion by 2010, up 413 percent from $212 billion in 1990 – a gain far greater than the 177 percent increase in the buying power of all U.S. consumers in the same period. From 1997-2002, the number of businesses owned by American Latinos grew by 31 percent, three times the national average. These are indicators that American Latinos will be increasingly vital to the nation’s economic well-being.

These examples show that the American Latino experience is integral to the nation’s past and future. Yet scarcely any of the exhibits in our national museums in the nation’s capital portray American Latino contributions to American life.

H.R. 2134 would take the next step toward ensuring that the lessons taught by our premier institutions for the arts, humanities, and American history include a better representation of Latino contributions. We hope that we will soon be able to say that the nation’s capital truly exhibits America’s rich cultural diversity.

I urge all of my colleagues to support this legislation. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

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).