The Arts and Industries Building, centrally located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is a contender for the location of the new National Museum of the American Latino.
In December 2020, the United States Congress passed the Consolidated Appropriations Act 2021, which provided half of the funding for the National Museum of the American Latino. The museum is set to become part of the Smithsonian Institution.
A few weeks ago, Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino launched a social media campaign, “Latinos Are the Missing Piece,” to bring attention to the fact that the museum is slated to be built away from the National Mall. “As the largest ethnic group in the nation with arguably the oldest ties to the founding of this nation, we have a compelling case for moving [the museum] onto the iconic National Mall and joining the many prestigious institutions that welcome the over 30 million tourists and residents each year to present our American story,” the group wrote.
When I saw the campaign, I began to research its origins and came to the conclusion that the real missing pieces are Afro/Black Latina, Latino, and Latinx people, whose origins, history, and culture are not included.
From its board of 15 to its chairman’s advisory council of 20 and its staff of five and over 100 partners, there is no broad representation of Afro/Black Latino, Latina, and Latinx people. We are not represented in any significant way.
To add insult to injury, Luis Fortuño, the ineffective, one-term former governor of Puerto Rico, sits on the chairman’s advisory council. Fortuño is a Republican who wants Puerto Rico to become a state. During his tenure, he cut over 22,000 jobs, ushered in privatization on the island, unemployment rose to 17%, and the U.S. Justice Department accused the Puerto Rico Police Department of corruption, criminal misconduct, and racial profiling of Black Puerto Ricans.
National Museum of the American Latino boasts over 100 partners and not one can be identified as an Afro/Black Latinx organization. The blatant anti-Blackness is outrageous and unacceptable.
Museums are public history institutions and are critically important, as they provide a gateway to so many regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity, or economic status. Museums allow for public discourse and are designed for remembrance. They are memorials—requiems of history.
According to the Pew Research Center, “about 6 million U.S. adults identify as Afro Latino.” I think the number is higher, but to this day we cannot get an accurate accounting because demographic information rarely gives Latinos the choice to identify as Black people. To many, “Black” means exclusively African American, but we know that there are Black Puerto Ricans, Black Colombians, Africans from the continent, etc., that are racially Black and reside in the United States.
As a historian soon to complete my Ph.D., which focuses on Afro/Black Latinx people born and raised in the United States, I argue that one-fourth of us—at least 15 million—identifies as Black, specifically Afro Latinx. As Afro/Black Latinx folks, we cannot allow ourselves to become tokens.
Rather than addressing the increasing critique and skepticism that the idea of placing the National Museum of the American Latino on the National Mall is getting from many Afro/Black individuals, organizations, and activists, museum organizers instead released a picture with Roberto Clemente on it—adding insult to injury—while still being advised, staffed, and having a board of mostly white, non-Black Latinx people.
As an organizer and activist, I rarely engage with people that have already chosen to erase me, my daughter, my people. I believe our power comes when we start our own institutions, create interventions, and uplift even more Afro/Black Latinx young folks that seek to disrupt the normalized notions of what a Latina, Latino, or Latinx person looks like in this country. We must also support institutions like the Caribbean Cultural Center/African Diaspora Institute in New York City and the Creative Justice Initiative* founded by Dr. Marta Moreno Vega. I also encourage folks to check out the Museum J.E.D.I.(Justice, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion) podcast created by Omar Eaton-Martinez, which hosts discussions on the intersections of museums and social justice.
Afro/Black Latinx people are here. We are growing in number. We exist. We can write our own narratives, and we will not be erased.
This opinion piece was originally published online by Latino Rebels on June 1, 2022.
Editor’s Note: On Thursday, June 2, the Smithsonian reached out to Latino Rebels to note that “the Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino is not affiliated with the Smithsonian or the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Latino.” It also asked us to provide a link to the official museum website.
Rosa Clemente is a Ph.D. candidate at UMass-Amherst and a leading scholar and activist in Afro/Black Latinx identity, culture, and politics. She is an organizer and independent journalist and was an associate producer on the two-time Oscar-winning movie, “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Twitter: @rosaclemente *Disclosure: I am a board member of the Creative Justice Initiative.