8 tips for experiencing Latino History at the museum

Looking to discover Latino history during your museum visit this Hispanic Heritage Month? Christine Miranda, who interned with our Program in Latino History and Culture, has the inside scoop. 

Our museum endeavors to "understand the past in order to make sense of the present and shape a more humane future," and diverse Latino stories are a critical part of that. Here's how to find them across three floors, plenty of exhibitions, and fascinating collections.

Mexican-style dress worn from around 1960. Bearing the colors and Aztec eagle design of the Mexican national flag, entertainers wore the dress during promotional events at El Chico restaurants. It is currently on display in our food history exhibition.
Mexican-style dress worn from around 1960. Bearing the colors and Aztec eagle design of the Mexican national flag, entertainers wore the dress during promotional events at El Chico restaurants. It is currently on display in our food history exhibition.

1. Start at the Welcome Center

We have two entrances: one on Constitution Avenue that brings you to the first floor, and one from the National Mall that leads to the second floor. Immediately to your right after you pass through security at the Mall-side entrance is the Welcome Center. It's a good first stop if you have any questions or need help with accessibility in the museum.

In my recommendations below, I mention some specific exhibitions, but we all know that an exhibit can't last forever. The Welcome Center can connect you with a current list of things to see and do.

The Welcome Center also has Spanish-language resources and alternative format exhibition guides, including Spanish translations of several of our major exhibits. Of course, not all Latino museum-goers or visitors interested in Latino history speak or prefer Spanish, but the Smithsonian is working to make history accessible to as many people as possible.

Bonus tip: Spanish-language museum resources, including translated exhibitions, are also available online for you to access while planning your trip.

2. Visit the interactive immigration cart

The Latino immigration cart is staffed by interns and volunteers eager to engage you in hands-on history. The cart displays a diversity of artifacts related to Latino culture and immigration, including Abuelita hot chocolate, a tortilla press, huaraches, a short hoe, a Quinceañera pillow, and an apron. By seeing and touching these objects, and sharing your own thoughts and stories, you can explore the long and complex history of Latino people in the United States.

Christine, left, and another former intern share the immigration cart with museum-goers. The cart is a great way to explore Latino heritage and history during your visit.
Christine, left, and another former intern share the immigration cart with museum-goers. The cart is a great way to explore Latino heritage and history during your visit.

3. Stop by the FOOD exhibition

FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000 is another hotspot of Latino history. The exhibition, which also notably includes Julia Child's actual kitchen, highlights the impact of Latino (primarily Mexican) labor and culture on America food in the 20th century.Explore the forgotten history of the bracero program, which brought Mexican guest workers to the United States from 1942 to 1964 as farm laborers. View bracero photographs and objects, including an example of the dreaded short-handled hoe that caused severe health problems for migrant workers.

In other sections of the exhibition, you can learn about a Latino winemaking family or the "Mexican Food Revolution" that made tacos and margaritas American classics.

Bonus tip: If the exhibition leaves your stomach growling, head downstairs to our Stars and Stripes cafe. Thanks to some wonderful Latino chefs, we occasionally have the chance to serve up Latin American cuisine.

4. See Celia Cruz's artifact wall

In 2012, the museum held a contest to discover which iconic historical figure visitors wanted to see commemorated by a unique Weingarten portrait. The winner? Beloved "Queen of Salsa," Celia Cruz. The display is on the second floor and will probably only be on display through the end of 2014.

5. Keep your eyes peeled in American Stories

The popular American Stories exhibition, home to Dorothy's ruby slippers and other favorite objects throughout American history. Artifacts in the large display cases are constantly rotating. In the past, a Quinceañera dress, an Escaramuza Charra riding outfit, and Brazilian superstar Pelé's soccer jersey have been on view.

Roberto Clemente's baseball jersey and Natalie Flores's Quinceañera dress are two of the many great Latino objects that have been exhibited in "American Stories."
Roberto Clemente's baseball jersey and Natalie Flores's Quinceañera dress are two of the many great Latino objects that have been exhibited in "American Stories."

6. Attend public programs

The Program in Latino History and Culture organizes some truly special events, ranging from book readings, to food tastings, to cultural celebrations, to naturalization ceremonies. Subscribe to our newsletter to be the first to know about what the museum is planning.

7. Visit other Smithsonian museums

Don't miss the National Museum of the American Indian! The Anacostia Community Museum is located five miles away from the National Mall, but it is worth the trip for its devotion to local history, including DC's Latino population.

8. Utilize online resources

Supplement your visit with a plethora of cool online resources. Websites for the museum's Program in Latino History and Culture and the separate Smithsonian Latino Center are great places to start. You can check out our past Latino programs, rediscover past exhibitions (like this bilingual one about the Peruvian woman who translated the national anthem into Spanish), and browse diverse collections.

Some other digital highlights: this multimedia exhibition about Celia Cruz, the Bracero archive about Mexican guest workers, our massive Puerto Rico collection, and a 2010 video interview with Dominican American author Junot Diaz.

Some iconic Latino objects, like Selena's leather outfit and Crazy Leg's jean jacket, aren't on display right now. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy them online, though.
Some iconic Latino objects, like Selena's leather outfit and Crazy Leg's jean jacket, aren't on display right now. That doesn't mean you can't enjoy them online, though.

Bonus tip: come back soon!

Our museum is going through a lot of change at the moment, with the entire west wing of the building set to start reopening in 2015. Exhibitions on American enterprise, migration history, and culture will all highlight new Latino stories. Our artifact walls rotate frequently, and temporary exhibitions are always giving new objects a chance to shine.

Christine Miranda is an intern in the Program in Latino History and Culture. After completing her internship, she will be returning to Amherst College for her senior year.

Author(s): 
Intern Christine Miranda