Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) on Thursday called on President Biden to publicly say the National Museum of the American Latino should be built on the National Mall in Washington, DC.
In a letter led by Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.), 36 members of the CHC asked Biden to use the White House’s Hispanic Heritage Month reception Friday as a backdrop for the long-awaited endorsement.
“As you graciously host Members of Congress and the CHC for a Hispanic Heritage Month celebration this Friday September 30th, the CHC respectfully asks that you publicly state the importance of building the National Museum of the American Latino on the National Mall,” the lawmakers wrote.
The signers include all four of the CHC’s senators, as well as Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), who in 2019 was appointed to the Smithsonian Institution’s board of regents.
Biden earlier this month addressed the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute gala, and for the first time said publicly that the museum should be built in Washington, but stopped short of calling for a spot on the Mall.
“It’s long overdue for a National Museum of the American Latino, long overdue — I mean it — to take its rightful place here in Washington, where it belongs,” Biden said.
But the lawmakers asked Biden to take his endorsement one step further.
“The CHC strongly believes that a public statement voicing your support would solidify that the National Museum of the American Latino will have its rightful place on the National Mall, holding true that the over 62 million Latino Americans in the U.S. should have their stories told in America’s most visited national park,” they wrote.
The debate over the upcoming museum’s placement, as well as the placement of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum, has heated up in recent months as both projects get ready to choose their permanent homes.
But construction on the National Mall is highly restricted, and few suitable spots remain available along the park that houses the country’s signature museums and monuments.
In their letter, the lawmakers said former President George W. Bush’s endorsement of placing the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) on the National Mall was key to overcoming those restrictions.
“President Bush’s public statement of support during [Black History Month] made clear to all Americans that he believed in African American history and culture and that the museum should be placed in the heart of our nation’s capital. Prior to President Bush’s public statement, the NMAAHC’s site location remained uncertain due to bureaucratic limitations, but because of the former president’s public showing of support, the NMAAHC was built in its rightful place on the National Mall,” they wrote.
The Latino Museum’s backers say Biden could step into a similar role and blame White House advisers for preventing that step.
“There are challenges within the White House staff around how blunt and direct the president should be. Unfortunately, they’re denying the president his proper role in history, saying what needs to be said,” said Estuardo Rodríguez, president and CEO of the Friends of the Museum of the American Latino.
“You’ve got a Republican standing behind the building of the museum on the National Mall for the African American community. And yet you have a Democratic president who can’t seem to find his way through that. That’s frustrating. Very frustrating,” added Rodríguez.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
There are four sites where, realistically, a new museum could be added to the National Mall.
Only one, the Arts and Industries Building, is currently managed by the Smithsonian.
While administratively the historic building would be the easiest location for a new museum, the building’s age, size, and layout make it the least desirable site.
“If we raise $500 million for the American Latino Museum, half of it is gone. Half goes straight to fixing the inside of that building,” said Rodríguez.
And backers of the two new museums — both officially approved by Congress in December 2020 — say each building’s architecture and outside appearance are critical to the National Mall’s mission of reflecting the tapestry of the United States.
“As you look at the architectural design of the African American Museum and the Native American museum, you know that that architectural design is critical to the storytelling part. You have to have its own architecture to begin to tell the stories of the American Latino Community from the outside,” said Rodríguez.
Two other potential locations are part of what’s known as “The Reserve,” essentially a no-build-zone on the Mall.
The sites are not on the main stretch of the Mall, the open space from the Washington Monument to the Capitol, where construction of any project would likely change the essence of the public space.
One is a small, lightly wooded area across Independence Ave. from a U.S. Department of Agriculture building, across the mall from the NMAAHC, which sits in a similar location.
The other is a nearby empty lot used as a rugby field across the street from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Both those locations would require legislation to become available, as Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) pushed for the museum’s approving legislation to include a ban on construction in The Reserve.
Manchin has long held a stance against adding new museums and monuments to The Reserve, including opposition to adding a Global War on Terror Memorial to the area.
The fourth available location is northwest of the Capitol, the Northwest Capitol site, roughly equivalent to the United States Botanic Garden’s grounds southwest of the Capitol.
That site was an early proposed location for the NMAAHC, but the Senate blocked it, citing national security reasons.
While that national security argument is seen by most observers as a red herring, most museum advocates believe The Reserve sites are more likely candidates for construction.
And advocates say the more than 24 million visitors who visit Washington each year make a distinction between sites on or off the National Mall.
“It’s very symbolic, it’s important. It means something to be on the National Mall, it really ties everyone together, as opposed to saying, ‘oh, yeah, and if you want to learn about the Latinos go down there, if you want to learn about the women go over there,'” said Rodríguez.
“It’s where the history is told. And I think that is something that will also send a message to the almost 60 million Latinos in the country, that their story is part of the American fabric,” he added.