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Air and Space Museum Salutes Latino Aviators With Exhibit


WASHINGTON — On May 10, 1913, an aircraft attacked a warship for the first time in history. But if that doesn't ring any bells, it might be because the action took place over Guayamas, Mexico, and the plane was piloted by Capt. Gustavo Salinas.

While most schoolchildren know at least a little about the Wright brothers, the exploits of Latin American aviators have gone largely unrecognized in this country. But the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum is taking note with a new exhibit dedicated to Latin American aviators and their memorable feats.

The exhibit--titled Arriba, Spanish for "higher"--is small, with only 35 photographs and eight models. Still, it represents a growing emphasis by museums across the country on Latino culture and history, in recognition of the country's changing demographics.

Visitors to the Smithsonian exhibit will learn that it was a Peruvian--Jorge Chaves--who made the first aerial crossing of the Alps between Switzerland and Italy. The display focuses attention on Brazil's 1st Fighter Group, which served with distinction beside the U.S. 350th Fighter Group over Italy during World War II. And it details Salinas' historic mission, which occurred during the Mexican Revolution.

The flyer's biplane, the Sonora, fired on a federal Mexican navy warship. Although the attack did not sink the ship, its unexpectedness "did cause some of the sailors to jump overboard," exhibit curator Dan Hagedorn said.

The exhibit also seeks to show how, according to a museum statement, "towering mountains, vast and impenetrable jungle reaches and ferocious weather made the development of aviation in Latin America both a necessity and a daunting challenge."

In an unusual move, the Smithsonian hired an outside designer for the exhibit. Gustavo Mendoza, a graphic designer who grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, said he sought to give the exhibit a more Latin American look, using bright, contrasting colors and bold typographical fonts. "I wanted to give people the color of our culture; however, I tried to stay away from the stereotypes . . . [such as] palm trees and coconuts."

Arriba is the first exhibit to receive support from the Smithsonian's newly created Center for Latino Initiatives. According to its director, Refugio Rochin, the center is the fruit of a new effort by the Smithsonian to bring a greater Latino presence to exhibits and staff. It grew out of protests by Washington Latino groups over the paucity of representation of their culture and history at the Smithsonian's various branches.

In a further sign of the Smithsonian's response to these concerns, the American History Museum is offering two exhibits: one dealing with the repercussions of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War, the other featuring a collection of art and everyday objects from Puerto Rico.

"I think there's a momentum now, where things are happening in different places. It's an exciting time," said Soledad Campos, Latino programs producer at the American History Museum.

Simple demographics have put Southern California museums at the forefront of outreach to Spanish-speaking audiences. "We can hardly think of the Latino community as anything but mainstream," said Barbara Whitney, assistant director for administration and public affairs at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles. "None of us can afford to ignore the demographics of their communities."

Although the Getty's collection leans heavily toward Western Europe, the museum makes efforts to reach Latino groups through a host of bilingual programs, brochures and events, as well as "a very long-term partnership" with community groups, Whitney said.

"Art is universal. It has something to speak to everybody," and the idea that an ethnic group can only appreciate art from its own culture is "a big generalization," Whitney said.

The Arriba exhibit is on display until Nov. 30. But Hagedorn said he hoped the exhibit would go on the road and reach a wider audience. "We need a more world view of the history of aviation and how it's benefited mankind," he said.

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