¡Presente! exhibit opens on the National Mall in Washington D.C The National Museum of the American Latino in Washington, D.C., won't be finished for another decade, but a pop-up exhibit from the museum has opened on the National Mall

A new exhibit takes visitors closer to the National Museum of the American Latino

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This weekend, the public's getting a sneak preview of what'll be inside the National Museum of the American Latino. Though the museum itself probably won't be finished for at least ten years, a pop-up exhibit opened in another Smithsonian museum here in Washington, D.C. NPR's Miranda Mazariegos stopped by.

MIRANDA MAZARIEGOS, BYLINE: At its very first exhibition called Presente, there are tacos - fake tacos, unfortunately.

ADRIAN ALDABA: Since we can't have real food in the museum - here we have our debatable hard- or soft-shell taco with some chiles.

MAZARIEGOS: The fake tacos, says the gallery's Adrian Aldaba, are part of an effort to educate visitors about Latino culture through flavors they're familiar with.

ALDABA: And we make the connections of cinnamon such as cinnamon and things like apple pie, but also things in, like, arroz con leche. So making these connections that - we all use the same herbs and flavors to make our own dishes that we love at home.

MAZARIEGOS: The goal here is to educate museum visitors about more than tacos, about the history and complexity of the American Latino community and their fight for equal rights in this country. The Smithsonian's Ranald Woodaman says the institute asked museum visitors about their knowledge of Latino history to figure out what should be at the forefront of this exhibition. And it speaks to what many of them did not know.

RANALD WOODAMAN: And that is that most visitors think of Latinos as being new to the United States. They think of us all as being immigrants and as mostly being Mexicans, Puerto Ricans and Cubans.


MAZARIEGOS: This small, but vibrant, gallery reflects all kinds of Latino experiences. It highlights stories from people like Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Cuban American singer Celia Cruz. It's meant to show visitors that Latino history is part of American history, says museum director Jorge Zamanillo. He says it makes sense for this exhibition to be located inside the National Museum of American History.

JORGE ZAMANILLO: It's foundational. It really sets the stage - kind of like a 101 on American Latino presence in the United States and how it fits into the larger American history narrative.

MAZARIEGOS: The fully bilingual exhibition covers themes like Spain's colonial presence in North America, the annexation of Spanish Florida, the Mexican War. Ranald Woodaman says it also delves into topics such as immigration. In one of the galleries, visitors can see a raft, a tiny boat where Cuban refugees spent a number of days in 1992 in order to get to Florida by sea.

WOODAMAN: You know, it's - has a wooden frame around which they built the Styrofoam-and-tar structure. And, yes, this is an object that's particular to Cuban American story, but it's also speaks (ph) to just the flow of movement of people from Latin America and the Caribbean, but also really of refugees from around the world who are seeking safety at the moment. So I think a lot of people are going to be able to connect with that object.

MAZARIEGOS: Taking a moment to reflect on all the beautiful objects that represent the diversity of the American Latino experience is critical to Melissa Perez. She runs a quiet, little room at the very end of the gallery. With books and board games, it really feels like a relaxing space to wind down.

MELISSA PEREZ: And be a space where people can relate to one another, take a moment, really absorb what's happening in the gallery, and hopefully walk away with something beautiful.

MAZARIEGOS: Including the fact that this gallery marks the beginning of the end of a long pursuit to highlight Latino culture in the American context. For NPR News, I'm Miranda Mazariegos in Washington, D.C.


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