When newly-elected Rep. Juan Ciscomani first came to Washington late last year to prepare for his swearing-in he took his six kids 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 an oppressed minority, that he had to gather his children at the end and do a sort of debriefing to let them know what they just saw was bad history.
“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 to be amateurish, and certainly not worthy of the millions of dollars Congress has already 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 current exhibit and to halt work on a future 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’s been prodding the Smithsonian for months to hear his concerns and take steps to correct the current exhibit, which is in the Museum of American History and is considered a first crack at what the eventual Museum of the American Latino would be.
Smithsonian officials, he said, have ignored him.
He led the push to defund the exhibit and the planned museum, saying he fully supports the project, but the only way to get the Smithsonian to pay attention and heed concerns is to hit them 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 during debate on the defunding language in the House Appropriations Committee last week.
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.
The museum has been in the works for years, with Congress officially establishing it in 2020. A director has been named and the search is now on for a location.
But it’s the test exhibit, at the Museum of American History, that has sparked the current controversy, which surprisingly came to dominate last week’s committee 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 kicked off the debate by complaining that Republicans were trying to “whitewash” Latinos’ history by shutting down the museum.
Rep. Pete Aguilar, California Democrat, said the exhibit “isn’t perfect” but said the GOP 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 chided colleagues.
Republicans responded with a compelling critique of the exhibit.
In one display it boils the complex causes of the Mexican-American War down to America’s expansionist territorial ambitions, or as Mr. Ciscomani described it, saying the U.S. “stole” half of Mexico in 1848. The congressman, who was born in Mexico and went to school there until he was 11 years old, said that 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, here and abroad, 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,” and lists U.S. backing of Cuba’s Fulgencio Bautista and the Dominican Republic’s Rafael Trujillo.
It is followed by a description of the Latino experience in the U.S. as one of 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 sins of Latin American dictators, saying it was American intervention that sent people fleeing their homes and rushing north, rather than the prosperity and opportunity the U.S. offered the newcomers.
He said one exhibit on Cuban immigrants was a scratch-and-sniff, telling visitors to smell the scent of the water in the Gulf of Mexico to experience what those coming over on boats and rafts experienced.
Not only did that ignore the history of struggle against the Castro regime, but the “exhibit looks like 12-year-olds put it together,” he said.
Mr. Diaz-Balart at one point asked for a show of hands on who had actually seen the exhibit. Several Republican hands shot up, but he saw just one Democrat raise a hand.
Confronted with the Republicans’ personal stories, Democrats shifted their objections, saying they agreed that the Smithsonian needed to do better. But they said defunding the museum was the wrong way to prod action.
“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 add the money for the museum back in later once things get settled with the Smithsonian.
“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 bath water,” she said.
Rep. Adriano Espaillat, New York Democrat, proposed an amendment to restore the museum and keep the exhibit operating.
It was defeated on a 33-27 vote, with Republicans opposing it. They said after Mr. Diaz-Balart’s attempts to get their attention failed, Smithsonian officials needed a punch in the nose.
“The only thing they understand is money,” said Rep. Mike 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.
That opened in 2016 without any recognition of Justice Clarence Thomas, the second Black person to sit on the Supreme Court. The museum did, however, recognize Anita Hill, the Black woman who tried to derail Justice Thomas’s 1991 confirmation with allegations of sexual harassment.
The museum would belatedly add an exhibit on Justice Thomas.