My first reaction was a sense of pride and a desire to show all kinds of support. After all, shouldn't there be a National Museum of the American Latino? Then, I started to hear voices. Not the multiple personality kind of voices, but rather the voices of non-profit board and committee members from several other Latino museum projects that either have opened or have tried to open throughout the U.S. over the past decade or two.
The voices didn't stop with museums, either. These were the voices of stakeholders in the non-profit world of Latino-specific cultural organizations. Like the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors (HOLA) in New York City, on whose board I proudly sat for many years.
Or The Latino Museum of History, Art and Culture. Now known as just The Latino Museum, and currently relocating yet again, it is best known as a missed opportunity among many of us who, over 13 years ago, were invited to make strategic contributions. It had the potential to be a national voice but ran into serious obstacles along the way.
Then there's the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, which is growing rapidly and is well worth a visit. Its location may suggest regional, but there's no doubt that this cultural gem is indeed national in its mission, vision and scope. According to the website of El Museo Latino, in Omaha, Nebraska there are "only eleven Latino museums in the United States." (And yes, I said Omaha, Nebraska. Often ignored, Latino history in Nebraska is truly rich and worth exploring).
Back to the voices. At first, they are full of pride and enthusiasm. Soon, however, these board, committee and staff members are angry and frustrated. They divide up into factions; factions that are an unfortunate, but perhaps unavoidable part of the U.S. Latino experience. One voice drowns out the other. "It's too Mexican." "It's not Mexican enough." "Too chilango." "Not Mexican-American enough." "Too Cuban." "Why no Brazilians? Just because we speak Portuguese?" "Is the Chicano movement represented?" "Don't use the word Chicano." "Too much Spanish." "Too much English." "Spanglish? You can't be serious!" "Too brown." "Too white." "What about black Hispanics. And Asian?" "Too upscale." "Too downscale." "Too foreign born." "Too U.S. born." "Spain doesn't count." "Spain is the motherland." "It can't be called Hispanic." "It can't be called Latino." And on and on and on. Y más y más y más.
These are the rivalries that force talented individuals out of the organization and perhaps, worse yet, confuse sponsors and make them question any investment, big or small. They're puzzled as to why Latinos just can't get along. They start asking questions about whether Latinos can get their act together when working in so-called cultural collaboration. They lose confidence, and in the end everyone loses.
Of course all non-profits suffer from factions. Not just Latinos. I recently watched a non-profit Classical Theater Company of predominantly non-Hispanic white actors completely fall apart because factions formed around the word "classical." One faction was advocating an all-Shakespeare-all-the-time approach with a little Moliere for good measure. The other wanted to include everything from Lorca to Tennesee Williams.
It's not a uniquely Latino problem, but that doesn't mean it's not a problem that gets in the way of Latino non-profit success.
We need to encourage diversity and debate, but we need to overcome destructive divisions in order for Latino-focused projects to see the light of day and then to thrive beyond the first year or two. HOLA has withstood the test of time and the National Hispanic Cultural Center is growing step by step. Hopefully the voices in my head are those of the past. Perhaps today's boards, committees and staffs have learned a little about collaboration, compromise and respect.
Recently, President Bush took time from his busy schedule (LOL) to sign off on a commission to study and report on the establishment of a National Museum of the American Latino. There are to be 23 commission members. Among other things, they are tasked with "looking into the impact of the Museum on regional Hispanic and Latino-related museums." This is an important part of the analysis. Ideally this new museum would fill an important need that could not be accomplished by bringing an existing regional model into the national discussion.
I wish them all the success in the world and hope that the 23 voices of the commission, and the countless other voices that will chime in, are passionate, positive and productive, and willing to collaborate and build consensus. The stories of Latino USA, like the voices that tell them, are both accented and accent free. They're "Américan" as well as "American" stories. They need a Museum and a Museum Commission that's big enough to do justice to them all.
P.S. The museum's mission also reminded me of the mostly untold stories of the "Latino Patriot." American Latinos have contributed to this country by serving in all of her wars. This Memorial Day, as we commemorate all U.S. men and women who have died in military service to this country -- including those Americans buried in U.S. cemeteries located on Panamanian, Mexican and other foreign soil -- let's be sure to remember the Latinos among them and thank them for their service.