Newcomers to America, according to Eduardo Díaz, the executive director of the Smithsonian Latino Center, are always mindful of two homes: their community of residence (where they immigrated to) and their community of origin (where they emigrated from). To ignore that internal conflict would miss an opportunity to engage with what being an American immigrant truly entails.

Eduardo Diaz (Courtesy of Eduardo Diaz)

Díaz is a native-born American, but he has deep roots in immigrant communities. The Latino Center, as its name implies, develops and promotes exhibitions to help give voice to the experience of Latinos in the United States. Díaz has used his 30-plus year career to build conversations around different cultural connections and links to heritages present in the United States, particularly those of Latino people. Before joining the Smithsonian, Díaz was director of Albuquerque’s National Hispanic Cultural Center; earlier, as cultural director for the city of San Antonio, Díaz co-founded San Antonio’s annual International Accordion Festival.

Díaz prioritizes first voice representation in museums — a model of understanding history using primary sources and people being able to tell their own stories, rather than others telling it for them, in order to better preserve cultures and practices and to offer a more complete understanding of the world.

In his conversation with Smithsonian Second Opinion, he spoke about this preference as well as the many complexities he’s found in the American immigrant experience. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What does being American mean to you?

My viewpoint is that America is a continent first, and it is not necessarily just a country, which is to say the United States of America. My perspective has always been informed by that. My father served in the U.S. Army during World War II, and I understand the concept of the U.S., obviously, but I’ve always viewed the Americas as sort of the bigger picture, and the United States being part of that bigger picture of the Americas, in the same way as Latin America or Mexico or the Caribbean or Canada.

I’m of Mexican descent, so some of that perspective also carries over. I understand the United States has a very distinct and diverse set of cultural traditions, and certainly the history is distinct and so forth, but I just kind of bring a larger perspective to a sense of American identity.

People need to wake up and smell the demographic coffee! The United States, by some statisticians, may be the second-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world, Mexico being the only other country. It’s a little silly to ignore what the demographic, linguistic, social and cultural relations are.

What does being an immigrant mean to you and to the larger community overall?

The majority of the Latino community is not immigrant, it’s native-born. We’re not immigrants, although the “immigration issue” is framed very much as though Latino equals immigrant, when statistically, that’s really not the case at all. There are members of our community that are immigrants and that’s for real, but the majority are not, including myself.

In 1848, when Mexico and the United States signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, all of these Mexican citizens suddenly became U.S. citizens. So, in some ways, you could say we didn’t cross the border—the border crossed us. 

A lot of the immigrant experience, from my observation—having worked with artists and scholars and community members who were born in another country and immigrated to the United States – is a constant, quotidian negotiation between the country of origin and the community of residence, practically daily.

How do their stories inform your work?

The work that we do at the Latino Center is really focused more on the community of residence, which is not to say that we ignore the country of origins, but our principal focus is with the lives, experiences, the new histories and social expressions that are manifested here, in the United States.

It’s a complex process of getting perspectives around identity or immigration and so forth. You have to dig deeper and ask a lot of questions, some of them penetrating and uncomfortable, but I think it’s the only way you can really understand the multiplicity of immigration experiences that are being lived out every day in this country. There’s all kinds of factors that need to be considered when you assess this issue. That’s our job, illuminating the Latino experience, and to illuminate it properly, you have to probe into these finer details.

How can people learn about these different lived experiences?

The Smithsonian is doing a lot. There are many units that are addressing in one way or another issues of immigration. For example, the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage has a program called On the Move, which looks at this issue of movement and immigration and migration. That’s one. The National Museum of American History just organized an exhibition called Many Voices, One Nation that takes a look at multiplicities and diversities of culture and peoples and the population of this country under the banner of one nation.

The National Museum of the American Indian has opened up a wonderful show called Nation to Nation, which looks at the history of treaties. A tragic tale in some ways, but a very poignant one and very telling about how this country manages its relationships with the Native peoples of this country. I don’t want to tout the Smithsonian as the only source, but it’s an active source addressing these issues.

I think that the American public, defined broadly, would do well to really take notice of what’s happening in their communities. Look at the demographic shifts and understand the diverse heritage that has informed the building of this nation and the shaping of national culture. If they do, they will find that this is a very diverse country, historically and culturally, dating back to its early stages. I wish people would keep that in mind as they look at today’s realities and the politics that are shaping it.