Smithsonian’s Latino museum faces political winds before a brick is laid


“The Latino exhibit,” the authors wrote, “simply erases the existence of the Hispanic who loves, contributes to, benefits from and exemplifies the promise of American liberty.”

The article, which also called for the museum to be defunded, sent ripples of anxiety through the museum.

Geraldo Cadava, a historian at Northwestern University and author of “The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, from Nixon to Trump,” said he received emails from museum staffers, requesting a meeting. They told him they expected similar attacks on the planned civil rights show and wanted to prepare.

Last fall, Cadava, who was an adviser on the civil rights show, visited the museum and met with Zamanillo and others, who he said were interested in ways to include more conservative figures and conservative-leaning stories.

“I got the feeling they were going into damage-control mode,” he said.

Cadava called the “¡Presente!” exhibit “really cool,” but said the conservative critics were not entirely wrong.

“The exhibitions — the one that’s up, and the one being planned — did have a liberal bent,” he said, though he added it was unfair to equate that with promoting Marxism.

“It’s important to think about, what should be the balance between liberal and conservative versions of Latino history? Between stories that emphasize capitalism, patriotism and military service, and not only civil rights struggles and discrimination?” Cadava said.

The planned civil rights exhibit had not yet been publicly announced, and so had received no criticism. But Fernandez and Hinojosa said there was a feeling among the curatorial team that they needed to be careful about references to Marxist thought and socialism. And Che Guevara was not to be mentioned at all.

Then, in late November, Zamanillo emailed the curatorial team, telling them that after consulting with staff and Smithsonian leadership, he had decided to “pause” work on the exhibition. The email, which was obtained by The New York Times, called it “a difficult but necessary decision,” but offered no explanation.

A video meeting between Zamanillo and the curatorial team a week later was contentious.

“This wasn’t a conversation or even a negotiation about the possible future prospects of this project,” Fernandez said. “It was a shutting down of the project.”

Hinojosa said that Zamanillo did not offer any specific issues with the exhibition. “It didn’t seem like anything from an ethical or historical standpoint,” he said. “It was all politics.”

Zamanillo, he said, told them that “a civil rights exhibition is not going to raise the kind of money we need to raise.”

In an interview this past week, Zamanillo emphasized that the exhibition had been “paused,” not canceled, and that the research might be used later, possibly in a different gallery at the National Museum of American History.

He acknowledge that fundraising was among his concerns. But he said he did not have any particular objection to the content of the exhibition, and had received no complaints about it.

He said that no directive to stay away from particular topics or figures had been delivered. But it was important for the museum to include all perspectives.

The legislation establishing the museum, he said, “clearly says I need to have a balanced presentation and cover all sides of the story.”

At the same time, criticism of “¡Presente!” persisted. In July, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., a senior member of the House Committee on Appropriations, announced that he would block funding for the museum in the next federal budget, calling the museum’s portrayal of Latinos “erroneous and imbalanced.”

Two weeks later, he and a group that included other Republican Latino members of Congress dropped their opposition after a meeting with Zamanillo and Lonnie Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian. A statement issued by Diaz-Balart and Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, said the group was satisfied that “procedural changes in the review of content and leadership have been made.”

“Hispanics are not victims or traitors,” the statement said. “Instead, they are the backbone of our American society, and the Smithsonian leadership now understands that.”

In late July, the museum altered two texts in “¡Presente!” including a label for a foam raft used by two refugees who left Cuba in 1992. The label now describes them as part of an exodus fleeing “Cuba’s dictatorship, political repression, and economic crisis,” and “part of an ongoing migration triggered by the 1959 Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro.” The original label had not mentioned Castro or political repression.

“That’s clearly something that should have been done from the beginning,” Zamanillo said. “That’s a factual correction.”

But Zamanillo said that, contrary to the statement by Diaz-Balart and Gonzales, there had been no changes to broader museum procedures for content.

“I think they were satisfied I was a new director, and we had made changes on the raft label,” he said. “That was it.”

A spokesperson for Diaz-Balart said he was unavailable for comment.

The museum’s handling of the controversies has dismayed members of its scholarly advisory board. Vicki Ruiz, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and former president of the American Historical Association, said the decision to halt the civil rights show risked squandering the good will and trust built through curators’ outreach to community members.

“We had people who generally don’t talk to scholars donating items,” Ruiz said.

Camarillo, the Stanford historian, said the episode was most likely not the last battle over the museum.

“I think what it forecasts is those who want to push the envelope further will have to really compromise, on both sides,” he said. “You can’t have a museum that’s not going to deal with aspects of discrimination. But how do you present it in ways that are not going to send up the red flag?”

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