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Smithsonian unveils first Latino history exhibit, new gallery

Smithsonian unveils first Latino history exhibit, new gallery

By Patricia Guadalupe / nbcnews.com – June 15, 2022

WASHINGTON —  The Smithsonian’s first gallery dedicated to Latino history and culture is opening its doors to the public this weekend at the National Museum of American History.

Billed as a precursor to a national Latino museum to be incorporated to the Smithsonian Institution, the Molina Family Latino Gallery will open on June 18 in the nation’s capital with the exhibition, “¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States.”

The Molina Gallery, with a variety of rotating exhibits and interactive displays, is set up over 4,500 square feet on the first floor, right off the main entrance of the museum.

The “¡Presente!” exhibit will highlight stories of Latinos and Latinas across the generations, such as the colonial-era Indigenous freedom fighter Toypurina, Puerto Rican baseball player Roberto Clemente, labor and farmworker leader Dolores Huerta, Cuban-American singer Celia Cruz, and the first Latina Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor.

Latino Exhibit
A scene from the inaugural Molina Family Latino Gallery exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Natural Museum of American History, which opens to the public on June 18.

Displayed both in English and Spanish, the exhibit is divided into four themes — “Colonial Legacies,” “War and U.S. Expansion,” “Immigration Stories” and “Shaping the Nation.”

Included is a video exhibit titled “The Somos (We Are) Theater,” which features stories on identity and family histories. Touchscreens explore several topics, including education, diversity and income inequality.

In addition to being fully bilingual, the exhibit allows the visually and hearing impaired and those with learning disabilities to fully partake. A companion website highlights oral histories and objects from the exhibit.

“We developed the gallery like a mini-museum,” said Eduardo Díaz, acting deputy director of the National Museum of the American Latino, a project unanimously approved by Congress in December 2020 that is expected to be completed in 10 to 12 years.

“I’m excited to join the team that sets a foundation for what’s to come,” Jorge Zamanillo, founding director of the new museum, told NBC News. “This is a jump-start. The gallery gives the public a preview of the museum’s potential.”

Latino Exhibit
A scene from the inaugural Molina Family Latino Gallery exhibition at the Smithsonian’s Natural Museum of American History, which opens to the public on June 18.

The new gallery was set up with a $10 million donation from the Molina Family Foundation, named after the late Dr. C. David Molina and his wife, Mary. The couple started a health care clinic in 1980 in Long Beach, California, to assist low-income Latinos and other underserved communities. The number of clinics grew and became Molina Healthcare, a Fortune 500 company and the country’s largest Latino HMO.

“This is phenomenal — my father’s stethoscope (is in the exhibit); to think that it’s now part of the Smithsonian, it makes me tear up,” John Molina said during a press preview June 15. “I am humbled to be a part of this, as I know the rest of my siblings are. When you experience (the exhibit), it’s at the forefront of any display you would want to see.”

The new Latino gallery at the Smithsonian, the largest museum complex in the world, has nearly three decades in the making.

In 1994, a report from the Smithsonian Institution Task Force on Latinos concluded that the institution displayed a “pattern of willful neglect” toward the U.S. Latino population. A direct result of that report was the creation of the Smithsonian Latino Center, which helped design exhibits within existing museums. The idea of creating a museum focusing on Latinos soon gained momentum. The legislative process was started by then-Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and then-California Democratic Rep. Xavier Becerra in 2003, and the project has been backed by prominent Latinos such as Rita Moreno, Chita Rivera and Eva Longoria.

A decision on the final location of the museum is expected by the end of the year.

The Smithsonian also plans to showcase the Molina exhibit during Hispanic Heritage Month this September, which will mark 25 years since the Smithsonian started highlighting Latino culture.

The Smithsonian will kick off two days of public events, including an Evening Dance Party on Sept. 16 and a Latino Heritage Family Day on Sept. 17.

“This is a special year for the Molina Family Latino Gallery to open,” Díaz said. “It was 25 years ago that the Smithsonian founded the Latino Center to increase Latino representation across the institution, which also helped pave the way for the Latino museum.”

The National Museum of the American Latino has a 10-year agreement with the National Museum of American History, and will rotate the Molina Family Latino Gallery with different exhibits every two years. Curators are already working on the next exhibit, which will highlight youth activism and empowerment.

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