Since the founding of our great nation, Latinos have been largely invisible and many Latinos, like the Revolutionary War era governor of Louisiana, Bernardo de Gálvez, whose assistance helped America win the conflict, to Civil War naval hero David Farragut — who is famous for the battle cry "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" — are even excluded or whitewashed from the history books.
Latino leaders — such as the MacArthur genius grant winner Maria Varela, who first worked with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Alabama and Mississippi before moving to New Mexico to organize with the Chicano movement, or the anti-racism and labor activist Emma Tenayuca — were key players during the U.S. civil rights and labor movements. Historical movements like the Chicano civil rights movement, which included some of the largest student walkouts in American history, were led by Americans such as Dolores Huerta – who was beaten within an inch of her life by law enforcement – and Navy veteran Cesar Chavez, and were instrumental in securing rights for all American workers.
Meanwhile, our community has been used as scapegoats for the problems America faces today, looked at as “others” and made to feel like outsiders in our own country. The root of this problem stems from a lack of knowledge of and appreciation for Latino contributions to America’s success.
Now more than ever, when Latinos are being vilified and spoken of as less-than, the American people deserve to learn the truth of our shared history and heritage. That’s why, on Monday — in a historic moment of overwhelming bipartisan cooperation and with 295 co-sponsors — the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill to establish the National Museum of the American Latino as part of the Smithsonian Institution on the National Mall. It was the culmination of years of work by members of Congress and activists to finally establish a museum dedicated to the magnificent contributions and history of American Latinos who have been an integral part of the success of the United States of America.
An American Latino Museum will be essential to sharing the stories and the journey of Latinos in the Western Hemisphere, from America’s original sin of Native American genocide to the American Revolution, and from the Civil War through the Civil Rights Movement, and on to the horrors of the recent deadly El Paso shooting, where 23 people were killed at the hands of a man who drove hundreds of miles with the sole intent of killing as many Mexicans as possible.
There are countless stories of American Latinos; stories of perseverance, dedication and beating the odds to achieve their dreams — like the story of my friend, the astronaut José Hernández. José grew up in a poor farmworker family and, as a child, he would work the fields before sunrise, look up at the stars and dream of going to space. José followed that dream through college, through his career as a scientist and engineer and all the way to the NASA space program — though he had to apply 13 times (and be rejected 12) before he got in. He became the first astronaut to communicate to earth in Spanish from space.
This is one reason why we must teach the entire history of Latinos in America – the beautiful, the glorious, and the horrors and injustices, because our story is the story of America.
Latinos make up 17 percent — more than 58 million people — of the U.S. population and they are the largest and fastest-growing ethnic group in America. We contribute more than $2.3 trillion to the U.S. economy every year; if that were a country’s gross domestic product, it would be the eighth largest in the world. Latino Americans serve in all branches of the military — like my brother-in-law, who was born in Mexico, served in the U.S. Army, was shot and wounded while fighting in Vietnam — and have bravely fought in every war in American history. Today, there are more than 200,000 Latino active-duty service members serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, and 60 Latino Americans have received the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award for valor in action against an enemy force that can be bestowed on an individual serving in the U.S. military.
If we truly want to build a country that works for everyone, we must start by including everyone; we owe it to ourselves and our children to learn about Latino history in America. That’s exactly what museums are for: to teach and inspire. These inspiring stories of Latino heroes and leaders need to be shared so that every child, regardless of race or personal circumstances, believes they can achieve their dreams.
A National Latino Museum under the auspices of the Smithsonian on the National Mall is a fitting and appropriate way for all Americans to celebrate and learn the truth about how Latinos have contributed to our great country and to honor the Latinos who are on the front lines today — as well as those who gave their lives in the service of our nation.
Many of my colleagues in the Senate agree: the companion bill, sponsored by Sens. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, has 28 bipartisan co-sponsors from all over the country; it deserves a hearing and a vote on the Senate floor, too.