with twenty-one museums (and a National Zoo) under its purview. In 2022 alone, there were 217 exhibitions on display and 64 new exhibitions opened with 13.7 million in-person visits. The National Museum of African American History opened its doors in 2016, but it’s not the newest Congress-approved museum.

In December 2020, Congress enacted legislation to establish the National Museum of the American Latino (NMAL).

The formalized effort dates back twenty-nine years to 1994, when the Smithsonian Institution Task Force on Latino Issues rendered its findings with the report titled Willful Neglect.

“They [Latinos] have contributed significantly to every phase and aspect of American history and culture,” the report reads. “Yet the Institution almost entirely excludes and ignores Latinos in nearly every aspect of its operation.”

The effort to right this wrong has lasted for nearly thirty years, and it’s not over. The National Museum of the American Latino finally received its congressional approval for construction in 2020 through the hard work and consensus building of hundreds of stakeholders. But as acting NMAL Deputy Director Eduardo Díaz knows better than most: “It’s one thing to authorize. It’s quite another to allocate.”

This is an oral history of the march from Willful Neglect to, hopefully, a time when the final selection for the site of the National Museum of the American Latino (located somewhere on the National Mall in Washington, DC) could be just months away. No matter how far away that opening day might be, all parties interviewed here believe they are closer to the end than the beginning.

But to see this process as either done or undone is to discredit an organization like the non-Smithsonian-affiliated Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino, whose efforts to help create awareness for the need for the museum date back to the George W. Bush administration. That effort has never stopped.

It also undercuts those working within the Smithsonian who pushed ahead and created a gallery to serve as a rallying point for continued efforts to get the larger structure built. The museum has hired Latino curators and conducts ongoing research to bring the physical museum to fruition. In March 2023, NMAL opened applications for Latino Museum Studies Program undergraduate internship, which is in its second year.

In Díaz’s words, there is already a museum. It just needs some bigger clothes to grow into.

Eduardo Díaz:

The real genesis of all of this was the Willful Neglect report. Immediately after the report was issued, the Smithsonian began efforts to do outreach in the community. I can remember hosting a meeting in San Antonio, where I was the director of cultural affairs with Miguel Bretos from the Smithsonian.

In 1997, the Center for Latino Initiatives was formed at the Smithsonian. That morphed into the Smithsonian Latino Center, which then merged with the National Museum of the American Latino. That’s the organization I became the director of in 2008.

Estuardo Rodriguez:

That report helped establish the need for a future American Latino museum, but it wasn’t until 2004 that my team at the Raben Group really got things rolling. At that time, we met with then-Congressman Xavier Becerra and that led to my team volunteering our efforts to create an outside advisory board that would simply spread the word on why the creation of the museum was so important.

It seemed a no-brainer to want to bring more attention to this from around the country to create a museum that stood side-by-side with all of the other iconic museums that tell America’s story.

We spent 2005 to 2008 introducing legislation, gathering support from different companies, nonprofits, elected officials, and municipalities writing resolutions in support of passing the National Museum of the American Latino Commission bill. It finally passed in 2008 as a bipartisan bill. It was important for us to make sure that we’re able to bring the Latino community, with all of its different perspectives and political ideologies, together, and that’s where Danny [Vargas] comes in.

Danny Vargas:

I reached out to my congressman in 2006 or 2007, encouraging them to support the commission bill and asking if I could be appointed if it passed. My motivation stems from the fact that none of us are one thing as Latinos. I am a veteran. I’m also a business owner. We’re all an amalgamation of identities.

One of the things that was important to me was to make sure the narrative about our community was addressed in a different way than it had been by the public previously. We saw ourselves in media as drug dealers, or cholos. I wanted to help recraft the narrative.


When the commission was approved, they authored what was called The Latino Theme Study, which is still in use today. It was a group of diverse Latino scholars who collected different essays on subject matter they thought should be dealt with by the future museum. This was a very smart move because they understood it was the future curators who would have the discretion to determine what would be presented to the public.


That commission has a two-year window where they were supposed to present their findings to the White House and Congress. They came in under budget and faster than their deadline required.


When that group first came together, it was people from all walks of life: Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, people from the arts, people from business, Democrats, Republicans—and very few of us knew each other. But we very quickly came together as a family in that first meeting. It was clear to everyone that this was a legacy initiative where we began to change the perception of our community within ourselves. That change has to happen within you before it can happen by society at large.


At the same time, efforts to get the museum moving forward were continually stalled or thwarted in Congress.


We realized that once the commission bill was done, there were some significant challenges ahead. Getting a bill that would authorize the creation of the museum would require a much larger and more formal initiative.

Over ten years, we hosted annual design contests for the museum, annual awards events, screenings; anything to get the word out.

 Images from the Molina Family Latino Gallery, which opened its doors in June 2022.

While the Friends of the Museum was assembling a motivated and high-profile collection of business partners, celebrities, and political allies from both sides of the aisle to help amplify the voices calling for the museum, those at the Smithsonian were making their own change from within.


It was 2015, and we had been waiting and waiting and waiting for passage of the construction legislation because then we could shift into building mode. But it just never happened. We had seen what the National Museum of African American History and Culture had done, which had functionally operated for six or seven years before they were able to officially open their museum in 2016. Maybe we could do that, too. We said, “Let’s build a gallery.”

So there we were, a staff of seven, and we had no plan. We had no space designated. We had no money. Fortunately, our advisory board had also grown frustrated with the lack of Congressional action, so they got us some planning money.

We went shopping for space and found 4,500 square feet of space that the American History Museum had on the first floor of the east wing that was being used for storage.

The museum was able to secure $10 million from the family of C. David Molina, a physician and entrepreneur, whose family sought to honor their father’s legacy by creating the Molina Family Latino Gallery at the Smithsonian. The gallery opened its doors in June 2022.


We’re incredibly grateful to the entire Molina family, and we’re so proud of what we’ve been able to create. Despite COVID hitting in the middle of this entire process, we were able to open the gallery just three weeks late. That’s a small miracle in and of itself.

So right now, the National Museum of the American Latino is operating as the Molina Family Latino Gallery. That is how we see it. We have a scholarly advisory committee in place. We’re already collecting. We’re seeking additional storage for that collection. Between March and December [of 2022], we will have visited thirty-eight cities and ten regions, and we are just interacting with different communities to get feedback and build relationships.

We’re already acting like a museum. We’re hiring collection staff, registrars, and collection managers.

In December 2020, plans for the National Museum of the American Latino were finally approved by Congress after nearly thirty years. In a time when the only thing Americans seem to agree on is that they cannot agree on anything, the Friends of the Museum spent over a decade figuring out how to unite Congress on at least one issue.


In 2011, when the first bill was introduced, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen [the first Cuban American elected to the US Congress and first Republican woman elected from Florida] was a cosponsor. She was with us from the beginning. But we were never able to break even forty cosponsors for the bill. Whatever the framing was, we just couldn’t get people to come together on this.

We identified potential leaders and champions on the Republican side of things and worked to create a more bipartisan effort. We brought more people into the tent and reworked our messaging. We brought together a coalition of over one hundred different national organizations.


That hundred-member coalition was made up of more than Latino organizations. We had help from Jewish, African American, Asian and Pacific Islander, and other groups across the board. It was amazing.


At this point, we were into the Trump administration. By the time we had made progress, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen was retiring. Thankfully, [former] Congressman Will Hurd from Texas, who represented a primarily Latino district, was willing to step up for us. I remember doing the sign of the cross in front of him and thanking him, telling him he was our champion now.


To be honest, when we were approaching individuals after 2016, people would tell us that we were crazy, trying to get this passed on the current administration’s watch. They’d ask us why we were wasting our time. Now I’m not sure that Trump knew he ultimately signed our bill. He probably didn’t. But we made this happen on his watch. If you don’t try, you will definitely fail. We gave it a shot.


We knew we needed 290 cosponsors, and we got 295. When it came to a floor vote, it passed unanimously in the House. It was December 21, 2020. It was my birthday, and my kids saw me crying, watching this bill pass. I’ll never forget it as long as I live.

While the passage of the bill is a landmark moment for all who have worked to make the museum a reality, every person interviewed here admits it’s a good decade or so from a grand opening of any kind.

The work is not done, not by a long shot. Fortunately, the founding director of the National Museum of the American Latino was selected in February 2022: Jorge Zamanillo.

Jorge Zamanillo:

I had developed a close relationship over the years with Eduardo Diaz and was aware of how much work was going on behind the scenes. I’ve seen the foundational work, like the work to establish Latino studies throughout the nation by the Smithsonian, and the incredible programming, internships, and work that has been done.

I knew this would be a chance to help be part of a process that wasn’t a blank canvas. I would be joining a team that had already created such inspirational work. This is a chance to represent a group of people who have been part of this story for over five hundred years. That can seem daunting, but I see it as inspiring.


I was happy to be part of the search committee that recommended Jorge Zamanillo. He understands both the challenges associated with putting together a history museum as well as the complexity of the Latino community. He came from the HistoryMiami Museum, and he knows all about the mosaic that makes up our broader Latino community.


I was finally able to step aside a little bit with the addition of Jorge. He’s going to be drinking out of a fire hydrant for a while still, but I think he’s going to do tremendous things in this role.


We continue to work with our congressional stakeholders and staff to make sure that our message is clear. We have strong support, and that’s the important part. People want to see this happen, and it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of time. Our work certainly doesn’t stop. We continue fundraising, developing content, and making sure we’re ready when the time comes.

Potential sites for the museum, named by the Smithsonian Board of Regents, include a vacant space directly across from the National Museum of African American History and Culture, as well as a location near the eastern shore of the Tidal Basin across from the United States Holocaust Memorial.

As of May 2023, a final site designation by the Board of Regents had not been determined.

While it may be frustrating, no one involved is downtrodden. They’ve worked too hard to let this setback derail the decades of effort it’s taken to get to this moment.


In the meantime, we’re working to meet people where they are. We need to continue to work outside of the beltway and understand that the museum should be able to reach people who may not be able to visit us in person.


We cosponsored the first exhibition at the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art & Culture of the Riverside Art Museum in Riverside, California. And we’re now underwriting a national tour. We’re trying to make it to cities that aren’t the usual suspects, like Tulsa, Oklahoma, or Charlotte, North Carolina.


The Friends of the Museum will not let this momentum stop. We need to continue talking to more people and organizations to hype this up, to get companies to step forward with the millions of dollars that are necessary to bring this museum to life.

The Smithsonian hopes to raise $500 million independently, with Congress supplying the remainder.


A beautiful building is just half the victory. The other half is making sure that the story is right and we have a direct and compelling impact on the way that our community is viewed.


This isn’t just the Latino story; this is the American story. These are patriots, entrepreneurs, athletes, and scientists. This is a chance for all of us to see how critical our stories were to the history of this country. This is about how Texas and California came to be.

It’s just time to understand that our history is more than what we’ve been told in the past. It’s all of our story.

Photos: Tony Powell (Smithsonian Exhibition), Courtesy of Danny Vargas (Friends of the Museum)

Renderings: Courtesy of the National Museum of the American Latino

Design: Arturo Magallanes

Web Development: Aleksander Tomalski

Editor: Frannie Sprouls

Writer: Billy Yost