When newly elected Rep. Juan Ciscomani first came to Washington late last year to prepare for his swearing-in, he took his six children to the Smithsonian’s new exhibit on Latino history, eager to show them their heritage.
The walk-through left him disgusted.
The history was so erroneous, slanted and fixated on portraying Hispanics as oppressed minorities that he gathered his children at the end to let them know what they just saw was inaccurate.
“For my wife and I to walk in and say, ‘This is your history’ and to see that, it’s hurtful,” the Arizona Republican said. “The only thing worse than your story not being told is your story being wrongly told, and that’s exactly what is happening here. The Hispanic community deserves better.”
Rep. Mike Garcia, California Republican, said he found the exhibit amateurish and not worthy of the millions of dollars Congress had invested in the National Museum of the American Latino, which is still in development.
“It looks like a couple of sixth-graders put together dioramas and tried to find artifacts,” he said.
Fueled by those kinds of complaints, congressional Republicans are moving to shut down the exhibit and halt work on the National Museum of the American Latino. They included language in the Smithsonian’s funding bill for fiscal year 2024 to carry out those plans.
It’s not that they oppose the museum, but they want a more accurate and less victim-centered telling of the story, Republicans said.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, Florida Republican, said he has been prodding the Smithsonian for months to hear his concerns and take steps to correct the exhibit, which is in the National Museum of American History and is considered a prototype of the Museum of the American Latino.
Smithsonian officials, he said, have ignored him.
He said he fully supports the project but the only way to get the Smithsonian to pay attention and heed concerns is to hit the institution in the wallet.
“We’ll fix it. But the way to do that is to make sure the Smithsonian understands that we will not accept the patronizing, quasi-racist attitude toward Latinos in the United States of America,” Mr. Diaz-Balart said last week during debate on the defunding language in the House Appropriations Committee.
The Smithsonian wouldn’t answer questions about the exhibit or House Republicans’ moves.
“We are in the first stages of the budget appropriation process, and we are not commenting on the subcommittee statements at this time,” said Linda St. Thomas, the Smithsonian’s chief spokesperson.
Congress officially established the museum in 2020. A director has been named, and the search is on for a location.
The test exhibit at the National Museum of American History dominated the committee’s meeting on the bill that funds the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and a host of other “related” agencies. That includes the Smithsonian.
Democrats started the debate by complaining that Republicans were trying to “whitewash” Hispanic history by shutting down the museum.
Rep. Pete Aguilar, California Democrat, said the exhibit “isn’t perfect” but Republicans should leave the decisions to the experts at the Smithsonian.
“I don’t believe any of you have a background as a museum curator,” he told colleagues.
Republicans responded with a compelling critique of the exhibit.
One display boils the complex causes of the Mexican-American War to U.S. expansionist territorial ambitions, or, as Mr. Ciscomani described it, the U.S. “stole” half of Mexico in 1848. The congressman, born and educated in Mexico until he was 11, said that portrayal was bad history.
“I never learned that in class in Mexico. Mexico does not teach that. This exhibit teaches that. That’s wrong,” he said.
More broadly, he said, the exhibit has a “borderline insulting” obsession with portraying Hispanics as victims of rapacious European and American governments and culture.
One section on the immigrant experience says U.S. foreign policy “contributed to the violence and corruption driving people to migrate.” It lists U.S. backing of Cuba’s Fulgencio Batista and the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo, and it describes the Hispanic experience in the U.S. as persistent oppression.
“We can’t deny the fact that many that came before us suffered historic injustice here in America. That happened. That’s part of our history. But that’s not the centerpiece of our story. That’s not why so many of us came here,” he said.
Mr. Garcia said the exhibits blame the U.S. for the atrocities of Latin American dictators. He said the displays show it was American intervention that sent people fleeing their homes and rushing north rather than the prosperity and opportunity that the U.S. offered.
He said one exhibit on Cuban immigrants is a scratch-and-sniff. Visitors are asked to smell the scent of Gulf of Mexico water to sample the experience of those arriving on boats and rafts.
That ignored Cubans’ struggle against the Castro regime, he said, and the “exhibit looks like 12-year-olds put it together.”
Mr. Diaz-Balart asked for a show of hands on who had seen the exhibit. Several Republican hands shot up, he said, but he saw just one Democrat raise a hand.
Confronted with the Republicans’ personal stories, Democrats shifted their objections and agreed that the Smithsonian must do better. Yet they said defunding the museum was the wrong approach.
“For me, for my constituents back home, to vote against this museum moving forward is not something that would go over well,” said Rep. Betty McCollum, Minnesota Democrat.
Rep. Norma Torres, California Democrat, said she didn’t trust Republicans to reallocate money for the museum once the matter with the Smithsonian is settled.
“We are all going to be offended in one way or another by something that comes out of this museum because we are so different in so many ways. But we cannot throw out the baby with the bathwater,” she said.
Rep. Adriano Espaillat, New York Democrat, proposed an amendment to restore the museum and keep the exhibit operating.
The amendment was defeated on a 33-27 vote, with Republicans in opposition. They said Smithsonian officials needed a punch in the nose after Mr. Diaz-Balart attempted to get their attention.
“The only thing they understand is money,” said Rep. Michael Simpson, the Idaho Republican who wrote the language.
The bill next heads to the full House.
The Senate has yet to release its version of the legislation.
The Latino museum flap follows that of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, also a Smithsonian property.
The museum opened in 2016 without any recognition of Justice Clarence Thomas, the second Black justice on the Supreme Court. The museum did recognize Anita Hill, the Black woman who tried to derail Justice Thomas’ 1991 confirmation with allegations of sexual harassment.
The museum belatedly added an exhibit on Justice Thomas.
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