Latinos Are ¡Presente! on the National Mall

¡Presente!, a new exhibit in the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., is a wonderful preview of what we can expect for the planned National Museum of the American Latino.

The National Mall is a beautiful, open green space in the middle of downtown Washington, D.C. that runs from the U.S. Capitol building all the way to the Lincoln Memorial on the edge of the Potomac River. Lined up along the either side of the National Mall are some of the best museums in the United States (and the world!) dedicated to art, science, space exploration, and American history.

Photo Credit: Carol M. Highsmith, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Two of these museums directly acknowledge the diversity of the American experience: The National Museum of the American Indian (opened in 2004) and the National Museum of African American History & Culture (2016).

But what about Latinos, you ask?!! Latinos also have been a part of the fabric of the U.S. for centuries.  Are we represented? Until recently, the answer to those questions was a disappointing “no.” Ay, ay, ay!  But change is on the way!  

In December of 2020, Congress passed a law authorizing the creation and paying for half of a new National Museum of the American Latino (the rest will have to come from private donations). The permanent, physical museum will still take years to build, but, on June 18, the Latino Museum officially opened its first exhibit.  ¡Presente!: A Latino History of the United States is housed in The Molina Family Latino Gallery at the National Museum of American History. (For more on the Molina family, watch this. It made us teary-eyed!)

The Lateenz crew went to check it out, and we thought it was the best exhibit in the museum! (OK, so maybe we’re a little biased, but still . . . .)

A sign outside the Museum of American History advertising the exhibit.
The entrance to the Molino Family Latino Gallery created to house the exhibit.
A welcome sign at the entrance to the exhibit.

What Is ¡Presente! About?

¡Presente! tackles four main themes/questions surrounding the Latino/a/x experience:

  • Historical Legacies – What is the early history of Latinos in what is now the United States?

  • Immigration Stories – When and how have other Latinos come to the United States over time?

  • Latino Identity – What does it mean to a be Latino/a/x in America when we have backgrounds and ancestors from so many different countries and cultures?

  • Shaping the Nation – How have Latinos influenced and contributed to the growth and character of the United States?

Historical Legacies

The historical legacies portion of the exhibit has two sections: Colonial Legacies and Wars of Expansion.

Colonial Legacies explores the early European colonization of what is now the United States (in the 1600 – 1700s). It describes the terrible effect of colonization on the indigenous peoples of the Americas, including deadly disease, enslavement and cultural destruction; however, it also celebrates their rebellion, endurance, and westward migration to escape oppression.

The Colonial Legacies display case.

Wars of Expansion focuses on the territorial expansion of the United States in the 1800s. This “acquisition” was motivated by the prevailing political idea that it was the “manifest destiny” (modern translation: the “obvious God-given future”) of the United States to control all the land west of the existing states through to the Pacific Ocean. The display showcases an early printing press similar to many that were used in Latino communities in the 1800s to create newspapers, journals and other works. These publications mark the beginning of a tradition of Latino journalism in the United States helped Latinos communicate and thrive during this period.

The Wars of Expansion display case.

Immigration Stories

Immigration Stories looks at the many different ways and reasons why Latinos have come to the United States over the years. The centerpiece of this display is a tiny boat made of styrofoam and duct tape. This boat represents just one of the many desperate and courageous attempts by Cubans over the last 60 years to flee communist oppression in their island nation. Many have tried to cross the 90 miles of shark infested waters that separate Cuba from Florida by whatever means possible for the chance to enjoy the basic human rights we Americans often take for granted.

The immigration stories display case.

Latino Identity

What does it mean to be Latino/a/x in the United States? Spread throughout the gallery are displays that acknowledge the different experiences and struggles of the many culturally-distinct groups that are known in the U.S. as “Latinos.” We were struck that the effect of showing how the various Latino ethnicities are unique, also reinforces the many things that we have in common.

The “Tree of Life” sculpture (see below) symbolizes how the different “branches” of Latinos are nevertheless form part of a united “family.”

A 3D representation of the Latino “family tree” in Mexican folk art style.

The gallery also recognizes the many Latinos in the US whose legal status is insecure.  One display contains the graduation cap and sarape stole of a “Dreamer.” Dreamer is a term often used to refer to Latinos (believed to be about 800,000 in number) who were brought to the U.S. as minors outside of the normal legal channels. They are currently protected from deportation to their ancestral countries of origin (which many do not even remember) by a temporary government program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

Who gets to belong in the US? The college graduation cap and sarape stole of a “Dreamer” read, “I am one of those people Mexico sent.”

Interactive Fun and Learning!

Want to take a break? The Learning Lounge is an inviting place to check out the best books for “Teenz” and play traditional Latino games like Mexican lotería and dominoes. (Don’t miss the “concha” beanbag in the lower right part of the photo below – so clever!)

Looking into the Learning Lounge donated by General Motors.

Comfy chairs and colorful decorations are both warm and exciting.
The library contains a wonderful collection of literature for La”Teenz”!

A Tour of the Gift Shop

Finally, no museum tour would be complete without a tour at the gift shop, and there is plenty for all ages and interests.  Here’s a peek:


Want Even More? (We do!)

Check out these great videos to see and hear more about ¡Presente!.