New Texas Museum Celebrates Hispanic Culture

May 30, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT

JEFFREY BROWN: Santiago Jimenez Jr. was taught to play the accordion by his father, Santiago Sr., who’d grown up watching German immigrant musicians in south Texas perform polkas and waltzes.

SANTIAGO JIMENEZ JR., Conjunto Musician: This is the way the Germans played.

JEFFREY BROWN: From the mix of Europe and Tex-Mex, oom-pah-pah and Latin rhythms, came something new, called conjunto music.

SANTIAGO JIMENEZ JR.: The conjunto style, it’s more powerful. To me, it’s powerful.

JEFFREY BROWN: The celebration of a uniquely American Latino culture is the idea behind a new museum in San Antonio, Texas, the Museo Alameda. Instruments and photographs of conjunto musicians, including Santiago Jimenez, make up one of the opening exhibitions.

With its pink walls and punched tin exterior, the museum sits in the historic Market Square district of San Antonio, a city that today is 60 percent Hispanic. The museum is a collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution, which will lend works from its huge collections.

The initial loans are an eclectic mix: a Mayan limestone carving, and a modern sculpture by Luis Jimenez called “Man on Fire,” but also a Tiffany’s necklace by Paloma Picasso, and Laura Bush’s inaugural purse. Among the other initial exhibits is a video installation called “Somos” — “We Are” — a montage of family photographs.

Henry Munoz, head of a local architectural firm and chairman of the nonprofit organization behind the creation of the new $15 million facility, sees the museum as a piece of cultural activism.

HENRY MUNOZ, Founder and Chair, Museo Alameda: It is activism in the sense that, to create a museum at the front door to one of the most important Latino landscapes in the country, so that future generations of Latinos can see themselves in that setting, I think is incredibly important. If you walked into a Smithsonian museum in the early 1990s and your last name was Munoz, or Sanchez, or Mendez, you didn’t see yourself anywhere in those museums, and so there was no question that an important part of the American story was not being told.

Museum's purpose

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, the idea for the Alameda goes back to a 1994 report written by a Smithsonian task force that criticized the institution for a, quote, "willful neglect" of Hispanic culture. And a big part of it is to attract people like Olga Caceras and her family, who'd never been to a museum before.

OLGA CACERAS: It is important for us to have this, and they're showing some of the Latin things here in Texas.

JEFFREY BROWN: From the beginning, the project included the nearby Alameda Theater, a grand movie palace built in 1949 that featured Spanish-language films and performers from south of the border, and served as an important cultural center for San Antonio's Latino population.

HENRY MUNOZ: They built the theater with these beautiful murals on either side of the wall, with the history of Mexico and the Americas on this side, and the history of San Antonio and Texas and the United States on this side. The Alameda was built during a time of segregation here in San Antonio, so it was the first theater that you could come to and not have to sit in the colored balcony if you were Mexican or Mexican-American descent.

JEFFREY BROWN: The theater closed in 1991 and has suffered major water damage. Munoz's group plans to restore and reopen it in 2009, with production support from Washington's Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

HENRY MUNOZ: The Alameda is for Latinos living in the United States what the Apollo Theater is for African-Americans. It is that symbolic. So, yes, it's more than a movie theater. It's an icon of blended culture.

It lived in two worlds: It had both the American and the Mexican, and so it was a blended architecture, which I call Mestizo regionalism, which means "together, blended."

A 'modern cultural blend'

JEFFREY BROWN: In San Antonio today, traditional Mexican culture is on display at evening folk dances along the city's popular river walk, and sombreros are for sale in Market Square. But it's the modern cultural blend that many want to emphasize, including Texas-born artist Franco Mondini-Ruiz.

FRANCO MONDINI-RUIZ, Artist: We're not purely American and, if we go to Mexico, we're not Mexicans, either. We are the American story; we're a hybridization of culture.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mondini-Ruiz created one of the museum's quirkier exhibits, the "Botanica," an artistic rendition of a unique kind of neighborhood establishment.

FRANCO MONDINI-RUIZ: What you're looking at is a Tex-Mex interpretation of a botanical store which sells magic potions, true herbal medicines.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many of the items here are preserved from a real San Antonio botanica, Casa Mireles, which operated for over 100 years before it closed in 2005.

FRANCO MONDINI-RUIZ: It was the pharmacist; it was the psychiatrist; it was the therapist; it was the love adviser; it was the gift shop. It fulfilled a lot of roles. There are candles here and saints here for particular needs that people have.

JEFFREY BROWN: Give me an example, if somebody comes in, and they have a -- I don't know, what, a love problem?

FRANCO MONDINI-RUIZ: OK, well, if it's someone you're trying to get rid of, someone you want, or someone who's trying to get rid of you?

JEFFREY BROWN: Because you've got something different for every one, right?

Alright, let's say -- let's say I'm trying to get rid of someone.

FRANCO MONDINI-RUIZ: Yes. It depends. Do you want to be nice about it or not nice about it? I have all kinds of categories for you.

JEFFREY BROWN: So why would you put this in a museum?

FRANCO MONDINI-RUIZ: Personally speaking, I feel this is so vital to be in a museum. I think this is truly the jewel. This is truly the story of a Latino people that needs to be told.

Look at it. To me, it is a key to a puzzle that will make humanity a better place that the world needs right now. Look at what you're looking at: tolerance, understanding, forgiveness, hope, diversity. There are gods of all different faiths, side by side. Everyone is allowed.

Keeping stories alive

JEFFREY BROWN: Everyone here understands very well that this museum opens amid an often bitter national debate over immigration and borders. Henry Munoz sees it as an effort to create a kind of "cultural unity."

HENRY MUNOZ: The issue of immigration and the idea that culture knows no border, that you can't build a fence around people's creativity or their minds is center, central to this museum and its ideas. And that's what the story is about. And it's places like the Alameda and this museum that I think tells those stories and to make sure that those kind of ideas stay alive.

JEFFREY BROWN: For his part, Santiago Jimenez knows that conjunto music, like everything else, is changing, but he's sticking to the old style.

Why do you want to keep it alive?

SANTIAGO JIMENEZ, JR.: It's a good question. Why I want to keep it alive? Because I promised my dad.

JEFFREY BROWN: You promised your dad?

SANTIAGO JIMENEZ, JR.: I promised my dad. This is my music. This is what I learned, and I promised my dad that this music was going to keep going until I die. This is my quest, and this is why I'm keeping this music alive.

JEFFREY BROWN: Jimenez is hoping the museum will help to further that effort. Museum officials expect some 400,000 visitors in the first year.