Graphic: Alanna Sheppard
Graphic: Alanna Sheppard

Inside the Smithsonian Latino Center

To prime myself for an afternoon at the Smithsonian Latino Center, I spent the morning on Independence Avenue between the Hirshhorn and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum enjoying the contrast between the chic couples that tended to favor the former and the ragtag herds of school kids that inundated the latter.

I arrived at the SLC, located a few blocks from the National Mall on one of the upper floors of the Capital Gallery building, to interview SLC Director Eduardo Diaz and Director of Public Programs and Exhibits Ranald Woodaman about how the center planned to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Diaz, in the ninth year of his tenure, said the anniversary would be a time to be “sober about the work that needs to be done.” He speaks with a slight accent, though he was born in the U.S., and insisted that now is not the time to “rest on our laurels.”

Diaz said his top priority is turning the Smithsonian into a Latino-serving institution, and the way to do that is by establishing Latino presence within the Smithsonian, which is done through his “Three P’s” – people, programs and place. They are lacking with respect to that final “P,” and though Diaz hopes for a Latino Museum on the National Mall at some point, he cedes on that front. (Any Latino Museum on the National Mall is contingent upon legislation first passing in Congress.) Instead, he fixes his focus on people, which refers to leadership and professional development programs, and others like public access resources, such as the Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum or even forums held at the DC Historical Society.

The leadership and professional development programs seem to be the biggest boon for the SLC, as well as for the community. The SLC runs programs ranging from one for graduating high school seniors to another for emerging scholars, and others for everything else in between. The program for graduating high school students is the Young Ambassadors Program, and its attendees have a 97 percent graduation rate from college. The reason for the high rate, according to Diaz, is that the real work of these programs is to develop a relationship between the SLC and attendees. After the program ends, the SLC keeps in regular contact and continues to support the attendees with further opportunities. Whether they go into museum work or not is beside the point, Diaz said. What matters is that they are aware of the SLC’s work and that they support it, and that the SLC continues to support them as well.

Walking down the halls of the building, the support from program attendees was already made apparent in that most everyone I was introduced to went through one of the SLC programs, including Woodaman. His purview includes workshops and lectures rather than professional development programs. At first glance, that sounds par for the course for museum work; however, the ethos of his direction is not what you would expect. He tries to steer clear of the paternalistic tenor of a traditional museum experience, and instead means to share the SLC’s authority with communities – to empower them.

Woodaman told me about a night at Busboys and Poets put on by the SLC as an example. The SLC invited “old school Latinos” to get together and simply share stories. The idea behind the evening, and other such events, is to turn lay people into “citizen-historians,” so to speak, and to inspire non-museum professionals to collect stories from their communities and preserve their neighborhoods regardless. The point that Woodaman made is that for there to really be a shift in understanding of Latino culture, that effort has to extend beyond a gallery space and has to make the museum work, (i.e., the work of preserving history and culture), a collective, participatory thing. Woodaman still hopes for a museum space, because it would allow the SLC to tell what a “fairly remedial stories” to the broader museum-attending public (90 percent of whom are white). But Woodaman and Diaz continue to plumb these atypical methods in order to turn the Smithsonian into a truly Latino-serving institution.

To celebrate its 20th anniversary, the SLC presents the Sones de México Ensemble at the Concert for Tomorrow’s Ancestors this Saturday, November 4 at 3 p.m. at the National Museum of the American Indian. The ensemble formed in 1994 in Chicago, and have since become a premier folk ensemble specializing in Mexican son music, with an emphasis on the different regional styles of son – from huapango and gustos to chilenas and son jarocho. And on Sunday, December 3 at 2 p.m., the Pasatono Orquesta Mexicana will perform in the National Portrait Gallery’s Kogod Courtyard. The eight-piece ensemble formed in 1998 when eight ethnomusicologists decided to do whatever they could to preserve and disseminate traditional Oaxacan folk music.

For more information about the Smithsonian Latino Center, visit www.latino.si.edu.

The Kogod Courtyard at the National Portrait Gallery: 8th and F Streets, NW, DC; www.npg.si.edu

The National Museum of the American Indian: Corner of 4th Street and Independence Avenue, SW, DC; www.nmai.si.edu

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Michael Loria

Michael Loria is a writer who focuses on art and music. For On Tap, his work includes a cover story on the Principal Conductor and Music Director of the National Symphony Orchestra, Gianandrea Noseda, for the December 2017 print edition, and features like his interviews with Carla Bruni and with Thievery Corporation. Collectively, he's penned more than 40 clips for the magazine.