Museum Proposed as Showcase of Latinos' American Roots

Times Staff Writer

As a "Mexican kid" growing up in West Los Angeles, historian Antonio Rios-Bustamante said he was made to feel like a "foreigner" despite a lineage that stretches back to California's earliest settlers.

He remembers Latinos being depicted as recent immigrants to the United States by school teachers who saw no connection between the brown-faced children in their classes and the legendary "Spanish dons" commonly portrayed as the state's pioneers.

"I had no elaborate genealogical chart like the other kids," said Rios-Bustamante, recalling a particular class project and the teacher who dismissed his claim of being a 10th-generation Californian. "I had only my father's word."

Though the incident angered him, "there was nothing I could do about it then," Rios-Bustamante said.

Now, with the backing of some of the most prominent historians in the Southwest, many of them Latino scholars like himself, Rios-Bustamante is leading an effort to establish a state Museum of Latino History.

The proposed museum to be located in Los Angeles would be the first in the nation to showcase the historical contribution of Latinos in the United States, he said.

The effort has also gained the support of prominent Latino community leaders, as well as most of the state's Latino legislators.

Assemblyman Charles M. Calderon (D-Alhambra) said he will introduce legislation early next year calling for establishment of a state-sponsored museum. He said he will propose initial funding of up to $10 million.

Pointing out that in the last year he supported state-approved appropriations for a proposed Japanese-American history museum in Little Tokyo and the Museum of Tolerance in West Los Angeles dedicated to educating the public about the Holocaust and other genocides in history, Calderon maintains that there is ample precedent for a Latino museum.

"It is long overdue," he said, adding that he will make the museum one of this top legislative priorities.

Maintaining that "Chicanos have been denied their history," Rios-Bustamante charged that it is "unnatural that, although we comprise such a large and growing segment of the population, so little is known about us and that the information that is available tends to denigrate us."

For nearly a decade, Rios-Bustamante has worked to set the record straight, both teaching and researching Latino history at California universities, most recently at UCLA. He also has been involved in several special projects, including a photographic exhibit of Latin Americans' participation in the Olympic Games in Los Angeles last year.

"Our intention is to present ourselves as we are and to share our identity and culture with others," he said.

Martin Ridge, vice president of the Western History Assn. and senior research associate at the Huntington Library in San Marino, is among those lending support to the museum project.

"It's a sad commentary on our lack of historical consciousness for a community rooted in the Hispanic heritage not to recognize it," Ridge said. "The history of the United States and of Spanish-speaking people are so interrelated that it's a distortion not to recognize (Latino) contributions in this relationship."

'Exceedingly Important'

Another supporter, Donald Muchmore, executive director of the California Museum of Science and Industry at Exposition Park, termed the history of Latinos "exceedingly important," especially in light of demographic projections that show that by 1990 more than half of the city's population will be Latino.

For Latino scholars, the proposed museum is an opportunity to correct some of the historical misconceptions and myths they say have tarnished Latinos' image.

Although many have done so by writing books and teaching university history courses, Ricardo Romo, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin, points out that such efforts have reached only a tiny fraction of the population.

Several scholars also noted that existing archives on Latino history, held at a handful of universities in the West, are now used primarily for historical research.

The proposed museum, on the other hand, would be devoted to "all groups and people of all ages," Romo said, ". . . and would thus make an ongoing educational contribution to the community."

It would also offer a means for collecting and displaying historical documents, photographs and artifacts that might otherwise be lost, he said.

'Not Considered a Priority'

"In our work, we're always coming across materials . . . and we're troubled by the absence of places to send them," he said. "There are a lot of stories about museums receiving materials from Mexicans--some of them almost reluctantly--only to have them stored away to gather dust because they're not considered a priority."

Rios-Bustamante said that, judging from the reaction to other historical exhibits he has produced, the museum's exhibits would probably cause some surprise among visitors.

"When you bring together material that has long been overlooked, there's a cumulative effect that makes it all the more impressive," he said.

The proposed institution could serve the entire state through traveling exhibits, Rios-Bustamante said.

Programs to assist research in genealogies might be set up, Rios-Bustamante said, noting that descendants of the founders of Los Angeles and other cities are among the state's hundreds of thousands of Latino residents.

He would also encourage the museum to sponsor research into the history of various Latino communities in the state, he said, pointing out that Los Angeles County alone has more than 80 Latino communities with distinct histories dating to 1848 and earlier, when the state was still part of Mexico.

Time Called Ripe

Rios-Bustamante said the museum's supporters--who include congressmen, the governor of New Mexico, academicians and businessmen--maintain that the time is ripe to found such an institution and that they are committed to making it a reality.

"Up to 15 years ago, there were probably no more than a handful of Latino trained professionals to undertake something of this sort," Romo said. "And only in the last 20 years have we begun to feel that we could call upon our (political) representatives . . . and on a large enough middle class to volunteer their time to put together this sort of package."

But now that these factors are in place, Romo and others are confident that the California Museum of Latino History will mark the first such successful effort--but not the last.

"I've no doubt that once this succeeds, it will provide an important model for other Latino groups across the country," Romo said.

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