Preserving a Minority

Northern Virginia executive, Hispanic leader and Republican Party advocate, Raul Danny Vargas serves on the commission charged with the creation of a National Museum of the American Latino, which will house the images and documents reflecting the contributions of Hispanics from over the last 50 decades

Northern Virginia executive, Hispanic leader and Republican Party advocate, Raul Danny Vargas serves on the commission charged with the creation of a National Museum of the American Latino, which will house the images and documents reflecting the contributions of Hispanics from over the last 50 decades

By Forrest Glenn Spencer

Photography by Seth Freeman
Photography by Seth Freeman

Last June, Herndon resident and public relations consultant Raul Danny Vargas, 45, was appointed by U.S. House Minority John Boehner to be one of the 23 commission members for the National Museum of the American Latino. At completion the museum will house historical artifacts, images and individual stories of one of America’s largest and influential ethnic populations, honoring and remembering the contributions Latinos have made on this continent, and for our country, over the last 500 years.

Describe the organizational authority of the commission and your charter under law.
The commission falls under the purview of the Department of Interior. Right now, they’re going through the process of assigning program managers and budget cycles and so forth. Our role as a commission will look at viability through a financial standpoint, creating a museum that focuses on the American Hispanic experience. It’s a business focus role and looking at the actual museum itself: its location, its layout, its content and so forth. Then we’ll report back to Congress our findings. Most of us are going to be involved in getting the fundraising in motion. From what I understand, there’s already a non-profit established that would act as a clearinghouse if you need one, for fundraising.

As a commission, you’ve had a few meetings now. Tell me about them.
Our first meeting was last September. We talked about the Congressional mandated task we were to perform; we got various briefings from the administration, and the Smithsonian spoke about the process they’ve experienced in the past. We then talked about how we were to be structured, what committees were to be formed, assignment of leadership. I am the vice chairman of the Public Relations and Legislation Committee for the commission.

It must be exciting to be part of a project at the ground level.
One benefit we do have is that a portion of the Smithsonian already focuses on the Hispanic experience, and they have their own events. That’s a leg up. The long haul is finding the financing, the location for the museum and its construction. If you’re looking for a template or an example of what we’re doing then look to [The National Museum of the American Indian] and how that was built. It went through a similar process.

I understand you had an official kick-off press conference on the steps of Capitol Hill, with your fellow commissioners and actress Eva Longoria Parker joining you.
We met again as a commission and held this event. It was to raise the profile of the commission.

During that meeting, we identified the resources we’re going to need in order to pull together the different components for our report to Congress. We met again in December and then hit the road. You see, part of our job as a commission is to engage the public and to solicit their feedback and input on the feasibility and interest for such a museum. We’ll be looking at ways to do that in an effective manner. And then—as part of our report—we have to talk about our recommendations in enabling legislation.

What’s the selling point about the museum?
It’s important to tell people that this is not a museum for Latinos only. We must try and pull together a museum that benefits all Americans. The Hispanic experience is woven into the fabric of our country before it was started. It’s part of American history, though; and of course, it cannot be a static look of the last 500 years. It has to have resonance and impact on future generations.

When did you first hear about The museum and the efforts being made to build it?
I was first exposed to this more than three years ago. I was interacting with the folks that were attempting to raise its awareness. I never had any idea I would be on the commission if it came to fruition. I have been involved in the Hispanic community here in [the] region and I know the diversity that exists, and its contributions made to American history and to our great republic. I thought the idea of a museum was a great idea.

Virginia has a huge Hispanic population. Figures from last year put it at 500,000, and 75 percent live in NoVA. what is that community? What’s the diversity?
I have to laugh when people talk about the “Hispanic community” because it’s very diverse. Someone from Argentina is different from someone from Mexico or Central America. That has an influence on the cultural matters. As does education and socio-economics. I think the greater D.C. area is unique. You have a predominately Puerto Rican community in New York. You have a predominately Mexican community in Texas and California. In our region, it’s very mix[ed]. You’ve got Peruvians, Salvadorans, Bolivians and Mexicans. You have a community that is very entrepreneurial, very hardworking folks. As the economy takes a hit it has an impact for those toiling away and those who have the toughest jobs in our community. The entrepreneurs—lots of smaller firms, such Ma-and-Pa stores—are the first to feel the impact of an economic downturn.

What sort of network is there for this diverse group of Hispanics in our region?
One of the things that we started more than a year ago was the Hispanic GovCon Network, or HGN. While I was interacting with companies and clients I saw exceptional professionals—whether it was Hispanic-owned businesses or employees or prime contractors, phenomenal talent—that [weren’t] connecting or interacting with one another. We thought it’d be great if we can bring these folks together, form teams and go after large deals together. We meet regularly. We just had former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez as a guest speaker. We started seeing people going after opportunities now that they know each other and get a feel for how they can work together. It’s a wonderful thing, going after those opportunities. It came down a point of infinity. The thing about the stimulus package, for example, is a lot of money goes from the federal government to the states to spend a lot of that money. Those states are spending the money on those companies they have access to and [are] familiar with. What we’re trying to do is get that information out there on where the money is going to in Northern Virginia, D.C. and Maryland, through this procurement process, and how individuals can get certified to go after those projects in the stimulus.

How critical is immigration reform in the Hispanic community? What’s the feedback you’ve heard?
It’s a disproportionate impact. My own personal view is that this is a big problem, and it’s going to get worse. If you look around, there are lots of people to blame: the people who are here illegally; the employers for hiring; the federal government for not enforcing laws; Congress for the reforms they should have enacted. You have to come at illegal immigration from a practical standpoint. I have to commend the Bush administration in making a valid effort.

Some of my friends within the Hispanic community, the leadership, believe the word “assimilation” is a bad word. I think it’s a word that has served our country well for centuries. If you don’t like assimilation, call it “integration,” call it “culturalization.” Call it what you will. We’re here; we’re in America. I still speak Spanish fluently. I still love my Spanish food and music and the culture, but we’re here, part of this great country, so let’s be part of it. That’s the only way as a community we can lift ourselves up, get an education, work hard, love our kids and keep those strong family values. We cannot keep ourselves separated, and we cannot look [to] the government for everything. We’ve got to get back to our own basics, and a lot of us are trying to emphasize that in the community.

(March 2010)