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Latino Republicans voting to defund a national Latino museum feels like betrayal

A Latino museum that gets things right is going to have exhibits that conservatives don't like.
The Latino Museum will open the gallery at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and offer exhibitions and programs over the course of 10 years leading up to the opening of the museum’s building.
The Latino Museum will open the gallery at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, offering exhibitions and programs over the course of 10 years, a preview to the opening of the actual building. But the abrupt cut in funding makes it difficult to meet the deadline for choosing a site for the museum.Tony Powell / Smithsonian

You’ll recall that there were Black Republicans in Congress who wasted little time slamming Florida’s new history standards that suggested U.S. slavery helped Black people develop useful skills. Though they knew it would upset Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a fellow Republican who’s running for president, those Black Republicans correctly made the accurate teaching of history a higher priority than repeating GOP talking points.

Latino Republicans who should be eager to get to the opening of the National Museum of the American Latino chose a DeSantis-like “anti-woke” strategy that has put that museum’s construction in peril.

Their example of doing the right thing makes it all the more glaring that around that same time, Latino Republicans who should be eager to get to the opening of the National Museum of the American Latino chose a DeSantis-style “anti-woke” strategy that has only served to put that museum’s construction in peril.

The decision from the Congressional Hispanic Conference co-chairs, Reps. Mario Díaz-Balart, R-Fla., and Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, to place so-called anti-woke politics over the bigger picture could lead to a cultural tragedy: the abrupt pause in plans for a museum dedicated to the Latino experience that has been in the works for decades.

The irony is that The New York Times just reported on polls that found that Republican voters and particularly Republican voters in Iowa appear to be tiring of their politicians' talking about “wokeness.”

That there isn’t already a national Latino museum is a travesty. But Congress finally gave its unanimous approval for such a museum in 2020, and in 2022, the Smithsonian Institution named Jorge Zamanillo its founding director.  A location must be designated by Dec. 27, 2024, but in a committee vote along party lines last month, Republicans cut funding for the museum.

At that House Appropriations Committee hearing, the views of a 2022 opinion piece from three prominent Latino conservatives who called on Latino Republicans in Congress to not support any additional funding for the national museum played a role in ending the funding push. According to that argument, “¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States,” an exhibit the Smithsonian has called a precursor to the museum, is “profoundly disconnected from the actual Latino experience and cultures in the United States.”

According to the essay’s three conservative authors, the exhibit “elevates only leftist ideologues, celebrates transexual activists, denigrates Christianity, denounces capitalism, condemns the West, portrays the United States as iniquitous and oppressive and badly distorts history. It advances the classic oppressor-oppressed agenda of textbook Marxism.”

The essay says the Smithsonian excluded “leftwing and Marxist dictators” but included “Rightwing autocrats.” The authors couldn’t understand why “leftist guerrilla and terroristic movements” didn’t get the same “terror” label as the Nicaraguan Contras of the 1980s.

Diaz-Balart and Gonzales say the exhibit “has an overarching theme that Hispanics are deserters, traitors, and victims of oppression in the U.S.”

Democrats voted to keep the funding flowing to the museum project, but the Republicans outvoted them.

In a statement after the hearing, Diaz-Balart and Gonzales said the exhibit “has an overarching theme that Hispanics are deserters, traitors, and victims of oppression in the U.S.” They note they had a meeting with the Smithsonian and said, “procedural changes in the review of content and leadership have been made.” Those changes, they say, will allow “funding to go further.”

But museum supporters worry that halting funding will make it impossible to meet the 2024 deadline to designate a site. The plan was for the museum to open in the 2030s, but Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said during a committee hearing last month that “Defunding the museum now may mean that it may be delayed 10 more years.”

In essence, the commitment from Diaz-Balart and Gonzales to play the anti-wokeness game could mean the damage has already been done. Reasonable Latino conservatives would have proudly promoted the funding as they offered their critiques or their suggestions about what the museum should include. But by supporting a funding cut, it just looks as if they’re ordering the Smithsonian to create a museum that’s less inclusive than it should be.

Latinos are complex and have different political beliefs. Nobody is denying that, but a major part of the the Latino experience in the United States is a history of conflict, colonialism, imperialism, racism, oppression, inequality, prejudice, anti-Mexicanism and anti-Blackness. To deny that is as patently dishonest as the claims saying leftism is destroying this country.

A museum dedicated to chronicling the U.S. Latino experience should not play it safe.

A museum dedicated to chronicling the U.S. Latino experience should not play it safe. It should not be elite. Nor should it just be white. Not funding a national museum that should address the good and bad about the U.S. Latino experience because it includes things that Republicans view as negative feels a lot like rejecting a history curriculum because it doesn’t say slavery benefited Black people. A historically accurate Latino museum in D.C. must include Latinos who have dissented against the great American experiment.

Rep. Adriano Espaillat, D-N.Y., deputy chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said he didn’t disagree with some of his Republican colleagues’ concerns about the precursor exhibit, but, he said, “there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of parts to that exhibit.”

“And just because we cannot agree, we disagree on one part of it, we’re going to drive a stake through the heart of what could be a major institution for the Latino community?” Espaillat said. “I think that’s flawed and mistaken.”

Tired culture war politics have no place in this debate, and if Latino Republicans were actually true to their community, they would know that. Instead of being constantly consistent and active promoters of the effort to make history, Diaz-Balart and Gonzales are no different from fellow conservatives who obsess about an American experience they believe threatens them.