Sea Mar Museum of Chicano/a Latino/a Culture set to open in south Seattle next year

Artist’s rendering of the museum exterior. (Photo courtesy of The Sea Mar Museum of Chicano/a Latino/a Culture)

The Sea Mar Museum of Chicano/a Latino/a Culture is on track to open in early 2019 in southern Seattle. The museum, to be installed in a now-empty former casino at 9635 Des Moines Memorial Drive, will concentrate on Washington’s Latino history from 1900 to 1970.

This will be the first major museum devoted to Latino history in Washington state, where Latinos made up 12.4 percent of the population in 2016.

“Latinos have made incredible contributions, not only to the economy, but to the citizens of Washington state,” said Erasmo Gamboa, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Washington and one of the leaders of the museum project.

Gamboa says that this idea has been a long time in the making among people involved with the Sea Mar Community Health Centers, a Seattle-based health organization that was founded in 1972 by Latino community leaders.

Erasmo Gamboa. (Photo by John Stang)
Erasmo Gamboa. (Photo by John Stang)

Gamboa, who was born to a family that had migrated to Washington state in the 1930’s, grew up in Sunnyside, an agricultural town in eastern Washington. He intended to study law at the University of Washington until he became aware that there was no organized documentation, scholarly studies or popular writing on Hispanics in the Northwest. That fascinated him enough that he switched to studying history, and has spent his career specializing in Latino studies and Northwest Latino history.

He wrote the book Mexican Labor and World War II, which is a history of the bracero program. Braceros were Mexican farm laborers who originally worked in Washington and other states to help keep American agriculture afloat while the nation fought in World War II. That program lasted from 1942 to 1964, and influenced migrant workers moving to Washington state.

Latinos became key workers in vineyards, orchards, and other farming activities  — which has boosted and kept alive many small Washington towns, he noted.

Later, the influence of Cesar Chavez, who founded what later became the United Farm Workers, helped spark demonstrations and activism on this issue and civil rights in general at the University of Washington in the 1960s and 1970s, which spread across the state.

“Who would [Washingtonians] be without the Latino population?” Gamboa said.

Workers in the museum's rotunda. (Photo by John Stang)
Workers in the museum’s rotunda. (Photo by John Stang)

Washington’s farmworker history will be one of the major themes of the new museum. The prime exhibit will be in the building’s rotunda-like center, which will hold one or two migrant farmworker cabins. The cabins, donated by a farm in Sunnyside, will be opened up to display the elements of daily life for migrant farmworkers.

“What was the best story we could tell?” Gamboa said about pinning down the museum’s focus.

The $16 million, 29,832-square-foot project will also include a community meeting center and a pediatrics clinic. The architect is Jose Bazan of Bellevue.

Photos, documents, signs, placards, buttons and armbands are being collected and sifted through to be displays of Washington’s civil rights and farmworker movements.  Also, traveling exhibits will be put together to go to schools and community centers across the state.