This summer I was honored to host Sergio as my summer fellow. He was exceptionally organized, curious, and thoughtful. I am excited to witness his future accomplishments. Below is a small sample of what he worked on and worked through during his weeks as a Smithsonian Latino Museum Studies Program Fellow at the Anacostia Community Museum. – Ariana Curtis, curator
By Sergio M. González/ Summer 2015
This summer, my charge as a fellow with the Smithsonian’s Latino Museum Studies Program (LMSP) has been to assist in increasing the representation, documentation, and research of Latino art, culture, and history throughout the museum’s many units. My field placement at the Anacostia Community Museum (ACM) has offered me the opportunity to work in a museum in the process of redefining its own mission, as it expands its purview to include the representation of Latino communities. Working with Ariana Curtis, ACM’s first curator of Latino Studies, I’ve spent most of my practicum experience surveying the museum’s permanent collections in search of ties to Latin America and Latino communities specifically, but immigration more broadly.
Through my survey of the ACM’s collections, I came across a Cuban refugee boat, an artifact whose publicly accessible provenance is unclear.
I decided to commit some of my practicum experience to researching the object and rewriting the description, as it seemed to meet the criteria of being “current, compelling, and connected,” three C’s that help guide ACM’s mission.
I began researching and writing a new description to accompany the image of the boat on the Smithsonian’s website. I asked myself how, as a historian, I might convey the significance of this object and place it within a broader historical context. How, as a storyteller, might I engage my audience with vivid descriptions of the hazards that Cuban migrants confront on their ninety-mile voyage between Cuban and Floridian shores? My initial instincts for writing the description relied upon the writing of museum educator Larry Borowsky, who asks curators to pose three questions as they craft a narrative arc in their writing for museumgoers:
- Does it create an air of suspense and/or tension?
- Does it trace a journey through time and/or distance?
- Does it encourage the reader to suspend disbelief?
In my first attempts to write what I considered to be an “effective” description, I hewed closely to my disciplinary training as a historian, and soon found myself writing more of a narrative than a collections description. My first draft of the collection description read more like an exhibition label than an object description that might accompany the boat in a collections search. The need for brevity within a collection description was a new concept for me – my dissertation-writing style would need to be scaled back. I wanted to include multiple political perspectives since this object interacts with contemporary political events. However, that muddied the delivery of pertinent historical facts that would place the boat in research context.
After meeting with Ariana and discussing the differences between a collections description and a museum tag, I decided to split the labor in half. First, I rewrote the description, focusing on conveying a clearer curatorial voice and sticking closer to the most important facts:
Some Cuban emigrants construct vessels like the one seen here from miscellaneous materials including discarded wood, sets of tires, and even converted taxis and trucks to travel the 90 miles from Cuba to the U.S. Known as balseros, rafters, or boatpeople, the largest single group of 125,000 Cubans departed from the port of Mariel to the U.S. in 1980. Between 1959 (Cuban Revolution) and the Mariel boatlift of 1980, 500,000 Cuban immigrants entered the United States.
Cubans have unique immigration laws, including the Cuban Adjustment Act. The 1966 Cuban Adjustment Act granted permanent resident status to any Cuban that had immigrated to the U.S. after January 1, 1959 and had lived in the U.S. for at least two years (reduced to one year in 1976). The 1995 revision of the Cuban Adjustment Act, popularly known as the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, allows Cuban migrants that reach U.S. land to stay, whereas those apprehended at sea are returned to Cuba.
According to their public website, the Miami-based non-profit organization Hermanos al Rescate (Brothers to the Rescue), founded in 1991, has rescued more than 4,200 Cuban refugees attempting to enter U.S.
Next, I turned to writing a museum tag under one hundred words that might accompany the Cuban refugee boat in an exhibit. I’ve imagined the boat as a part of a larger exhibit detailing Cuban immigration experiences to the United States in the twentieth century. As part of a full exhibit, much of the corroborating information not necessarily tied to this specific boat in the collections description above will be include in museum tags that would accompany other artifacts or images.
Between 1959 and 1994, more than 70,000 Cuban citizens fled their country for the United States in balsas (rafts) like the one seen here. Facing the 90 miles of treacherous water that separate Cuba and the Florida coast, balseros (rafters) constructed makeshift boats and homemade rafts out a number of materials, including scrap pieces of wood, discarded tires, and even converted taxis.
Sergio M. González is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a 2015 Smithsonian Latino Museum Studies Program Fellow.