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Are Hispanics the New American Reality? Claro Que Si! But Will They Get Their Own Museum? Quien Sabe.

Posted: 05/20/11 11:46 AM ET

Multicultural marketing blogs were buzzing this week about a slickly produced promotional video created by Univision for the New York television "up fronts," the springtime ritual where networks lift their programming skirts to entice advertisers to buy spots for the upcoming season. "Without me, playgrounds in Texas, New York, Florida, and California would be half empty," the video proclaims over snazzy graphics and a soundtrack of strings and vaguely Latin guitars. "You see me every day, but do you know who I am?"


Good question. While the latest numbers on Hispanics in the U.S. are by now familiar to most marketers -- one out of six Americans, one out of four babies born, 95% of the teen population growth through 2020 -- the tone and assertive messaging by the country's largest Spanish TV network was new. Most Americans, of course, are aware that Hispanics are a growing slice of the demographic pie, and corporations are already mobilizing to profit from Latino consumers, but the deeper significance of the shift is still up for grabs.

"I am not the Melting Pot," intones the Univision sizzle reel. "I am the new American reality." Translation: Univision, along with its smaller rival, Telemundo, are moving to position themselves as language-agnostic networks that transcend the English-Spanish divide, aiming instead to focus on the dreams and desires of an increasingly bilingual and bicultural Hispanic population. It's a smart move, considering that the emerging majority of U.S. Latinos are native-born and globally-aware, not only at home in the American mainstream but ready and able to help transform it.

So how do the nation's 50 million Latinos see themselves -- and each other? It depends. Many U.S.-born Hispanics, in fact, regard themselves as Mexican or Colombian and American, or Latino, black and Nuyorican. Hispanic consumers, in other words, are multicultural and multifaceted; they watch MTV3res and True Blood, they listen to rap, rock and Mexican banda, sometimes in the same song. Recent studies have shown that Latino identity is malleable, contextual and constantly evolving. Younger Latinos in particularly see no contradiction in calling themselves Dominican, American and black, or Caucasian, Hispanic-American and Colombian, or gaysian, blaxican, or any other racial-cultural-sexual amalgam that fits their nationality, genealogy, sexuality and mood.

This vibrant nexus of fluid and free-flowing identities is the cutting edge of the new American reality. Hispanics, along with African Americans and Asians, make up a large part of the 9 million people who identified themselves in the 2010 census as being more than one race or ethnicity. This jubilant jumble of parallel and overlapping races, ethnicities and nationalities is one of the things that makes Hispanics so quintessentially American. It's what connects them in circumstance and spirit to the immigrants from Europe and Asia who preceded them, but most of all it ties them to what American is right now. In fact, the closer you look at Hispanics, the more American they seem -- and vice versa. Which is why the prospect of a National Museum of the American Latino in Washington, D.C., is both a no brainer and such a hard sell.

On May 5th, less than two weeks before Univision released its "Latinos are the new reality" video, the commission on the National Museum of the American Latino (NMAL) submitted its final report to Congress. The date, more popularly celebrated at tequila-soaked parties and bars across the land as Cinco de Mayo, was no doubt intentionally selected to signal and underscore the growing cultural influence of Latinos in the United States. Never mind that Cinco de Mayo, which commemorates a victory of the Mexican militia over invading French forces at the battle of Puebla in 1862, is a minor regional holiday that most Mexicans don't bother to observe, probably because the Mexican defenders ultimately failed to prevent the French from marching to Mexico City and installing the Archduke Ferdinand Maximillion as Emperor. In America, at least, the real winners of the battle of Puebla are the purveyors of Jose Cuervo, jalapeno nachos and guacamole dip.

Such historical quibbles were nowhere in sight at the NMAL press conference and gala reception in Washington, where members of the Obama administration and politicians from both sides of the aisle mingled over margaritas with many of the commissioners, who ranged from Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to actress Eva Longoria. The report, which has been in the works since 2009 and includes findings from eight public forums held across the country, calls for a plan of action that includes a fundraising strategy and a feasibility study on locating NMAL within the purview of the Smithsonian Institution. "With the establishment of a national museum for Latinos in the nation's capital, announced Secretary Salazar, "the contributions of Latinos will forever be recognized and woven into the American story."

Not surprisingly, even before the commission delivered it's report, the proposed museum was being attacked by cultural chauvinists and deficit hawks as unaffordable, unwarranted and unnecessary. But not all the doubters are red-state fussbudgets. Many liberals, and even some Latinos inside the Obama administration, question the purpose of a museum dedicated to a demographic category that was concocted by the federal government during the 1970s and first appeared on U.S. Census forms in 1980. "I don't want a situation," said Representative Jim Moran, a Democrat from Virginia, "where whites go to the original museum, African-Americans go to the African-American museum, Indians go to the Indian museum, Hispanics go to the Latino American museum. That's not America."

Moran has a point. Latinos deserve their own museum in Washington, the pro argument goes, because if African Americans and Native Americans can get one, then Hispanics should, too. But, the cons counter, African Americans and Native Americans have identities forged by shared historical traumas, slavery and genocide, respectively. Latinos, on the other hand, are inherently heterogeneous -- they are both rich and poor, tall and short, white, brown, red, yellow and black. Some can trace their ancestry to Spanish land grants that predate the formation of the United States, while others arrived yesterday by crossing the Rio Grande. The skeptics point to the Latin Grammys as an example of well-meaning but flawed cultural ghettoization that has done little to raise the profile of Latin music outside the Hispanic community, and argue that NMAL is a flag-wrapped version of the same self-segregating logic.

To be sure, Latinos, particularly native biculturals, reflexively resist formulaic categorization and bristle at the slightest hint of stereotyping. Some even find the term Latino or Hispanic too confining. A recent survey of U.S. Hispanics found that many identified with their nation of origin first, and their Latino-ness second. And yet Ricky Martin, J-Lo and, yes, Eva Longoria, have found pan-ethnic audiences that appeal to Latinos as well as African Americans, Asians and non-Hispanic whites. Top-selling products like Haagen Daz Dulce de Leche ice cream and habanero potato chips do more than inject sweetness and heat into mainstream cuisine; they add flavor and spice to the American psyche. As Latinos have become more American, America has in some ways become more Latinized. But what the xenophobes and cultural jingoists forget -- or choose to ignore -- is that even though the the percentage of foreign-born individuals in the U.S. is at its highest level since the end of the 19th century, we have been here before. The benefits of immigrant influx have always outweighed the burdens, and this time is no different. In fact, despite all the hand-wringing over Hispanic hordes and porous borders, Latinos are acculturating as fast as any other immigrant group in U.S. history.

The demographic, cultural and economic influence of Latinos in the U.S. has never been greater. But as Hispanics grow in number and influence and contribute to the diversity of the United States, they are also becoming increasingly diverse themselves. What do you call a people who represent every socioeconomic stratum and political persuasion, yet are united by family values, patriotism and faith, and the conviction that hard work will give them a better life than the one their parents had? They sound a lot like, well, Americans, which is precisely why they are so hard to fit into a box labeled Latino, even if that box is on the National Mall next to boxes dedicated to African Americans and Native Americans. Genuine inclusion means that Latinos should be properly represented in every department of the Smithsonian, not cordoned off in a separate section dedicated to brown Americans.

Can a National Museum of the American Latino ever be big enough to hold the sprawling, overlapping dimensions of Latino history and identity? Should it even try? Will younger Latinos come to NMAL just to humor older relatives who need to be reassured of their place in the multicultural pantheon? If Latinos enter a museum dedicated to "the other," if they see a people and a history that is politely given its own space outside of American history, then their money and time will have been wasted and their country will have done them a disservice. But if they walk in seeing themselves as "Latinos" and walk out reminded that they are also quintessential Americans, with equal claim to the privileges and responsibilities of the U.S. as any other group or individual. If they see how the story of Latinos is intertwined and embedded in the story of America, and the future of all Americans, then it will be worth the money and the trouble to build it in the symbolic and cultural center of the nation, where it deserves to be, and where it rightfully belongs. For NMAL to be conceptually justified, it must show Latinos and non-Latinos alike not just where they came from, but also where they are going. They might even find out why Cinco de Mayo is really an American holiday.