06/10/2013 09:20 am ET Updated Aug 10, 2013

The 'I' Words

The Arts and Industries Building is that grand one located just east of the iconic Smithsonian Castle, on the National Mall. It's been shuttered for several years due to some structural, asbestos and other issues. Plans call for the building to reopen in 2014, under an agreement with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The Smithsonian will return the building's operation to resemble its last purpose, that of a showcase for U.S. science and technology. Accordingly, the building will be dedicated and operated with a singular focus on innovation.

I interested myself in the building's renovation because the Smithsonian Latino Center has been looking for a gallery on the National Mall, dedicated space within which to more fully execute our central goal -- that of showcasing the history, culture and scientific achievements of the U.S. Latino community. We looked at space at Arts and Industries, and commissioned some preliminary exhibition designs built around innovation in content and design. We decided against further pursuit of this strategy, not because Latinos do not have a history of innovation in technological, entrepreneurial, engineering, social and other realms, but because we have foundational stories to tell whose content require that we extend beyond the singular innovation theme dictating the building's future use. We are pursuing other gallery options on the Mall.

Personally, this entire process has been very useful, as it has forced me to look at what I'll call the Three "I"'s -- Ingenuity, Invention and Innovation -- from a Latino optic. Each of these "I"'s is complex and interrelated, which is why I've decided to take my time, and a few more blogs, to unpack and place them in a Latino context. I hope readers will bear with me on this exploration, and that what I have to offer will resonate and help see our communities' contributions to this country in different ways.

When I arrived at the Smithsonian nearly five years ago, one of my earliest conversations was with Franklin Odo, a respected scholar and director of the then Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program. I was initially interested in exploring how Latino and Asian communities have interacted in the wide arc of U.S. history, a content area rich in surprise and possibility. Discussions continued with Konrad Ng, the new director of the renamed Asian Pacific American Center, also a brilliant scholar and visionary leader. With Smithsonian funding, we began to focus on convergence in the areas of immigration and migration, labor history, the public imaginary (including stereotypes), urban culture and culinary practices.

I recently met my eldest daughter's college classmate for dinner. We settled on Fujimar, a noted Asian-Latino Fusion restaurant in D.C. I'm not necessarily bent toward fusion cuisine, but since our Asian-Latino initiative's food component is all about fusion, I figured I'd better dive right into the subject. The first thing I dove into was some guacamole, about which the only fusion aspect I could detect was the black sesame seeds sprinkled on top. Mysteriously, Fujimar does not offer Mexican salsa -- too mainstream Americana, I guess. I like sushi -- a lot, especially Maguro (tuna). What I got looked and tasted like some kind of tuna hash, sitting on rice, with a thin strip of jalapeño on top -- disappointing. I also ordered Arroz Chaufa, a mainstay in Peru's Chifa cuisine, one developed by early Chinese immigrants to that South American country renowned for its phenomenal, diverse kitchens.

Chifa derives from chir-fan, or chi-fan, a Mandarin phrase implying a decision of when to eat. Accordingly, it's not difficult to see how native Peruvians and newly arrived Chinese immigrants settled on a word to describe the first Asian-Latino culinary fusions in history. There are several hallmark Chifa dishes, like the one I ordered, essentially fried rice with vegetables and choice of meat, or tofu. Probably the most popular Chifa dish is Lomo Saltado, a beef and potato stir-fry, building on two foundational Peruvian ingredients.

My recent culinary adventure reminded me of the age-old adage: "Necessity it is the mother of invention." I'm imagining that while fried rice and stir-fry cooking techniques were nothing new for Chinese Peruvians, they had to figure out a way to hold to traditional tastes and cooking styles in order to survive and successfully engage the residents of their new nation. Happily, we are now the beneficiaries of this culturally negotiated culinary process and practice.

But, the question remains: Chifa and Arroz Chaufa -- ingenious, inventive, or innovative? Is this cuisine, this dish one of the above, two of the above, all of the above or none the above? How and why does it matter as we explore the larger context of Asian-Latino and other confluences and cultural negotiations?