We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Black and white may define the extremes of racial politics as usual, but millions of other Americans are caught somewhere in the middle. Whether white, black, or brown, America’s Latinos defy easy categorization—a fact that has stumped everyone from the Census Bureau to teachers of American history. The confusion has often resulted in silence.
Media studies confirm the worst: Latinos don’t register in the public eye. The nation’s fastest-growing minority (their numbers soon to overtake those of African-Americans) has had a hard time attracting mainstream attention. Alas, the Smithsonian Institution hasn’t been much help in the matter. Willful Neglect, a Smithsonian-commissioned report released in 1994, chastised the museum for its failure to hire Hispanics (who then made up only 2.7 percent of its employees), its insufficient permanent exhibits on Latino cultures, and its lack of a museum dedicated to a unique part of American culture. Penned by a task force of a dozen Latino professionals, the report was greeted with a round of mea culpas from Smithsonian brass, including then-Secretary Robert McC. Adams. Pledges to do better were solemnly made. Roughly a year-and-a-half later, it’s worth asking what’s been done to get la raza on the Mall.
Nestled in his third-floor office in the Castle, Miguel Bretos avers that the Smithsonian has become “more aware” of the problem. A member of the original task force, Bretos is now counselor to the secretary for Latino affairs—a contract position with annual renewal. A cultural liaison between the Latino community and the Smithsonian, Bretos says he was hired to act as a “mechanism to bring about change.” His tone is decidedly less angry than that of the biting critique he helped author in Willful Neglect—a shift prompted by his change from task force watchdog to administrative insider.
Bretos has seen “very significant” progress. A $1-million budget appropriation has strengthened outreach programs, made purchases for collections, and planned new exhibits—one on Puerto Rico for 1998, another on the national Latino community by 2000. He notes that the first-ever Latino regent was appointed to the Smithsonian board since the task force report, even if hiring at other levels hasn’t seen any “earth-shaking improvement.” Says Bretos, “I’m here because my reading of Secretary [I. Michael] Heyman is that he wants to make a change.” If the proof isn’t forthcoming, he adds, “I [still] have an academic career out there.”
Bretos belongs to one of America’s most successful Latino contingents. An early Castro refugee, he emigrated from Cuba in 1961, following in the steps of his great-grandmother, who left for Florida in the 1890s. He went on to found the Cuban Exile History and Archives Project in Miami, and has served on the faculty or administration of Fisk University, Oberlin College, the University of New South Wales, and Miami/
Dade Community College, his academic base. He acknowledges never having considered a career as a public historian until he realized the importance of museums as educational tools.
We make a stab at definitions. After all, the range of “Latinos”—defined as a linguistic group on census forms with the tag “Hispanic”—is staggering. Just how much does a
Salvadoran refugee have in common with a New Mexican family that’s been living on a Spanish land grant for three centuries? Can a light-skinned Chilean working for an NGO and a Dominican cabdriver who could pass for black be linked by anything more than language? The attempt to lump all of them together in the name of “diversity” seems like something of a melting-pot maneuver itself.
Washington’s Latinos are divided, admits Bretos. From well-heeled embassy personnel to Central American immigrants in Adams Morgan, he says, Latinos have “a greater degree of social and economic polarization than you find in other communities.” For Bretos, however, the issue of shared language and history unite what would seem an otherwise unwieldy group. “Who are the Latinos?” he asks, acknowledging that some don’t even see themselves as part of a larger family. “It is something that is in the process of becoming.”
Despite professional ties with Latin America, Bretos continues, the museum has been lax in developing bilingual programs. Spanish is the dominant idiom of much of the hemis-phere—not to mention the mother tongue of a sizable number of Washington residents—which makes it a prime candidate for use by guards and guides as well as for display on exhibit panels. But “the Spanish language is under assault,” laments Bretos of Spanglish and related hybrids. Choosing the “right” dialect for museum display won’t be easy, either. “Standard Spanish doesn’t exist,” he emphasizes, noting local varieties from Spain to South America and the Caribbean. The act of picking one, he says, will be a “political choice”—the mother tongue can’t always be a rallying cry.
Timing is all, and Willful Neglect had terrible timing. “Here we are trying to tell people, ‘Hey, think about the fact that we were speaking Spanish in Florida until 1831,’” moans Bretos, when, in his own backyard of Dade County, a 1980s bilingual ordinance was recently overturned by an “English only” referendum. Nor does it seem fair that only now, with money tight and Congress more conservative, has the Smithsonian awakened to the problem of Latino issues. Acknowledging that there has been a “certain lag in political mobilization,” Bretos says, “We have to be knocking at the doors long after we should….
It’s really a pity this hasn’t happened before.”
Cultural politics in the Castle can hide more practical matters. “There is a conviction [to change] on the part of the secretary,” affirms Bretos, “and there’s also a very shrewd reading of where the nation is going.” In other words, freezing out 10 percent of the population isn’t very smart anywhere—whether on K Street or in the most Gothic of ivory towers. From tourist dollars to foundation grants, there is money to be made by carefully targeting minorities.
Perhaps the most damning thing about Willful Neglect doesn’t have anything to do with Latinos per se. It fires off a blistering critique of how the Smithsonian handles internal business—of its lack of hiring accountability, its decentralized organization, its “self-perpetuating” board of regents, whose retiring citizen members often nominate their replacements before Congress rubberstamps them. Clubby environs? No woman—Latino or otherwise—had ever served as a Smithsonian regent until 1977. There will soon be two women regents (out of 17 members) sitting on the board.
“If you’re choosing people you feel comfortable with,” says Ana Marie Argilagos, board liaison for the National Council of La Raza, which helped develop Willful Neglect, “[the regents] are going to stay closed.” Argilagos credits the current Latino regent—Manuel Ibañez—with being “open and interested,” adding, however, that “he’s not the voice of Latinos.” Proposed by the regents, Ibañez has experience as an academic that runs counter to the community leadership background recommended by the task force for Latino governance positions at the museum.
The Council of La Raza, a nonprofit founded in 1968 to fight discrimination and poverty among Latinos, is advocating that Rep. Esteban Torres (D-Calif.) fill a congressional regent position soon to be vacated.
“He would be our voice,” Argilagos says of Torres, who has been a supporter of the arts and a political infighter of long standing. To be fair, she says, the Smithsonian encouraged a critique from the beginning. “But I don’t think they realized the extent of the problem.”
It may be no surprise the word “collegial” crops up repeatedly in the report. While fitting for an institution that has come to be known as America’s “campus on the Mall,” however, the tone is chastising, not chummy. Willful Neglect, in fact, describes an entrenched old-boys network worthy of a posh country club. Much of midlevel management consists of separate bureaus run like “little empires,” Argilagos says, drawing from her experience coordinating the report. Laudable directives from the brass, she adds, have taken a long time to trickle down. I ask her whether employment figures have improved since the report was released: “We haven’t been able to get the numbers,” she says a little wearily. “It’s a dinosaur over there.”
Still, Argilagos demurs, the Smithsonian has “a number of jewels.” People like Spencer Crew at the National Museum of American History and Elizabeth Broun at the National Museum of American Art have made a “good faith” effort to comply with the report, she offers, even if it seemed that nothing was happening during the first year. As for Bretos—he’s “an ambassador,” she says carefully, “a wonderful diplomat” for the outside, “…but he hasn’t been as successful internally” organizing the Latino staff. “They’re not completely behind him.”
The Latino affairs position was made as a peace offering, explains Ana Sol Gutierrez, a member of the task force and the oversight committee established to implement its directives. But too many of the gains to date—like La Smithsonian, a quarterly newsletter—have been merely symbolic, she adds. A recent job fair for museum guards failed to even advertise in Latino papers. An institutional strategic plan presented to the regents, says Gutierrez, didn’t bother to consult the oversight committee at all. President of the Montgomery County board of education, Gutierrez would like to see the museum change its primary function from research to public education that “reaches the whole community.” But “they’re still very far from convincing me there’s been a change in attitude,” she concludes.
The minority shuffle continues on the Mall. The American Indian museum is in the works; the Center for African-American History and Culture has been established—even though the proposal for a national museum was killed by Congress. But Latinos are still looking in the window. An upbeat Bretos stresses he’s for an “integrative” view of history. If [a Latino] museum is, “This is ours and nobody else’s,” he explains, it’s bound to send the wrong message. “But if the museum is, ‘This is what we are….Come and enjoy it, come and learn from us,’” the mosaic will be all the richer. “I’m against any idea of ghettoizing or balkanizing,” says Bretos. But the money is nowhere in sight.
The shame of it, says Argilagos, is that “people don’t know that Texas was Mexican until 150 years ago.” Celebrating its 150th birthday, in fact, the Smithsonian was founded the same year that the Mexican War broke out. But even the most loyal groupie of the Museum of American History would hardly know from the exhibits that either the Mexican or Spanish-American wars—two of our more jingoistic episodes—had ever taken place. Embarrassment may explain as much as ignorance in accounting for why some Latinos have been overlooked on the Mall.
But putting up the exhibits is only half the problem. “There are families that really need for institutions like ours to touch them,” says Bretos, citing a first-generation Bolivian cabdriver he recently met. Bretos suggested he bring his school-age kids to the Mall every now and then to see the museums. After all, he advised, they don’t cost anything. Holding down two jobs—as does his wife—the moonlighting cabbie could only shrug at the invitation and ask, before driving off, “When?” CP