Molina siblings’ $10 million gift will give birth to Smithsonian’s first permanent Latino gallery space

Eduardo Diaz is director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Latino Center and, on Thursday, Dec. 6, he’ll take part in a Washington, D.C., ceremony formally announcing plans to build the Smithsonian’s first permanent gallery dedicated to telling the story of Latinos in America.

It will be a momentous day. “Very, very big,” says Diaz, who grew up in San Bernardino. And yet, when he talks about how it came to fruition, how five siblings named Molina who grew up in Long Beach came to give the money to make it possible, he just has to laugh.

“Well,” he says, “sometimes it’s just better to be lucky than good.”

On Thursday, Diaz will no doubt feel a little bit of both as the official announcement of the Molina Family Latino Gallery is made. The gallery, slated to be completed in 2021, will be created in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and will eventually feature 4,500-square-feet of space capable of handling rotating exhibitions, multimedia activities and objects, as well as first-person narratives.

It will be made possible by a lead gift of $10 million by the five Molina siblings—Mario, Martha, John, Janet and Josephine—something they did to honor their father, Dr. C. David Molina, a physician who developed Long Beach’s first intensive care unit at Pacific Hospital in 1962, remaining there as director of ICU until 1976 and then as director of the emergency department for 21 years. David would go on to found and grow Molina Healthcare, a company that would eventually be taken public and, today, is on the Fortune 500 list.

(John Molina is a founding partner of Pacific6, the company which owns Long Beach Post.)

“It is a great privilege to make this gift in memory of our father,” said Martha Molina Bernadett, in a press release on behalf of her brothers and sisters.

A $10 million donation by five Molina siblings, in honor of their father, David, left, will make the Smithsonian Institute’s first permanent Latino gallery possible.

It was Martha and brother Mario, both physicians, who initially struck up a friendship with Roel Campos who happened to be chairman of the Latino Center’s advisory board. The center had been looking for a large donation that would not only give birth to a permanent gallery but encourage other donations to maintain it. And then, when Martha and Mario met Roel …

“A gallery has been talked about since the center opened [21 years ago],” Diaz said. “In our founding document there is a reference to the need for a gallery, but it’s been put on the back burner because of funds. And then our chairman met and built a relationship with the Molinas. All that planning and then it happens because people become friends. When you think of it, that’s what this is about, that’s how most things get done: relationships.”

The Molina Family Latino Gallery will be charged with the task of telling the long, complicated relationship of Latinos in the U.S. A relationship so long, it predates the country and one so complicated that it is consistent fodder for the 24-hour news cycle as well as presidential politics and tweets.

“Latino history is American history and we have a responsibility to reflect the stories and experiences of Latinas and Latinos in the U.S. today,” Diaz said. To that end, the gallery will be a space for audiences of all ages and backgrounds to find common ground and “share intersecting experiences and present perspectives that are not bound by nationality.”

The planned inaugural exhibition, “Making Home: Latino Stories of Community and Belonging,” will examine the historical roots of Latino culture as it shaped the continent and the U.S.

“We recognize that being on the National Mall is a very significant thing,” Diaz said. “But we also know that a lot of our visitors are not going to be Latino. So, when Mr. and Mrs. Jones from Des Moines, Iowa show up with their kids, there is going to have to be an educational component but we also want to tell the full story that really captures the complexity, the historical trajectory of Latinos as nation builders.”

A significant chapter of that story will be laid out Thursday. “A good story,” Diaz says, “with a good project. You have to tip your hat to the Molina family, this is such an important legacy they leave in honor of their father. It’s an incredible thing, an incredible story that I know, they are happy to do. And it’s an incredible honor for us. We’re still pinching ourselves. It still feels like kind of a dream.”

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Steve Lowery began his journalism career at the Los Angeles Times, where he planned to spend his entire career. God, as usual, laughed at his plans and he has since written for the short-lived sports publication The National, the L.A. Daily News, the Press-Telegram, New Times LA, the District and the OC Weekly. He is the Arts & Culture Editor for the Post, overseeing the Hi-lo.