Last week both houses of the U.S. Congress passed legislation for a Stimulus Bill that also included the construction of a Latino Museum in Washington D.C. Latino scholars are anxious to work with the Smithsonian curators, who over the years have wcollected thousands of items related to the Latino experience.
The question for staff curators today is what additional artifacts and material should be collected and what stories are most important to tell about Latinos in their five hundred years in the Americas. Of great interest to Latinos–both scholars and visitors– will be how the museum will be organized. What will be the critical timelines? What geographical areas will be included? What is being planned to fully explore the origins of the Latino people?
There are now more than 60 million Latinos in North America, including the island of Puerto Rico. The diversity of the Latino population is notable. The first hundred years of Latino history will be easier to manage than the last century where social-cultural and political differences are more profound. Before the American Revolution, Latinos lived in communities extending from the Pacific shores of California to the Atlantic coast of Florida, as well as in the islands of Haiti, Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico.
Cristobal Columbus’s three ships that first sailed to the new world in 1492 included some Portuguese, numerous Italians, and some African Moros. The ships left the ports of Western Spain sailing west in search of an alternate route to India. Columbus found instead a world where hundreds of Indian societies had existed for over ten thousand years in virtual isolation. Admiral Columbus landed in Bahama Island [Hispaniola] and quickly followed their invasion with the conquest of Cuba in the late 1490s, two decades before Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztec Empire in Mexico in 1521.
The first Latinos of the Americas were born in the Caribe, home to nearly three million Taíno Indians. When the Taíno Indian women intermarried with Spanish men the offsprings were referred to as mestizos. An essay in the 2011 Smithsonian Magazine noted: “In time, many Taíno women married conquistadors, combining the genesof the New World and Old World to create a new mestizo population.”
Columbus returned to the Old World with exotic foods, mineral samples, and several hundred native people whom he called “Indios.” The islands he “discovered” were part of the present-day West Indies. The Spanish conquest wiped out most of the estimated two to three million Caribe Indians, including the Taínos who lived in Santo Domingo, which is now Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as well as those residing in Cuba and Jamaica.
West Indian Scholars make note of the fact that by 1514, barely two decades after first contact, an official survey showed that 40 percent of Spanish men had taken Indian wives. Many scholars estimate that the unofficial number is undoubtedly higher.
One of the most difficult tasks for the scholars and curators affiliated with the new Latino Museum will concern that of identifying and featuring notable and famous people. There is a growing debate about recognizing slave masters, for example. But there is also an opportunity to further explore and highlight the lives of individuals such as Vicente Guerrero, the mestizo-African president of Mexico who banned the slave trade, that at the time was expanding in the Mexican territory of Texas. Guerrero’s ban of slavery in 1829 is believed to havedriven radical slaveholding Texans into action, calling for the separation of Texas from Mexico.
The year 2021 also marks the 500th year anniversary of the fall of the Aztec Empire, the start of the first European settlement in North American, and the emergence of the Indio-Mexican people. In researching the conquest of the Aztecs, historians encountered famous and powerful figures, notably Moctezuma, Cualtemoc, Hernan Cortes, and Marina– “La Malinche.” Will these individuals, Indigeous royalty and a prominent European, qualify as Latinos?
Mexican Americans, who comprise 65 percent of the Latino population, traditionally look to Mexico and the stories and myths surrounding the union between the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes and his faithful Indian ally and interpreter, Marina, “La Malinche.” The union of Marina and Cortes produced a son, Martin Cortes.
An important story about the origins of the Latino people from Mexico can be found in early Yucatan history. Gonzalo Guerrero and the pious Jeromino Aguilar landed on the Yucatan shores in 1512 after being shipwrecked near its coastline. Guerrero was welcomed by the Mayan chief and he took an Indian wife. He was living peacefully with his wife and children when Hernan Cortes, by chance, landed on the same coast in 1519.
The Yucatan Mayan chief gave Cortes 20 slave women, including Marina, an Aztec captive who had learned Spanish from Aguilar. Marina would be a crucial ally to Cortes as an interpreter, but also as someone who warned Cortes of pending attacks. Cortes convinced Aguilar to march with him to the interior of Mexico. Guerrero refused to join them and later lost his life as he fought alongside his Mayan community warriors defending themselves against aggression by Spanish soldiers.
Mexican Americans trace their history in the continental United States to 1565 with the settlement of Saint Augustine in Florida. In the Southwest, the founding of communities near present-day Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1598 are of significance. The exploration of much of the South and Southwest was undertaken by Spanish, Latino, and Indian explorers. These intrepid explorers gave names to mountains such as the Sierra Madre; rivers including the Rio Grande, Colorado, and Mississippi; and states such as Texas, California, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, Florida, and New Mexico.
Documenting and interpreting five hundred years of history for the new Latino Museum will be no easy task. Latino history predates the landing of the Pilgrims by over 125 years. Latino communities in the Americas demonstrate the nation’s diversity and richness in historical narrative. The recent addition of the Native American Museum and African American Museum in Washington, D.C. will be most helpful models as scholars and curators sort out the complex history as well as the social and cultural interpretations of Latino life, past and present. We anxiously await the Latino stories and visual presentations.
Ricardo Romo, author and publisher of Latinos in America, earned his PhD in history from UCLA.