Review: Grand Opening of the National Museum of the American Latino

*this article appears in Spanish in our Barones Bilingues section*

Sara Torres

In June 2022, the Smithsonian opened the Molina Family Latino Gallery, the first physical presence of the National Museum of the American Latino. Currently located at the National American History Museum, the gallery is the first museum space dedicated to the experience of Latin Americans in the United States. Recently, I was able to visit the gallery’s inaugural exhibition, ¡Presente! A Latino History of the United States, and it did not disappoint.

Growing up in the D.C. area I went to the Smithsonian museums a lot. I loved looking at the different planes at the Air and Space Museum and critiquing the different first lady dresses on display at the American History Museum. However, I have always felt disappointed that of the nineteen museums, there were none that reflected my history, Latin American history.

This feeling was emphasized by the fact I never learnt my history in school. The first day I stepped into my Latin American History and Culture class sophomore year I felt an overwhelming sense of happiness. I finally felt represented and as if I was important enough to have my history taught. That same sense of overwhelming happiness is what I felt when walking into the Molina Family Latino Gallery for the first time. 

The first section of ¡Presente! is called Colonial Legacies. It recounts European colonizations’ brutality and reliance on slavery, how the colonized fought back, and the early colonization of what today is known as the western United States. The next section, Wars of Expansion, takes a look at the Mexican-American War, Spanish-American War, and United States expansionism impacts on the history of some of the oldest United States Latin communities: Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans.

The third section, Immigration Stories, explores Latin American immigration to the United States. It splits into two subsections. One examining the stories of immigrants searching for safety, democracy and opportunity. The other examines the impact and growth of Puerto Rican communities throughout the United States. Puerto Rico has a unique situation as it is territory of the United States, but not fully integrated into the United States culturally and politically, as well as being natural born citizens but not receiving many of the benefits of being a citizen.

The final section of this exhibit is named Shaping the Nation. It explores how Latin Americans have built communities with one another here in the United States. This final section also covers struggles Latin Americans have faced while fighting for justice as well as some Latin icons who have broken boundaries, like Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor, going places no Latin American has gone before.

¡Presente! was everything I had hoped it would be and more. Unlike other showcases which group all of Latin America into one space, this exhibit represented the different places of Latin America beautifully. There was more to observe and learn about than just history as well. Touch screens throughout the exhibit consist of current national data. These screens also report on topics relevant to today such as immigration, citizenship, Latino voters, and even the ongoing debate between Latinx, Latine, or Latino.

¡Presente! will be on view until December 1, 2024. The National Museum of the American Latino will open its own doors in 2024 at the earliest and be located somewhere on the National Mall in D.C. Whether or not you are from Latin America, ¡Presente! is a must see. This exhibit beautifully showcases how Latin American history is American history.