The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Latino, slated to rise on the National Mall in Washington, is meant to give a prominent presence to the story of America’s largest minority group. But the institution has already been caught up in the broader partisan battles over American history, before a single brick has been laid.
In July, a group of Latino Republican congressmen led a vote to eliminate the museum’s funding in next year’s budget, calling its view of Latinos insulting and inaccurate. Some conservative commentators have harshly criticized the museum’s preview exhibition, blasting it as a Marxist portrayal that paints Latinos as victims of an oppressive United States.
Then earlier this month, questions about the museum’s direction surged anew when Time magazine reported that the museum’s director had quietly halted work on a planned second exhibition, about the Latino civil rights movement of the 1960s. It is being replaced with a show about salsa music, a swap some involved with the museum say smacks of politics.
The director, Jorge Zamanillo, said that decision was not driven by politics.
“I realized I wanted to go in a different direction,” he said, noting that work on the civil rights show began before he arrived at the museum in May 2022. He prefers shows, he said, with “a bigger reach.”
The dispute over the still-unbuilt museum echoes the broader debate about the political identity of Latinos, a group growing in size and power that still mostly votes Democratic but has shifted toward Republican candidates in recent elections. And the community is anything but monolithic, raising the question of whether it’s possible to talk about “the” American Latino at all.
“There are strong historic divisions, political and otherwise, that divide Latinos,” said Albert Camarillo, a retired historian at Stanford University who is not involved with the museum.
Controversy over the museum, Mr. Camarillo said, was inevitable. “But I think the political environment and the ‘anti-woke’ sentiment of late has provoked it beyond what any of us could have predicted,” he said.
The presentation of history at the Smithsonian, which operates 21 museums, has always been intensely scrutinized. In 1995, it canceled a planned exhibition on the dropping of the atomic bomb after fierce criticism from veterans groups and others who felt the show, set for the National Air and Space Museum, was too sympathetic to the Japanese.
Museums are especially vulnerable during the founding period, when they are trying to build support among donors, the public and, crucially, Congress, which provides significant funding and also controls the Mall.
For the Latino museum, authorized by Congress in 2020, the Smithsonian has identified two possible sites on the Mall. Construction is expected to cost roughly $800 million, with half coming from federal sources. (So far, $58 million has been raised.) While no timetable has been announced for its opening, the Smithsonian estimates it will take about 12 years.
In the meantime, the museum operates a 4,500-square-foot gallery inside the National Museum of American History. The gallery — the first space at the Smithsonian dedicated to Latino history and culture — opened in June 2022 with “¡Presente!,” a broad survey of Latino history.
The civil rights show, which had the working title “Latino Youth Movements,” was to follow in 2025. Planning began in July 2021, and involved in-house curators as well as two historians hired as guest curators, Johanna Fernandez and Felipe Hinojosa.
Ms. Fernandez, a professor at Baruch College in Manhattan and the author of a prizewinning book about the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican counterpart to the Black Panther Party, had previously helped curate a well-received exhibition about the group at the Bronx Museum of the Arts.
Mr. Hinojosa, a professor at Baylor University in Texas, is the author of a recent book about the occupations of churches by Latino activists in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Houston in the late 1960s.
Mr. Hinojosa said that the growing literature on the Latino civil rights movement tends to tell regional stories. “This was the first exhibit of its kind to bring all stories together under one roof,” he said.
As Ms. Fernandez put it, “This is history that nobody knows.”
Mr. Zamanillo, an archaeologist who previously led the HistoryMiami Museum, joined the Latino museum in May 2022 as its founding director. He sat in on some meetings of the civil rights curatorial team, Mr. Hinojosa said, where he expressed no concerns.
In August 2022, The Hill published an opinion article by three conservative commentators harshly criticizing “¡Presente!,” which they accused of advancing a “classic oppressor-oppressed agenda of textbook Marxism.”
“The Latino exhibit,” the authors wrote, “simply erases the existence of the Hispanic who loves, contributes to, benefits from and exemplifies the promise of American liberty.”
The article, which also called for the museum to be defunded, sent ripples of anxiety through the museum.
Geraldo Cadava, a historian at Northwestern University and the author of “The Hispanic Republican: The Shaping of an American Political Identity, from Nixon to Trump,” said that he received emails from museum staffers, requesting a meeting. They told him they expected similar attacks on the planned civil rights show and wanted to prepare.
Last fall, Mr. Cadava, who was already an adviser on the civil rights show, visited the museum and met with Mr. Zamanillo and others, who he said were interested in ways to include more conservative figures and conservative-leaning stories.
“I got the feeling they were going into damage-control mode,” he said.
Mr. Cadava called the “¡Presente!” exhibit “really cool,” but said the conservative critics were not entirely wrong.
“The exhibitions — the one that’s up, and the one being planned — did have a liberal bent,” he said, though he added it was unfair to equate that with promoting Marxism.
“It’s important to think about, what should be the balance between liberal and conservative versions of Latino history? Between stories that emphasize capitalism, patriotism and military service, and not only civil rights struggles and discrimination?” Mr. Cadava said.
The planned civil rights exhibit had not yet been publicly announced, and so had received no criticism. But Ms. Fernandez and Mr. Hinojosa said there was a feeling among the curatorial team that they needed to be careful about references to Marxist thought and socialism. And Che Guevara was not to be mentioned at all.
Then, in late November, Mr. Zamanillo emailed the curatorial team, telling them that after consulting with staff and Smithsonian leadership, he had decided to “pause” work on the exhibition. The email, which was obtained by The New York Times, called it “a difficult but necessary decision,” but offered no explanation.
A video meeting between Mr. Zamanillo and the curatorial team a week later was contentious.
“This wasn’t a conversation or even a negotiation about the possible future prospects of this project,” Ms. Fernandez said. “It was a shutting down of the project.”
Mr. Hinojosa said that Mr. Zamanillo did not offer any specific issues with the exhibition. “It didn’t seem like anything from an ethical or historical standpoint,” he said. “It was all politics.”
Mr. Zamanillo, he said, told them that “a civil rights exhibition is not going to raise the kind of money we need to raise.”
In an interview this week, Mr. Zamanillo emphasized that the exhibition had been “paused,” not canceled, and that the research might be used later, possibly in a different gallery at the National Museum of American History.
He acknowledge that fund-raising was among his concerns. But he said he did not have any particular objection to the content of the exhibition, and had received no complaints about it.
He said that no directive to stay away from particular topics or figures had been delivered. But it was important for the museum to include all perspectives.
The legislation establishing the museum, he said, “clearly says I need to have a balanced presentation and cover all sides of the story.”
At the same time, criticism of “¡Presente!,” the current exhibition, persisted. In July, Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, Republican of Florida and a senior member of the House Committee on Appropriations, announced that he would block funding for the museum in the next federal budget, calling the museum’s portrayal of Latinos “erroneous and imbalanced.”
Two weeks later, he and a group that included other Republican Latino congressmen dropped their opposition after a meeting with Mr. Zamanillo and Lonnie Bunch, the secretary of the Smithsonian. A statement issued by Representatives Diaz-Balart and Tony Gonzales, a Republican of Texas, said the group was satisfied that “procedural changes in the review of content and leadership have been made.”
“Hispanics are not victims or traitors,” the statement said. “Instead, they are the backbone of our American society, and the Smithsonian leadership now understands that.”
In late July, the museum altered two texts in “¡Presente!,” including a label for a foam raft used by two refugees who left Cuba in 1992. The label now describes them as part of an exodus fleeing “Cuba’s dictatorship, political repression, and economic crisis,” and “part of an ongoing migration triggered by the 1959 Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro.” The original label had not mentioned Castro or political repression.
“That’s clearly something that should have been done from the beginning,” Mr. Zamanillo said. “That’s a factual correction.”
But Mr. Zamanillo said that, contrary to the statement by Representatives Diaz-Balart and Gonzales, there had been no changes to broader museum procedures for content.
“I think they were satisfied I was a new director, and we had made changes on the raft label,” he said. “That was it.”
A spokeswoman for Representative Diaz-Balart said he was unavailable for comment.
The museum’s handling of the controversies has dismayed members of its scholarly advisory board. Vicki Ruiz, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, and former president of the American Historical Association, said that the decision to halt the civil rights show risked squandering the good will and trust built through curators’ outreach to community members.
“We had people who generally don’t talk to scholars donating items,” Ms. Ruiz said.
Mr. Camarillo, the Stanford historian, said the episode was most likely not the last battle over the museum.
“I think what it forecasts is those who want to push the envelope further will have to really compromise, on both sides,” he said. “You can’t have a museum that’s not going to deal with aspects of discrimination. But how do you present it in ways that are not going to send up the red flag?”