The contributions of Latinos to American history and culture can be traced back hundreds of years. In fact, the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the country was established in 1565 by the Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, in St. Augustine, Florida.
A few years later, in 1598, Juan de Oñate departed Zacatecas, México bound for what would become New Mexico, and on the way celebrated the first Thanksgiving in America with his expedition in San Elizario (Texas), along the banks of the Río Grande. Subsequent Spanish incursions led to establishing Santa Fe in 1607.
Since then, Latinos have played a significant role in shaping this country’s history. Today, Latinos make up 17.6 percent of the nation’s total population, or 56.6 million, according to the U.S. Census.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Smithsonian Latino Center, which is dedicated to telling the stories of the millions of Latinos who have made contributions to the U.S. Smithsonian Insider spoke with its director, Eduardo Díaz, to find out more about its role in increasing the Latino presence at the Smithsonian.
Q: WHY WAS THE SMITHSONIAN LATINO CENTER ESTABLISHED?
Díaz: The Smithsonian Latino Center was established in response to a 1994 report titled “Willful Neglect: The Smithsonian Institution and U.S. Latinos,” which outlined a lack of Latino representation at the Smithsonian. The report was created by the Task Force on Latino Issues, which was established by Smithsonian Secretary, Robert McCormick Adams, and was composed of 15 Latino scholars and museum professionals from outside the Smithsonian.
It was a courageous thing to do for the Smithsonian, because it was admitting that it was doing a poor job of representing the contributions of the Latino community to the nation. The task force made recommendations for increasing the Latino presence at the Smithsonian that led to the creation of the Center for Latino Initiatives in 1997, which later changed its name to the Smithsonian Latino Center.
Q: WHAT IS AT THE CORE OF THE SMITHSONIAN LATINO CENTER’S MISSION?
Díaz: It’s truly all about presence. Our mission is to ensure an adequate Latino presence at the Smithsonian. I like to break down the one big “P” (presence) into three small “Ps”: programs, people and place.
Programs: The Latino Center acts as an idea incubator to support content that tells the stories of the contributions of Latinos in nation-building and shaping national culture. We administer the Latino Initiatives Pool, a federal fund that provides financial support to programs, exhibitions, research, collections and archives, and publications at Smithsonian museums, research centers, and the National Zoo.
Some of the programs, exhibitions and collections we support include the YES! (Youth Enrichment Through Science) Program, which engages Latino students in research projects with scientists at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History; the current Smithsonian American Art Museum exhibition, “Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography,” which explores the work of 10 Latino photographers who have documented the state of American cities; and the Inti Raymi Festival at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian –New York, the George Gustav Heye Center, which honors the winter solstice celebration held by many Andean cultures of Latin America, and their diasporic communities in the U.S.
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