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First the dream, then gridlock

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Esther Cepeda
April 25, 2011
— There is beauty in watching a group come together to realize a dream—even one you don’t believe in.

Take the National Museum of the American Latino Commission, which has undertaken the Sisyphean task of gathering the political muscle and funds to create a museum on the National Mall recognizing the history and contributions of Latino Americans.


The bill authorizing the commission was signed in 2008 and the members appointed in 2009 by Presidents Bush and Obama and congressional leaders. It is set to report to Congress next month on the viability and scope of the project and in the past few days has been ardently reaching out to potential supporters after a New York Times article pointed out numerous hurdles to getting the venture approved.


Not to make too little of the economic downturn’s effects on even the most prestigious museums in this country and the ongoing rancorous debate about illegal immigration, but financial and political roadblocks are the least of it. Every massive undertaking has its detractors, challenges and controversies. And even if Congress approves the project, the potential for gridlock within the Hispanic community itself is mind-numbing.


A veteran of Latino-specific cultural organization boards, Advertising Age columnist Rochelle Newman-Carrasco succinctly described the minefields in a 2008 piece she wrote after the commission was authorized:


“At first, (the stakeholders) are full of pride and enthusiasm. Soon, however … they divide up into … factions that are an unfortunate, but perhaps unavoidable part of the U.S. Latino experience. One voice drowns out the other. ‘It’s too Mexican.’ ‘It’s not Mexican enough.’ … ‘Too Cuban.’ ‘Why no Brazilians? Just because we speak Portuguese?’ ‘Is the Chicano movement represented?’ ‘Don’t use the word Chicano.’ ‘Too much Spanish.’ ‘Too much English.’ ‘Spanglish? You can’t be serious!’ ‘Too brown.’ ‘Too white.’ ‘What about black Hispanics. And Asian?’ ‘Too upscale.’ ‘Too downscale.’ ‘Too foreign born.’ ‘Too U.S. born.’ ‘Spain doesn’t count.’ ‘Spain is the motherland.’ ‘It can’t be called Hispanic.’ ‘It can’t be called Latino.’ And on and on and on.”


But let’s say all the obstacles could be overcome. Should Hispanics really want a museum on the National Mall?


I don’t. I’m with Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., who told the Times: “I don’t want a situation where whites go to the original museum, African-Americans go to the African-American museum, Indians go to the Indian museum, Hispanics go to the Latino American museum. That’s not America.”


Indeed. Separate-but-equal was finally put to rest in the 1950s and ’60s, and we don’t need it to come back in the form of museum choices in Washington just for the sake of being able to say “Latinos are there, too.” I’d rather see more effort put into integrating Latino accomplishments in existing museums across the country.


Still, America’s mythology of independent spirit calls on us to admire this well-meaning attempt, however quixotic. So here’s wishing the commission good luck on its quest: “Que vayan con Dios.”
Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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