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Becerra Seeks Unity for Latino Museum

Nearly a decade after a Smithsonian- initiated task force recommended the creation of a national museum dedicated to Hispanic achievements, two lawmakers are slated to introduce legislation Wednesday aiming to accomplish just that.

The measure, co-sponsored by Reps. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), calls for the creation of a 23-member commission charged with submitting a report to the president and Congress on how to establish, maintain and fund a National Museum of the American Latino. The commission would also be responsible for drawing up a legislative plan of action.

“If you walk through the 16 museums that the Smithsonian right now supports, you still come out with an incomplete picture of what America is — at least in terms of the contributions that Latinos have made to this country,” said Becerra, who added he would like to see the museum built on the National Mall.

But while Becerra said the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’ 20 members — all Democrats — have endorsed the bill, it is unclear whether all Congressional Latinos will back it.

Octavio Hinojosa-Mier, executive director of the Congressional Hispanic Conference, a Republican group of five Hispanic and Portuguese House Members which formed earlier this year in response to disagreements with Hispanic Caucus positions, said the group had no comment on the bill because some members had not had a chance to see it.

Steve Haro, a spokesman for Becerra, said the draft legislation was sent to the offices of all members of the Hispanic Conference — Reps. Henry Bonilla (Texas), Lincoln Diaz-Balart (Fla.), Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.), Devin Nunes (Calif.) and Ros-Lehtinen — about two weeks ago and that Becerra had personally reached out to several conference members.

While Becerra said he remains “hopeful” that all five would eventually sign on, as of last week Ros-Lehtinen was the only confirmed conference member or Republican co-sponsor.

“I will bring Xavier’s museum idea to the Members of the Congress to gauge their interest, but I am unsure at the moment if the [Hispanic] conference will join in as an entity,” Ros-Lehtinen said in a statement. “Perhaps members will support the museum individually, but not as a conference effort.”

Justin Stoner, a spokesman for Nunes, said the Congressman had discussed the issue with an aide but had no plans to co-sponsor the bill at this time. Nunes, he said, would like to see the creation of a museum devoted to the experience of all immigrants.

“There are multiple groups that deserve recognition,” said Stoner. “That’s something that has more of a broad scope.”

The draft legislation — which closely mirrors an earlier bill authorizing the presidential commission that made recommendations for a National Museum of African American History and Culture — calls for a total of $6.4 million for fiscal 2005 and 2006 to complete the commission’s work. Within a year of its inauguration, the commission would be responsible for convening a national conference on the museum, bringing together Latino art, history and culture experts.

As it stands, the commission’s 19 voting and four nonvoting members would be appointed by the president, Speaker, House Minority Leader, and Senate Majority and Minority Leaders. However, Haro said the bill may be altered slightly prior to introduction to include a role for the Smithsonian Institution in the commission.

Among the issues the commission would address would be: the availability of collections related to Latino culture, the impact of such a museum on regional Hispanic and Latino museums, possible locations “on or adjacent to the National Mall,” and whether the museum should be located within the Smithsonian system.

Rep. Solomon Ortiz (D-Texas), who chairs the Hispanic Caucus’ arts and entertainment task force, said the precedent set by the National Museum of the American Indian (now under construction) and the pending National Museum of African American History and Culture added to the impetus for such a museum.

“We do get a lot of pressure from some of our people who come to Washington and they said, ‘What about us?’ So we are responding to the requests of many leaders of the Hispanic community,” Ortiz said.

House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio), whose panel will have jurisdiction over the bill, said he was “supportive of the concept” of a museum and committed to seeing the legislation move in committee.

The bill follows two reports issued in the 1990s that found the Smithsonian’s representation of Latinos to be significantly lacking.

In 1998, a Smithsonian Center for Latino Initiatives was launched to promote the greater inclusion and representation of Latinos throughout the institution, but more needs to be done, said Becerra, the bill’s principal author.

Four years earlier, a task force chaired by National Council of La Raza President Raul Yzaguirre issued a report titled “Willful Neglect: The Smithsonian Institution and U.S. Latinos.” It recommended, among other actions, the creation of a museum devoted to Hispanic culture. The left-leaning council has been a longtime backer of a national Latino museum and is mentioned as a potential source of commission members in the bill.

“It seems almost logical to include them because they’ve done so much work on these issues,” said Becerra.

Becerra said he is “continuing conversations with several Senators about moving [the bill] forward,” but conceded the legislation’s House introduction — timed to coincide with the final day of National Hispanic Heritage Month, Oct. 15 — will not be accompanied, initially, by a companion Senate bill. Given the pending adjournment, Becerra does not expect the legislation to be approved until sometime next year.

“This will be one of those issues where I think all those Members will say we can work together on a common goal,” said Becerra. “This won’t be a Democratic museum or a Republican museum, this will be a museum for all Americans.”