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A new exhibit takes visitors closer to the National Museum of the American Latino

The entrance to the Molina Family Latino Gallery at the National American History Museum in Washington, D.C
Tony Powell
The Smithsonian Institution
The entrance to the Molina Family Latino Gallery at the National American History Museum in Washington, D.C

The long-dreamed-of National Museum of the American Latino probably will not be completed for at least another ten years, but a huge step was taken towards its realization when the future Smithsonian museum's first exhibit opened as a pop-up on the National Mall in Washington D.C.

This exhibit, a preview of sorts, is called ¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States. It's housed in the Molina Family Latino Gallery, a 4,500-square-foot space inside the National Museum of American History.

Jorge Zamanillo, director of the National Museum of the American Latino, says the placement is intentional. It's meant to show visitors that Latino history is part of American history.

"It's foundational. It really sets the stage. Kind of like a 101 on American Latino presence in the United States and how it fits into the larger American history narrative," Zamanillo says.

An exhibit in the Molina Family Latino Gallery at the National Museum of American History.
/ National Museum of the American Latino by Tony Powell
Molina Family Latino Gallery
An exhibit in the Molina Family Latino Gallery at the National Museum of American History.

When ¡Presente! was being developed, Smithsonian curators asked visitors about their knowledge of Latino history to figure out what should be at the forefront of this exhibition. The final show speaks to what many of those visitors did not know, says Ranald Woodaman, director of exhibitions and public programs at the Smithsonian Latino Center.

"Most visitors think of Latinos as being new to the United States, they think of us all as being immigrants and as mostly being Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans," he says.

The small but vibrant exhibition reflects all kinds of Latino experiences and presents them in both English and Spanish. ¡Presente! covers four themes: Colonial Legacies, War and U.S. Expansion, Immigration Stories, and Shaping the Nation.

In one of the galleries, for example, visitors can see a raft: a tiny boat where Cuban refugees spent a number of days in 1992 in order to get to Florida by sea. In another, an intricate artwork titled Tree of Life, by Mexican-born Verónica Castillo, uses clay to recreate historical moments and themes present throughout the gallery.

Woodaman said he wanted the exhibition, which is set in chronological order, to end in the present — with data-driven stories that show the growing impact of Latinos in the U.S. He also wanted to end on a note of affirmation, nodding to how the community is breaking boundaries and highlighting stories from people like Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor,Cuban American singer Celia Cruz and Colombian American drag queen and activist José Sarria.

And at the very end of the gallery, there is a quiet little room with books and board games that feels like a relaxing space to wind down.

"We want people to come to this space and feel welcomed, and feel like they can come to hang out here on a Saturday or Sunday and play Domingos de Dominos or come hang out and learn the science behind the spices of our Latino foods," says Emily Key, who runs audience engagement at the museum. "Why does chile taste the way it does? What's the science behind that?"

Until the National Museum of the American Latino is finally constructed and opens, in 2024 or later, this gallery marks a significant step: the beginning of the end of a decades-long pursuit to highlight Latino culture in the American context.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Miranda Mazariegos
Miranda Mazariegos is NPR's 2021-2022 Reflect America Fellow. She has worked with NPR's history podcast Throughline and with Weekend All Things Considered. She is now doing a rotation with the Culture Desk.

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