A Museum to Honor the American Latino Experience

with Danny Vargas of Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino

As of 2017, 58.9 million Hispanics call America home. Efforts are underway to recognize the contributions of America’s Hispanic community through a national museum.

Danny Vargas, Board Chairman for Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino, shares his vision for a Washington, D.C.-based institution.

Posted on:

Aug 29, 2019

Hosted by: Nathalia Ortiz
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Ortiz: Latinos have played an integral part in America since its founding. The story of our nation cannot be told without telling the story of American Latinos. Hello, and welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Nathalia Ortiz. For a quarter-century, there's been an effort to create a venue that showcases and honors the contributions of American Latinos. Helping to lead the charge on that effort is Danny Vargas. He's the board chairman for Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino. Welcome, Danny.

Vargas: Thank you, Nathalia.

Ortiz: So we know this has been going on for quite some time -- a few years, actually -- the process of getting our own museum. First of all, where are we in the process?

Vargas: Well, we have a bill in Congress right now, both in the House and the Senate, to authorize the Smithsonian to move forward with the museum. Every day, we continue to add co-sponsors to that bill, so hopefully, we'll be able to get that bill passed in this Congress and signed by the President to authorize the Smithsonian to move forward.

Ortiz: So, it's no secret to some of us, but perhaps others may not realize that Hispanics are the largest ethnic group in the nation, with arguably the oldest ties to this nation. Why do you think it's taken this long?

Vargas: So, I think there's a lack of awareness, a lack of knowledge of the contributions that Latinos have made to this country long before there was a United States of America. You know, we're told in elementary school that the American story begins when the British get to Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607.

Ortiz: Yeah.

Vargas: I argue that it started long before then when, on Columbus' second voyage to the New World in 1493, he arrived on the shores of what is now U.S. territory in Puerto Rico.

Ortiz: right.

Vargas: So the expansion goes not from Virginia to the north and to the south but from the Caribbean up to Florida into Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and on to California, as far north as Wyoming. So that's where the American story truly begins. And I think our efforts are to have a more complete and accurate telling of American history to illuminate the American story for the benefit of everyone.

Ortiz: Why at the National Mall?

Vargas: So, the National Mall is where our portfolio of national museums within the Smithsonian Institution resides. This is the home of our American story. And that's why it's altogether fitting that we should have this museum, 'cause the need is there. It should be part of the Smithsonian institution. It really ought to be on the National Mall.

Ortiz: Okay, now, we know this initiative kicked off in 2004. It's been quite a few years.

Vargas: It has been. And actually, the story actually begins when the Smithsonian itself had a task force to see how they were doing in terms of portraying Latino stories in their collections. That task force came back with the report. The name of the report that they chose was Willful Neglect.

Ortiz: Wow.

Vargas: Saying that it was not only not doing a great job, but almost doing a bad job on purpose. So in 2004, the effort began to create a commission to study the feasibility of creating an American Latino Museum. The commission actually came together in 2008 and 2009. President Bush signed the authorization bill in 2008. President Obama launched the commission. I was part of that commission. And we said those three things, that there really is a pressing need for the museum, that it should be part of the Smithsonian Institution, really ought to be on the National Mall.
Ortiz: We know that you've fundraised quite a lot for this and already have about a million dollars since you started funding, well, the initiative to fundraise in 2008. How much more is it gonna take, and how are you gonna get the money?

Vargas: So, our big push right now is to make sure that we get the bill passed in CongressThere is a lot of folks that are waiting on the sidelines to get that bill passed so they can really invest in creating this museum. In the meantime, we are building our fundraising dollars to be able to continue to tell the story to raise awareness, make members of Congress aware of it, make the public aware of it. We've got lots of folks that really care about telling the American story, telling all of those contributions that we know have been in place for over 500 years. Sadly, I think there are a lot of folks that are telling us that Latinos are just a recent patch being sewn onto the tapestry of America. We know that we are an essential, foundational thread woven into the very fabric of America, and that's the story that needs to be told.

Ortiz: Talk to us about some of those characters that you mention.
Vargas: Oh, my goodness. You know, so, you know, I go back to talking about how, during the Revolutionary War, General Washington likely would not have won the Revolutionary War had it not been for the contributions of Spain and Spanish General Galvez, governor of Cuba and the Louisiana Territory. With him and the support of Spanish troops holding back the advance of the British from the South, that's what allowed General Washington to win. I'm a veteran myself. I like to talk about those military stories.

Ortiz: Yeah. Sure.

Vargas: And our history is replete with stories like that of Latino veterans who have contributed greatly.

Ortiz: Danny, thank you so much.

Vargas: I appreciate it.

Ortiz: And thank you for joining us, as well. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across the nation, visit comcastnewsmakers.com. I'm Nathalia Ortiz.

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