Chicano activist frames idea
Wichita Falls man urges D.C. Latino museum
By Trish Choate, Scripps Howard Newspaper GroupFriday, September 14, 2012
WASHINGTON - When Jesus Manuel Mena Garza, of Wichita Falls, was an activist in the Chicano civil rights movement - El Movimiento Chicano in the 1970s he always had his camera on hand to photograph legendary figures such as César Chávez.
Forty years later, Garza's historic photographs are in demand. Universities from Santa Barbara to Houston are lining up to archive his negatives and transparencies.
Garza spoke in the nation's capital Wednesday evening to support the place he wants to see his work's archives someday.
"I'm holding out for a place in our nation's capital, a great place, an amazing space that will bear witness to the many achievements of Latinos a National Museum of the American Latino," he said.
Envisioned as part of the National Mall by many supporters, the new museum is in the planning stages and awaits congressional action.
Garza gave the speech at a reception hosted by Friends of the National Museum of the American Latino during the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute Public Policy Conference in the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington.
Documentary photographs from "The Chicano Photographer" series, which Garza took from 1970 to 1975, are displayed in the Ronald Reagan Building. Photos from the series are part of the Smithsonian Institution's collection.
During his speech, Garza talked of the hardscrabble life of a family of farm laborers.
"My parents migrated from their modest home in Crystal City, Texas, to pick fruits and vegetables at various farm labor camps in Montana, Minnesota and other states up north," he said.
He recalled living in San Jose, Calif., in the 1960s.
"Like many Chicanos from the period, I didn't live in a house near town but rather in a tent on the outskirts near the fringe," Garza said.
Things are changing, and Latinos are the largest and fastest growing ethnic group in the United States, he said.
"In today's America, we have clout. Just ask the presidential candidates at this year's election if they value our vote," Garza said.
During the 1970s he was in the right time and place to take photos of iconic figures such as Chávez, capturing the "mundane and the dynamic" along with other photographers, he said.
Garza took thousands of photographs in the 1970s in a wide area ranging from the Southwest United States to Mexico, capturing people speaking out for human rights and against the Vietnam War, according to his website.
Garza recently moved to Wichita Falls with his wife, Dr. Anne Marie Leimer, chairwoman of Midwestern State University's Harvey School of Visual Arts.
Eduardo Diaz, director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, urged those at the reception Wednesday to forge ahead with the project.
The new museum could be housed in a long-term space in existing facilities, possibly the Arts and Industries Building on the National Mall, which is a Smithsonian museum, he said.
Last year, the National Museum of the American Latino Commission completed a report for Congress. The commission recommended the museum, estimated to cost $600 million, be built on a National Mall site near the Capitol. Bipartisan legislation to designate a location for the new museum has been introduced in the House and Senate, but it's not expected to move forward this session.
Texas regional reporter Trish Choate can be reached at 202-408-2709 or firstname.lastname@example.org.