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Meet Jorge Zamanillo, the Cuban in Charge of Creating the First Smithsonian Latino Museum

Jorge Zamanillo: el cubano a cargo de crear el primer museo nacional Smithsoniano de los latinos

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This year, archeologist Jorge Zamanillo will assume the transcendental task of organizing the history of Latinos in the United States “from scratch”, after his appointment as founder and director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Latino, in Washington.

Of Cuban origin, Zamanillo was appointed last Friday as the head of the largest national museum that will represent the “more than 60 million Hispanics in the United States” and for which everything is still to be done, except for its approval in Congress and the “support” of the Smithsonian Latino Center.

In an interview with EFE, the museologist emphasized that it is a work that many people are “afraid” of because at the moment it doesn’t even have the building, the resources, the collections, the design, and even the interviews with the very diverse Hispanic communities have not yet begun. 

Like many Latino leaders who have participated in the preliminary discussions, Zamanillo knows that Washington’s central park or “Mall,” in close proximity to the White House and the Capitol, is the “preferred” location for the museum, but it is a decision that depends on many federal agencies, he says.

“Presence on the Mall is everything, you go to Washington and see all the museums there, if you are not on the Mall it is possible that many people will think that it isn’t as important, that it isn’t on the same level as the others,” he says. 

The expert, born in New York 52 years ago, points out that his priority in his new position will be to make the “connection” of “the struggle and resilience to survive in this country” of the different nationalities of the Hispanic community so that everyone can identify themselves in the same museum.

 “It should have the general history of Latinos in the United States, but what I am looking for are the things we have in common among Latinos because we are all different, we are different countries, different ancestries, but there is always something that connects us,” he explains. 

“It’s what makes people recognize that they have things in common: the music, the art, the food, and that’s where you see that Latinos are all related,” he adds.

For Zamanillo, the challenge now is to compile the history of Latinos even from the native Mexicans.

He points out that the founding in 1565 by Spaniards of the city of St. Augustine (Florida), the first to be founded in the country, marks an important historical period for Hispanics in the nation.

However, he says Latinos have been in the country longer.

“Many don’t know that it’s not just 500 years of history from when Europeans came here. It’s thousands of years. The Mexican territory was part of North America and many Latinos have indigenous connections,” he emphasizes.

Jorge Zamanillo, years of career in Miami

Zamanillo, who has worked for 21 years at the Miami History Museum, the last six as its director, says that this work in a Hispanic community will be essential for the new position he will assume next May.

He believes that this position weighed in his appointment, because he already knows “that a community can be so diverse.”

He explains that when he began working there he realized that many museums had the “problem” of telling the stories of Hispanics from an Anglo point of view.

On the other hand, the archaeologist, who studied at Florida State University in Tallahassee and the University of Leicester (England), regrets the delay in creating a museum, which he hopes to open in “10 to 12 years”.

The initiative was finally approved in the Congressional budget in December 2020, 16 years after the presentation of the first initiative in this regard.

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