Students are often taught only one side of American history. This side deals predominantly with the accomplishments of white males and conspicuously ignores the achievements of other groups such as Latinos, African-Americans, women of all races, and members of the LGBTQ community. Leaving out these groups would suggest that they did not play a major role in the history of the United States, but in reality people of all ethnic and racial backgrounds were as essential to the development of our country as the white politicians, inventors, doctors, and revolutionaries we hear so much about.
Virginia Sánchez Korrol touches on exactly this point in In Search of Latinas in U.S. History, 1540-1970. By highlighting the myriad ways that women of Mexican, Latin American, and Hispanic Caribbean heritage have contributed to the development of communities across the United States, she suggests that the other side of American history is just as rich, vibrant, and important as that with which we are most familiar.
Take for example the story of Emilia Casanova de Villaverde. Moving from her conservative upbringing in Cuba to Philadelphia, Casanova de Villaverde was highly active in the movements for Cuban and Puerto Rican Independence. Not only did she publish essays in local community presses such as American Latina, she was also an active political organizer. As president of the women’s group Las Hijas de Cuba, Casanova de Villaverde became a recognizable figure in the independence movement. She used her standing to gain funds for Cuban soldiers during the Ten Years War, and also spoke before U.S. Congress asking for protection for her father, who was imprisoned in Havana the same time.
Casanova de Villaverde was not alone in dedicating her life to fighting for revolutionary ideas. Luisa Capetillo also spent her lifetime battling for independence and equal standing for those who did not have it. After moving from Puerto Rico to New York City, Capetillo fought for both women’s and worker’s rights, organizing not only Cuban and Puerto Rican, but also African-American, Spanish, and Italian tobacco workers.
Sánchez Korrol chronicles several stories similar to these, and makes it clear that they are
only the tip of the iceberg when talking about Latina women who have left important legacies for both their ethnic communities, and the American people. Unfortunately, despite their connection to American ideology and our own revolutionary past, these stories are unlikely to receive mainstream attention. This begs the question, who is responsible for writing history, and whose history is being told?
To tell influential stories of immigrants and people of color would upset the status quo. It would require those with power and privilege to recognize the contributions of these individuals, and give equal footing to people who have historically not stood on equal ground. Revolutionary groups like the Young Lords understood this when they argued that “education was the first step to the revolution” . What we teach and how we teach it shapes who we are and helps to create our identity as a nation. A history void of minority populations, or containing only a few token individuals, removes the opportunity for everyone to see themselves in our collective history, and to imagine the leadership roles they can play in our country’s future.
In order to rewrite history, we first have to know what is missing. Museums can play a part disseminating this knowledge, but not perhaps without first acknowledging the role they have played in shaping it in the past. Like other large organizations, museums have been criticized for focusing too closely on the work of the elite, and ignoring that of the working class and/or people of color. When the Young Lords protested for greater minority representation at the Museum of Modern Art, they did so because they understood that the work displayed in institutions like MOMA is representative of our larger cultural values. Therefore, the stories these organizations choose to tell are indicative of what and who is important to our society.
Going forward, museums have a responsibility to ensure that they tell the complete history of our individual and collective past. By sharing this complex story, we can move one step closer to broadening avenues of cultural communication, and creating an inclusive interpretation of history that reflects not one, but many voices.
 ¡Presente! The Young Lords in New York exhibition catalogue. (New York: Bronx Museum, 2015).