A Latina No Longer In Museums

Written by Monica Ramos

Picture this: It’s June 1992, the summer before I started second grade. My abuela’s kicked my younger brother and me out into the backyard to get some sunlight.  I’m sure that it was so she could watch her soaps in peace. Back then we didn’t have cable or any Spanish-language channels, so her novela was All My Children. I decided that my brother and I were going on an archaeological dig. I run back in the house and grab Barbie and Ken and some jewelry and toilet paper. I start teaching my brother how to mummify Ken, based on a book about mummies I’d bought at a Scholastic book fair. After we bury Ken wrapped in the toilet paper and the funerary goods (hey, I never said it was accurate), I send my brother back inside for GI Joe and his Fisher Price tape recorder. GI Joe and Barbie proceed to excavate the grave of Pharaoh Ken, making field notes on the tape recorder. When my parents came home that day it became clear that one, I was strange and two, I would best channel that strangeness in a museum.

Fast forward 25 years to 2017, and this Puerto Rican American (¡Wepa! #prselevanta) finds herself in Central Virginia, teaching English as a New Language to students from Pre-K up to High School, after a nice 8-year span at a certain DC-based institution. During those eight years, I worked in retail and visitor services, and felt like I met the world. I gazed as conservators restored paintings and papyri and garments hundreds of years old. I listened as registrars discussed newly acquired pieces with Public Relations Officers. I met celebrities, royalty, Lady Gaga, who’s kind of both, superstar artists, bestselling authors, and people from all over the globe with fascinating stories, but sadly, very few of them were Latinxs.

As the American population becomes more Latinized, it’s definitely time for our cultural institutions to learn how to speak to their changing audiences or watch them dwindle. For some museums, their efforts begin and end at Spanish wall text next to English in exhibits that they deem attractive to Latinxs. This ignores the fact that while coming from a Portuguese or Spanish-influenced culture is basically what defines one as Latinx, not all of us speak Spanish. Working with the families of my ENL students, I’ve gone into several homes where the dominant language was Quechua, Aymara, or Guarani. High school students would speak to each other in Spanish peppered with Nahuatl, in hopes that I wouldn’t catch on to what they were talking about. Museums could reach them by offering tours—with a docent or an audio tour—in these languages. And there’s no reason why these offerings should only be available in exhibits “of Latino interest.” Why not an audio tour in Quechua for the permanent collection of French Impressionism? Or an annual Aymara-language tour of the battlefield park that’s the major source of tourist dollars in the area?

A museum could easily excuse itself by stating that Quechua speakers aren’t coming to the museum, so it would be pointless to spend the money developing such a thing. If you regularly read ALIM, she’ll tell you that listening to the Brown voices already in the museum world is one way to start changing that. Another is to listen to the Brown voices outside, too. Once an aspiring Latinx is college-aged and attempting to break into the museum world, they are typically competing for unpaid internships against a cohort of their peers who come from families who are better off and can support them financially. Due to income inequality, the Latinx hoping to become an intern frequently has to balance that internship with a paying job, not to mention college courses. Such was the case with me, and I had the privilege of growing up in an upper-middle class family in the DC Metropolitan area.  Eventually I hit the same wall that many aspiring museum professionals hit. In order to move up, I’d need another degree, but I was at a point in my life where I couldn’t sacrifice time away from a job that would pay my bills. I made the decision to go another route, but thankfully, many Latinxs, many of whom may have had less socio-economic privileges than me, have enough passion and savvy to stay.  

I would argue that the hurdles Latinxs face as they strive to have their voices heard in the echoing museum halls appear far earlier than college. Working with ENL families, school attendance is a major issue. In 2013, a report found that Latinx children have the lowest preschool attendance out of the racial/ethnic groups represented in the United States. Several studies have named high quality early childhood education as the key to closing the achievement gap, i.e. the pathway to a college scholarship, but many Latinx kids aren’t in school frequently enough to take full advantage of that. The most common reason I’ve gotten from my students’ parents for not sending their kids to school was that they had to go to immigration court, or an embassy hours away, and no one would be home by the time the school bus drops off their 4-year-old. A frequent complaint I’ve heard from fellow teachers and administrators is that many of our students’ parents don’t show up for school events. My students’ parents care deeply about their children and their education, but many of them work erratic schedules that usually span the after school hours and weekends. Similarly, plenty of museums have free admission weekends, but with the parent working, they are still equally inaccessible. Sure, there are field trips, but in struggling school districts, field trips are frequently one of the first things to go when programs like free school lunches are a much higher priority.

There are also many opportunities to bring the museums to the schools. Digital field trips are gaining popularity in classrooms, where students can get a 360-degree perspective, and even Skype with a curator. There are science museums that send specimens of marine fauna to classrooms, so that a five-year-old can hold a sea sponge in their hands and see a blowfish face-to-face. 

To get Latinxs into the hallowed halls, museums are going to have to make sure that their outreach programs are collaborating with their childhood education programs, if they have them, as a starting point. The next place to look? Latinx businesspeople in the community. In my area, the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce just held their annual “Baile de Mascaras” Gala at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, Virginia this past weekend. I’m sure that philanthropic members of the VAHCC would jump at the chance to introduce young Latinxs in Central Virginia to the world of the arts.

Who knows? In that group of Latinx kids, there may be a 7-year-old who peppers her Spanglish with Nahuatl and buries her Barbies in the backyard. 

Featured Image courtesy of Scott Webb via Unsplash.

Karen VidángosComment