Smithsonian Latino Center

The Importance of Latinx Representation in Museums

Promotional image of the Caminos exhibit on display at Arte Américas. (Courtesy of Arte Américas)
Promotional image of the Caminos exhibit on display at Arte Américas. (Courtesy of Arte Américas)

Editor's Note: This post is part of a series written by students participating in the 2019 Young Ambassadors Program to share what they have learned and experienced during their internships.

During my first week at Arte Américas, I interacted with guests daily as a receptionist at the front desk, as well as through working as a cashier for the museum's annual Yard Sale fundraiser. I was introduced to projects to be completed over the course of my internship, including organizing records and helping to transform a room in the Center into an exhibit discussing the importance of Latinx representation in the Central Valley.

For the first time, I experienced a personal and friendly visit that I did not expect. Being from the Greater Los Angeles area, the familiarity that comes with living in a smaller community came as a wonderful shock to me. This culture transferred to the community found at Arte Américas, and translated into a genuine commitment to sharing passion through art, regardless of the medium. Especially at the Yard Sale, I saw how this passion was adopted by the community of Fresno, who felt welcomed by the space rather than excluded.

I learned more about how nonprofit cultural organizations in particular seek to remain open and accessible to the public. Through my research project on City Council Members and City Contacts of the cities in the Central Valley, I learned the importance of networking between cultural organizations and local government to maximize the impact the work of cultural organizations on their nearby community. I also learned the importance of positive media image and media exposure, as it was crucial to the maintenance and success of the Center's daily work.

I especially learned how art and history can be used in conjunction to tell the unique story of a group of people. Before my week at Arte Américas, I had not had the opportunity to visit an exhibit influenced as heavily by the outside community as the careful work of researchers. For the residents of the Central Valley, the Caminos exhibit is the story of themselves and their communities throughout history, rather than a detached progression displayed in mere terms of dates. The central image of the Caminos exhibit, for example, is the family portrait of one of the museum's frequent volunteers. She shared with me the moment she realized the photo of her mother and aunts, taken in the 1920's, was being used at the forefront of the exhibit with joy; Unbeknownst to her, her cousin had answered the center's request for media to include in the exhibit. The foresight of Arte Américas to include its community in its exhibits is powerful and inspirational to me as someone who often struggles to identify with academic spaces such as museums and cultural centers. I deeply value their philosophy that those whose story is told should be the ones to tell it themselves, and feel it made the exhibit more engaging and genuine.

The concept of a close consumer-artist relationship aligned with a conversation my Young Ambassadors Program cohort had during Washington Week about the importance of Latinx creators for Latinx representation in addition to mindful representation from other minority groups. Through the careful leadership of Arte Américas, most of whom call the Central Valley home, I felt I truly got a sense of the cultures that have defined the Central Valley throughout its history. Before my internship began, I had never before visited the Central Valley, but now look at it in a new light.

This week also reaffirmed the value of cultural institutions like Arte Américas, and my desire to continue my involvement in these spaces. Many times, I know it can feel daunting to resume cultural education with changing technologies and demographics, but when it is done, it truly changes a visitor's life for the better. Over the course of the weekend, I enjoyed being able to see visitors enter the front door hesitantly, only to leave confidently, feeling validated and uplifted by the gallery they can identify with in addition to learning about. Meaningful cultural education should be the rule, not the exception, and I am grateful to have gained more insight into methods to make it possible.

Image of Maya Castillo standing outdoors with three of her male family members next to the Arte Americas sign.
Maya poses with her family next to the Arte Américas' outdoor sign. (Courtesy Maya Castillo)

I especially learned how art and history can be used in conjunction to tell the unique story of a group of people. Before my week at Arte Américas, I had not had the opportunity to visit an exhibit influenced as heavily by the outside community as the careful work of researchers. For the residents of the Central Valley, the Caminos exhibit is the story of themselves and their communities throughout history, rather than a detached progression displayed in mere terms of dates. The central image of the Caminos exhibit, for example, is the family portrait of one of the museum's frequent volunteers. She shared with me the moment she realized the photo of her mother and aunts, taken in the 1920's, was being used at the forefront of the exhibit with joy; Unbeknownst to her, her cousin had answered the center's request for media to include in the exhibit. The foresight of Arte Américas to include its community in its exhibits is powerful and inspirational to me as someone who often struggles to identify with academic spaces such as museums and cultural centers. I deeply value their philosophy that those whose story is told should be the ones to tell it themselves, and feel it made the exhibit more engaging and genuine.

The concept of a close consumer-artist relationship aligned with a conversation my Young Ambassadors Program cohort had during Washington Week about the importance of Latinx creators for Latinx representation in addition to mindful representation from other minority groups. Through the careful leadership of Arte Américas, most of whom call the Central Valley home, I felt I truly got a sense of the cultures that have defined the Central Valley throughout its history. Before my internship began, I had never before visited the Central Valley, but now look at it in a new light.

This week also reaffirmed the value of cultural institutions like Arte Américas, and my desire to continue my involvement in these spaces. Many times, I know it can feel daunting to resume cultural education with changing technologies and demographics, but when it is done, it truly changes a visitor's life for the better. Over the course of the weekend, I enjoyed being able to see visitors enter the front door hesitantly, only to leave confidently, feeling validated and uplifted by the gallery they can identify with in addition to learning about. Meaningful cultural education should be the rule, not the exception, and I am grateful to have gained more insight into methods to make it possible.

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