Too often we forget: the history of the United States may date formally from 1776, but the history of America was already centuries old by then. There was a Hispanic presence on the continent for more than 200 years before 13 colonies on the eastern coast declared their independence from England. Indeed, the Spaniards wasted little time in colonizing the new territories Columbus revealed with his voyages. They had already claimed portions of Central and South America when, in 1565, they established Jamestown, Virginia, writes historian Bernard Bailyn, "Spain's American dominion extended nearly 8,000 miles, from Southern California to the Straits of Magellan....Spain then controlled the largest empire the Western world had seen since the fall of Rome." The Spanish flag flew over land now within the continental United States until 1821, and the Mexican flag for three decades after that.
Because the founding heritage of vast regions of this country was Hispanic, no account of the past—and no understanding of the present—can be complete if it does not acknowledge that indelible cultural imprint, which is vivid still and will become even more pronounced in the decades ahead. The figures hold the future: the Latino population of the United States and Puerto Rico is now some 40 million, and more than 40 percent of it is under 25 years old.
The Smithsonian came late to a formal recognition of the Latino contribution to the history of the nation, but we're determined to make up for lost time. In 1997, the Board of Regents established the Center for Latino Initiatives. (The word "Latino" encompasses a range of specific ethnic identifications.) Its mission can be stated simply enough: to generate and advance knowledge and understanding of the Latino role in U.S. history, culture, arts, music and science. To that simply put but remarkably ambitious mission there are two principal aspects. The first looks to developments within the Smithsonian, where the center will build on the substantial base of resources already devoted to reflecting Latino achievement—exhibitions by our individual museums of art and history, as well as lectures, symposia and concerts. The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, for example, has sent more than a dozen Latino-related shows on tour in the past decade. And in 2001 our Affiliations Program organized a Latino Alliance that links 26 institutions in seven states, the District of Columbia, Panama and Puerto Rico.
The second aspect of the center's mission is to get the message of Latino contributions out to communities, schools and cultural institutions across America—through exhibitions, educational programs and the continued enhancement of the Latino Virtual Gallery on the center's Web site. In the coming year, one of the center's priorities will be research for a new traveling exhibition honoring 100 Hispanic Americans of conspicuous achievement. The hope is that their individual stories will stir fires of pride and aspiration in visitors to the show.
The Latino presence in the United States is not just growing but becoming more various, with consequences for the social, cultural and political life of the nation that are at once apparent and unpredictable. The Smithsonian needs to document these changes no less than it needs to take account of the past. We're committed to sustaining the Center for Latino Initiatives as a lively forum within the Institution and a strong voice without. Its message is unmistakable: let the profile of the nation's past be drawn more truly and the promise of its future be made more complete.