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Smithsonian embraces Latino History

Last year, the Smithsonian Institution accepted charges of “willful
neglect” for the glaring absence of Latino contributions to American
history, culture, and art among its vast national collection. Now that
oversight is about to be rectified as Dr. Refugio Rochin, director of
Michigan State University’s Julian Samora Research Center, assumes the
helm of the 150-year-old institution’s new Center for Latino

Observing scholars are hoping that with Rochin’s appointment, not
only will Latinos be integrated into the nation’s historical fabric,
but non-Latinos will get help understanding who Latinos are today.

“Historically, [the Smithsonian has] woefully neglected the Latino
population,” says Dr. Antonio Rios Bustamante, a historian and longtime
activist for efforts to create Latino museums nationally. “The result
is that other populations in the United States are not knowledgeable
about Latinos.

“It takes strength to recognize a mistake,” he adds, applauding Rochin’s appointment.

“We welcome Dr. Rochin as a new voice in the Smithsonian
community,” says Smithsonian Secretary Michael Heyman. “His scholarly
work as well as his leadership in research and policy issues affecting
Latinos are the qualities we were looking for in the director of our
new center.”

Rochin views his charge at the Smithsonian as one aimed at creating
an awareness and greater understanding of U.S. Latinos. The
Smithsonian, he points out, has sixteen museums, and his task will be
to identify what — among Latino contributions in areas, such as
history, art, sciences, technology, sports, anthropology, culture and
ethnography — should be included in each museum.

“The objective has to be to impress upon the public the importance
of Latinos. This includes exposing the public to leaders, events and
cultural themes,” Rochin says.

From on the Drawing Board to Online

The Center for Latino Initiatives was created in 1997, the result
of a working group convened by the institution to assess its
collections and activities relative to Latinos. The Smithsonian’s
current effort reach out to Latinos is, in Rios Bustamante’s opinion,
an acknowledgment that Latinos are not a foreign population, but rather
part of its charge — to incorporate all people and groups who have
contributed to the building of the United States.

“Outside of the Quincentennial, in which the Smithsonian
inadequately examined the 500-year anniversary of Columbus’s arrival to
what he thought was a `new world,’ this is the first time the
institution is focusing on Latinos,” he says. “But the effort has to
reach beyond tokenism.”

While the Latino initiative will not have an operating budget, it
will have a staff budget and access to experts in fundraising, computer
technology, and program development.

“The Smithsonian is very big on fund-raising,” Rochin says.
“There’s a need for the national corporate leadership to exert its
responsibility in support of our culture and history and our leaders.”

One of the issues that Rochin would like the Smithsonian audience
to be exposed to is the history of Latinos in North America prior to
the establishment of the United States which includes exploration and
settlements in the Southwest, Southeast, Midwest, Northeast, and
Caribbean. In addition to that, the U.S.-Mexico border region is of
great importance, he says.

Exposing the Smithsonian audience to the great diversity of
cultures under the Latino umbrella — which includes Chicanos,
Mexicans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, and Central and South Americans — is
another of Rochin’s priorities. Americans should also learn of the
unique importance of the family to Latinos and the cultural fusion of
Latino culture upon U.S. culture, he says.

Among the many exhibits, seminars, and educational programs that
Rochin has planned, he is most excited about the creation of a Latino
atlas — an educational compilation of things Latino (including
demographic information) that can be accessed by computer.

“The Web can become a springboard to connect with Latino scholars.
What I want to do is have an up-to-date educational service on the Web
that will be accessible to all our communities in the near future,”
Rochin says.

“The Latino atlas will not be like an encyclopedia. It will be
about who we are and how we got here. And it will be about our
contributions to the building of the United States,” he adds.

Ideas about Education and Humanity

Another of the roles of the Latino initiatives is to support the existing Latino museums around the country.

“What will distinguish us from other groups is that our task is to
promote our history and culture,” Rochin says. “We will address who we
are and address the myths about our population. I’m very conscious that
what we promote will help define who we are … [and that] we’ll never
be free of criticism or concern.”

Rochin looks forward to working with his scholarly peers from
throughout the country as part of his work at the Smithsonian. He plans
not only to create advisory boards for the purpose of suggesting and
developing programs, exhibits, and the like, but also to solicit ideas
personally from scholars.

Smithsonian museums already have procedures to incorporate new
ideas, but the objective of the center will be to feed new input from
experts on Latino history and culture into the existing system.

“[One] of the things the center will do is fundamental research
that is referenced and supported by evidence,” Rochin says. “We have a
research component to build. We want it to be historically accurate and

While his current mission does not include working toward the
creation of a separate national Latino museum, Rochin says he doesn’t
see why that could not come about.

“I’m open to a museum in the Southwest. Why shouldn’t we have a
Latino museum within the Smithsonian? I think many people are not ready
for us. Maybe we have to find the right place — perhaps in more than
one place, such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Florida.”

Rios Bustamante points out that while most Mexican Americans are at
least part Native American, they also are from cultures that were
present in North America before the United States existed.

“It’s important to educate people that we have always been here …
even as founders,” he says, adding that the role of the Smithsonian is
to restore the humanity to all peoples whose humanity has historically
been abridged.

“No group today should accept an affront to their humanity or their identity.”

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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