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Sen. Lee is wrong, an American Latino Museum would unite us

Learning our unique history only helps us move forward, heal and build unity. 

In this Nov. 17, 2020, file photo, Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, speaks during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. Lee objected Thursday, Dec. 10, to the creation of the two proposed Smithsonian museums to honor American Latinos and women, stalling two projects that have been in the making for decades and enjoy broad bipartisan support.
Hannah McKay via Associated Press

I have anxiously awaited the formation of an American Latino Museum to celebrate the Latino community. However, I was disappointed when Sen. Mike Lee blocked legislation on Thursday, Dec. 10, that would make that dream one step closer to reality.

On the Senate floor, Sen. Lee said, “My objection to the creation of a new Smithsonian museum or series of museums based on group identity — what Theodore Roosevelt called ‘hyphenated Americanism’ — is not a matter of budgetary or legislative technicalities. It’s a matter of national unity and cultural inclusion.”

I have an honest question for Sen. Lee, and it deserves an honest response. We both are part of an important “group identity” that is important to American history, being members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Do museums like the Church History Museum go against the “national unity and cultural inclusion” and contribute to this “hyphenated Americanism,” since it is a museum based on a group identity?

When I immigrated to the U.S. as a little kid, I remember my family and I going to the Pioneer Memorial Museum right by the Utah state capitol, even before I knew English. We grew up with a low family income, so for family home evening, we would go to free museums, like that one and the Church History Museum by Temple Square. I don’t have pioneer ancestors, but going to those museums helped me understand a lot about them and build a sense of unity. These series of “museums based on group identity” are needed to help the millions of Temple Square visitors learn about this American group, build empathy and celebrate alongside us.

After I served my mission in Tokyo, Japan, I became part of the first-ever Spanish speaking young single adult ward in Utah called the YSA Pioneer Spanish-speaking Ward. All the Latinos in this YSA ward are pioneers, in a way. The museums and the media produced by the Church about pioneers only helps us to connect to the original pioneers. Likewise, a Latino museum does the same.

People locally know me as an organizer. I was recently featured on the BYUtv show “Hello Sunday,” highlighting the important work I do in the Latino community, for which my faith is the foundation. During my undergraduate years at the University of Utah, I took my first ethnic studies course, titled “The Chicano Experience.” I got a glimpse of the beautiful history of my ethnic community.

Our Latter-day Saint pioneers were treated unjustly when their constitutional first amendment right of freedom of religion was not respected by the U.S. Consequently, our pioneers left the U.S. and settled in 1847 in Mexico, which later became Utah. There are not-so-joyful moments in history within our “groups,” including the Latino community, but knowing history only helps us move forward, heal and build unity.

I learned about the efforts to have a Latino museum back in 2017 when Dolores Huerta premiered her documentary about her life. She was an ambassador promoting the importance of this museum. I, too, am an ambassador, serving as the national vice president of youth with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), which is the oldest and largest nonpartisan Latino civil rights organization in the country. This coming year, we will be 92 years old. Someday, when we walk into the Latino Museum, one of the first things we see will be LULAC. There’s almost a century of history within LULAC’s efforts in working on civil rights for the Latino community that everyone needs to know.

I now teach in the ethnic studies department at the University of Utah. I gave a TED Talk this year about decolonizing leadership development. In it, I give people a glimpse of what I teach at the university level. I’m training, nurturing and mentoring Latino youth in Utah and across the country.

I invite Sen. Lee to stand for a Latino museum. Once it’s built and the grand opening happens, I want him at my side as we go through it, celebrating with us, dancing a little and feeling united.

Joél-Léhi Organista is a proud Utahn, born in Mexico but raised in Salt Lake City. He was recently elected to the Salt Lake City School District board, making him Utah’s youngest elected official. The founder and CEO of EdTech startup Machitia, he was named as one of Utah’s 20 in their 20s by Utah Business.