Los Angeles Herald Examiner (January 29, 1988)

From – Los Angeles Herald Examiner (January 29, 1988)

Title – “Power grabbers threaten dream of Latino museum”

While in Ciudad Chihuahua, Mexico, last October, I visited Pancho Villa’s home, which is now a museum. Walking through the home, I noticed an old man and his granddaughter standing in front of Villa’s portrait. After a while, he turned to the little girl and said in broken English, “This is mi general. He made us proud to be Mexicans.”

The old man’s pride in Villa struck me as ironic. It reminded me that though California has more Latinos than at least, half-a-dozen Latin American countries, more Mexicans than most states in Mexico, there is not a single museum celebrating our contributions to Los Angeles and California. Japanese Americans, Jewish American and blacks have one. But not Latinos.

Angelo politicians, who appropriated the money for those museums, are not solely to blame. Latino politicos have not exactly rushed to sponsor a Latino museum bill. Only after Antonio Rios-Bustamante and William Estrada, both of the California Museum of Latino History, spent years hounding Latino representatives in Sacramento did they finally persuade Assemblyman Charles Calderon to introduce a bill, in 1985, for a state-mandated feasibility study. The $50,000 report, conducted by the Economic Research Associates, supported the idea of a Latino museum and recommended four possible sites.

This month, Calderon introduced a bill, AB2798, that would fund the museum. The Alhambra Democrat estimates that $8 million will be needed to build it, and about $1 million a year to operate it (roughly the operating expenses of the Afro-American Museum.) With the museum’s funding now a real possibility, the fight over site has begun.

California State University Chancellor W. Ann Reynolds, a member of the Southwest Museum’s board, has written to a number of state representatives urging them to locate the Latino museum in Southwest Museum. Her rational: Southwest already has a large Native American collection. Adding a Latino museum would attract more art collections. Southwest’s shaky financial position would be significantly eased.

Museum sources, however, deny that Reynolds speaks for Southwest. They point out that the board has yet to take a position. In any case, Southwest is not a historical museum; its mission has never been to celebrate Latino history, nor, it seems, could the museum take up such a cause: No Latino sits on its board of trustees. Indeed, only one board member is a Native American, even though the museum specializes in Native American culture and art.

Another frequently mentioned site is East Los Angeles Community College, which would use some of the $8 million to supplement its Vincent Price art collection. True, East L.A. College is important to the Latino community. But its isolation from the cluster of museums frequently visited by schools argues against it as the best homes for the Latino museum.

The Terminal Annex next to El Pueblo Historic Park is another site possibility. According to Calderon, The East Los Angeles Community Union wants to buy the property and push it as the location for both the Latino and Children’s museums. Many Latinos, however, are doubtful that TELACU has the expertise to run a museum.

The most logical site, in terms of accessibility to visitors, for the Latino facility would be Exposition Park, where the Afro-American, Science and Industry, Natural History Museums are located. But the Exposition establishment doesn’t want a Latino museum on the premises.

Up until a month ago, Calderon was quick to concede privately that the California Museum of Latino History was the only organization with sufficient experience to build and operate a Latino museum. It had produced museum-quality exhibitions, among them the “Latino Olympians, 1896-1984” and the more recent show of Dr. Ernest Galarza’s works at Occidental College. Calderon also has privately assured Rios-Bustamante and Estrada that they will remain key players in the Latino museum project. But he has publicly distanced himself from them.

In part, the reason may be Calderon’s fall from Speaker Willie Brown’s grace. Calderon, like other members of the so-called “Gang of Five,” was punished by the speaker for displaying too much policy independence, losing his seats on the Assembly Ways and Means and Finance and Insurance Committees.

Weakened politically, Calderon appears to be using the Latino museum as a trading chip to recoup his power. Calderon, it should be noted, is no hero to Latinos. He supported Gov. Deukmejian’s quest to build a new prison next to Boyle Heights, and, on other issues, has more often than not voted against Latino interests. His primary constituency is the insurance and banking companies.

Which leaves Richard Alatorre as the real power broker in the museum affair and Calderon’s ticket back into the political limelight. Alatorre wants the Latino museum in his district but is wary of politicizing the siting issue.

It may be too late for that. The judgment of the officers of the California Museum of Latino History already has been questioned in some news accounts. Specifically, Rios-Bustamante and Estrada’s tentative plans for a Latino museum have been criticized for including a spacious executive bathroom and boardroom. What goes unreported is that the two are largely responsible for brining the dream of a Latino museum closer to reality.

But the museum does not belong to the California Museum of Latino History, or to the Latino politicos. It surely doesn’t belong to the “missionaries” who have been suddenly struck by the urgent need for one. It belongs to the community.

It would be nice, for once, if the Latino community could win without having to endure the experience of watching a long-overdue idea be ruined by political power-grabbers. That would require Latinos to get involved. The incentive is certainly there: An opportunity for Latino children and grandchildren to celebrate the sacrifices of their grandparents and parents. We, too, have our Pancho Villas to praise.