Breakfast of Champions

Eduardo Diaz has been in Washington, D.C. only a year, but the newest director of the Smithsonian Latino Center admits working in the nation’s capital is still a little heady.

For example, he was recently invited to the White House for a concert to close out Hispanic Heritage Month. In addition to the Obama family, there were stars such as George Lopez and Gloria Estefan. When he greeted Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan, he noticed Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis at the same table. But until the last minute, Diaz didn’t realize that the woman sitting next to her was the most celebrated guest there, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

Not too long ago, Diaz says the highlight of his day might have been choosing between machacado or papas con huevo for breakfast. “Sometimes, I miss those days,” he says.

There’s longing in Diaz’s voice when he says that, but little doubt that he’s having the time of his life. Established in 1997, the Latino Center is tasked with researching and creating exhibitions and other programming that advances knowledge and understanding of the U.S. Latino. This year it celebrated Panama at the Smithsonian. By 2013, it will open an exhibition showcasing the Qhapac Ñan, an ancient Inca road system that stretched across six Latin American countries. In between, the center will launch many other shows and programs.

With a budget of about $3 million and a small staff, the center highlights little-known chapters in Latino history. One of its most recent was “Bittersweet Harvest: The Bracero Program 1942-1964,” which opened at the National Museum of American History. The Latino Center manages many other projects, including two that Diaz views as crucial to the nation’s museums: professional development for Latinos already in the field and a Young Ambassadors Program, which introduces promising Latino students to the arts.

For all this, Diaz came prepared. He managed arts funding (as head of San Antonio’s cultural affairs office). He was an arts programmer at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, also in San Antonio. He led the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque with a similar budget as the Latino Center. He coordinated festivals, managed facilities, wrote a weekly newspaper column on the arts and public policy, even acted on the stage. His interests include the indigenous roots of U.S. Latino groups, music and museums and the intersection of art and politics.

More specifically, the 58 year-old El Paso native is a Tejano with Califa cred. His undergraduate degree at San Diego State was in Latin American Studies. His legal training (University of California-Davis) provided him with strong research, writing and debate skills. He was shaped by the Chicano movement and says he viewed himself as an activist, too.

“That combination,” he says, “has served me very well.”

As Diaz begins his second year at the Latino Center, he’s hopeful, pointing to the support of Latino arts champions such as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and California Congressman Xavier Becerra. He says the Latino Center enjoys strong ties to Latino museums and arts groups across the country. Diaz says Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough and Undersecretary Richard Kurin back his leadership and that he adores his staff, describing them as a diverse group.

“I’m here for a reason,” he says, to strengthen the Latino presence at the nation’s premier cultural and scientific institution. Even though, some days, he misses a good breakfast taco.

Elaine Ayala