The Smithsonian National Museum of American History opened an exhibition on Hispanic American history. While the idea of opening such an exhibit is a great thing, the Smithsonian woke Latino exhibit is a massive disappointment. Conservatives have rightfully accused the showcase of “disgrace,” which aims at the “instrumentalization of Hispanics” to espouse a specific way of viewing history instead of showcasing the diversity that characterizes the Hispanic Community.
The article, written by conservative Hispanics Alfonso Aguilar, Mike Gonzalez, and Joshua Trevino, says that the exhibit portrays an “unabashedly Marxist portrayal of History, religion, and economics” and that the messages and content of the exhibition are “profoundly disconnected from the actual Latino experiences and cultures in the United States” and they lambast the museum for not even mentioning leftist dictators like Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and Daniel Ortega.
Aguilar, Gonzalez, and Trevino are right. The museum is a very ideologically-driven interpretation of history that paints Latin American history as one of constant oppression. It leaves aside the importance of the cultural blend which builds the Hispanic culture and decides to focus on the horrors of right-wing dictatorships while memory holing the horrors of leftist dictatorships.
The exhibition, which opened just a few months ago, is divided into four main cases: one dedicated to “colonial legacies,” another on America’s “wars of expansion,” another on “immigration stories,” and the final one called “shaping the nation.”
As expected from the name of the first two expositions, the history told in the exhibition portrays a particular version of history that is very similar to the infamous “The open veins of Latin America” by Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, which poses the theory that Hispanic America’s ills have been caused by subsequent oppression by imperialistic empires, first Spain and then the United States. Despite the book being rebuked by Galeano himself later in life, the central thesis clearly influences how some academics view Latin American history.
The Smithsonian exhibition has really few things to applaud; in fact, the only positive thing it could be said about is that it decided not to use one of the worst words invented in America over the last few years, Latinx. Other than that, the exhibition is a dreadful thing.
The Smithsonian woke Latino exhibition tells a narrow, heavily one-sided view of Hispanic history.
The first couple of exhibitions follows Galeano’s view of history. The first one aims to show “the brutality of European colonization,” how it depended on slavery, and the “resistance of different colonized peoples.” It explains that the Europeans conducted military expeditions throughout the continent hungry for “wealth and conquest” and brought enslaved Africans and enslaved indigenous populations.
While it cannot be disputed that the colonization of America was, in many cases, a very violent and brutal affair and that the Europeans’ played a significant role in slavery in the Americas, the exhibit presents a very crooked and dumbed-down version of history. The exhibition does not address the very nuanced reality of the conquest; it doesn’t say that thousands of indigenous tribes joined the Spaniards to defeat the also brutal Aztec Empire (where ritual human sacrifices were a routine), nor does it mention the efforts of Bartolome De Las Casas to defend the rights of the indigenous people.
The exhibit only presents Christianity as an imposition from the European powers on the native tribes when discussing religion. Instead of explaining the importance of religion in Latin American culture, it only says that “despite the imposition of Christianity during colonization or enslavement, many peoples adopted Christian practices and beliefs to their cultures.”
The second exhibition, in true Galeano-style, decries the American expansion as a spiritual successor to Spain’s colonization. The U.S. annexed Texas after a local rebellion, fought against Mexico, gained a significant piece of land, and governed Puerto Rico after fighting the Spanish in 1898. While these events happened, and there are some good arguments to contest the U.S. actions in these wars, the exhibition uses extremely biased language and, instead of showing Latinos as a crucial part of America, leaves the impression that many are subjects of an imperial United States.
When describing the current situation of Puerto Rico, the museum claims that “for many Puerto Ricans, (the commonwealth status) continues their colonial relationship with the United States,” conveniently leaving aside the 2012 Puerto Rico referendum results, where 94% of voters said they would either like to be a state within the U.S. or retain their status as a commonwealth, while the independence movement only garnered a mere 5% of the vote.
No mention of leftist dictators
Another remarkable decision made by the exhibit is to avoid mentioning the effects that leftist governments and terrorist movements have been a significant cause of Latino migration to the United States. Instead, the exhibition makes the opposite argument, saying that a considerable percentage of the people coming to America did so as a direct result of the U.S foreign policy.
The exhibit explicitly says that “sometimes U.S foreign policy contributed to the violence and corruption driving people to migrate” it then goes on to mention the cases of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista and Dominican tyrant Rafael Trujillo as examples of such actions and says that Latino communities still feel the effects of “war and revolution.”
Of course, the exhibition fails to say the political leanings of many of those revolutions that forced people to flee. While the Smithsonian mentions Batista and Trujillo, it forgets that Fidel Castro or Hugo Chavez existed and that their revolutions caused thousands of Cubans to escape the island on rafts and thousands of Venezuelans to come to the United States through the Darien jungle.
The couple of times that the exhibition does mention the Cuban diaspora, it never assigns moral responsibility over who was the culprit of the tragedy, only saying that many people fled after the Cuban Revolution and that the thousands of migrants who left the island in the 1990s in rafts did so to escape the “economic crisis.” It never says that Castro’s oppressive and communist policies were to blame.
It is eye-opening that when talking about the 400-year-old Spanish conquest of America, the Smithsonian takes a clear position and casts moral responsibility on Spain over the colonization but decides to memory-hole the responsibility of Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega in causing so much pain to people who are alive today.
To be clear, Hispanic history in the United States and the Americas is not rosy: there were atrocities, discrimination, and injustice. But painting the United States as an exclusively conquering entity leaves the impression that Hispanics are alien to America, as if being a Latino and harboring patriotic feelings towards the U.S (as a majority do), and that defeats the purpose of creating a museum for the American Latino.
Aguilar, Gonzalez, and Trevino masterfully said in their op-ed: “what defines us is not what America has done to us — but what America has done for us.”
Daniel is a Political Science and Economics student from the University of South Florida. He worked as a congressional intern to Rep. Gus Bilirakis (FL-12) from January to May 2020. He also is the head of international analysis at Politiks // Daniel es un estudiante de Cs Políticas y Economía en la Universidad del Sur de la Florida. Trabajo como pasante legislativo para el Representate Gus Bilirakis (FL-12) desde enero hasta mayo del 2020. Daniel también es el jefe de análisis internacional de Politiks.