On October 24, 2019, the Sea Mar Museum of Chicano/a/Latino/a Culture, which uses artifacts, photos, art, and videos to showcase the history and culture of the state's Spanish-speaking communities, opens to the public. It is the first and only Latinx museum in the state. More than 1,000 people attend opening-day festivities in the 8,500-square-foot museum, located on the ground floor of a new two-story building in South Park that also houses an adolescent-health clinic, rental space for community gatherings, and a Spanish-language radio station. The idea of a Latinx museum began in 2005 as a way to extend the educational mission of Sea Mar Community Health Centers, a community healthcare network started in 1978 by University of Washington health science students, including Rogelio Riojas. Through its exhibits, museum staff hope to raise awareness, foster appreciation, and instill a sense of pride and accomplishment among Latinx communities for their often-overlooked contributions to state history.
The Sea Mar Museum
The Sea Mar Museum of Chicano/a/Latino/a Culture is part of a family of services targeting Latinx residents under an umbrella organization called the Sea Mar Community Health Centers. The name is derived from the opening letters of the cities where the first two health clinics were located -- Seattle and Marysville.
The museum's name reflects the challenges staff faced when trying to encompass the diverse identities that exist within the Mexican and Latin American communities. "The founders decided to include both masculine and feminine spellings, as opposed to the contemporary catch-all phrase Chicanx or Latinx, because it reflects the language used by Mexican Americans during the time period showcased in the permanent exhibit (1930s-1970s)" ("I Belong ..."). As museum vice president Jerry Garcia explained, "We didn't want to use a term that is in vogue right now, but could be out of vogue in 10 years" ("I Belong ..."). Latino/a refers to people who identify with any Latin American country or countries, while Chicano/a is a term some Mexican Americans have embraced since the Chicano movement of the 1960s.
Construction on the building began in December 2016 and took two years to complete. The project was about 95 percent self-funded, with additional support from 4Culture and the state of Washington. The site had once been the home of a gas station, a casino, and a Hooters restaurant.
The October 2019 ribbon-cutting ceremony ushered in Phase I of the project, which highlights the Mexican American experience in the Northwest. Phase II, with a projected completion date of 2025, will expand the existing building footprint by another 4,000 to 5,000 square feet to tell the story of other Latin American immigrants to the Northwest.
Adjacent to the museum is a large community meeting room that can be rented for lectures, family events, and other gatherings. The space can seat up to 500 people and includes a stage with a theater-size screen and a fully equipped catering kitchen.
Step into the Past
The museum documents the Chicano, or Mexican American, experience in Washington state starting from the 1930s, although its primary focus is on migrant farmworkers and the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s. The exhibits are divided into subject areas that include work, play, community, politics, education, business, family, and migration.
Right inside the front doors are two small shingled cabins for migrant workers, built by the farmers who hired them to pick their crops. Constructed with cedar siding and roof shakes and without indoor plumbing, these 8-foot by 10-foot cabins were found in Sunnyside in Yakima County and purchased by the museum. They were disassembled and placed in storage for seven years until the museum was ready for them. Outfitted with a bed, table and chairs, dishes, clothing and other daily items, the display vividly conveys the simple yet harsh life of migrant workers and their children.
Several farm trucks, tractors, and tools are also on display, along with musical instruments, Mariachi costumes, children's toys, historic photographs, and a small video theater. There are about 3,000 items on display, with a similar number in storage, and the museum is actively seeking additional photos, diaries, household items, tools and clothing to expand the collection.
The museum is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and admission is free. Since its opening in October 2019, about 460 people have visited each month, many of them young people on school trips.
It was the personal history of Rogelio Riojas and his fellow UW students as well as their interest in serving the Northwest's Spanish-speaking community that led to the creation of Sea Mar Community Health Centers and more recently, the Sea Mar Museum. Riojas was born in West Texas, where he attended elementary school along the Rio Grande. His parents were farm workers, and as a boy he would travel with them picking crops, starting in Washington state in March and moving south throughout the summer month to California before returning to Texas. He attended high school in the agricultural town of Othello, Washington.
As a student at the University of Washington in the late 1960s, Riojas was a leader in two activist groups: MEChA (El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan), a student-led social movement on college campuses, and the Seattle Brown Berets, a group of Chicano youth modeled after the Black Panther Party. Riojas helped fundraise for the United Farm Workers, assisted El Centro de la Raza in its 1972 takeover of Beacon Hill Elementary School, and later successfully brought a community health clinic to his hometown of Othello. He earned bachelor's degrees in economics and political science and a master's degree in health administration from the University of Washington.
The Origins of Sea Mar
While studying at UW, Riojas and the other students learned there were no healthcare clinics in the Seattle area that served Latinx patients. These students submitted a proposal for a federal grant to fund a clinic in Seattle focused on the needs of the Spanish-speaking community. A similar proposal came from a group in Marysville. The funding was approved, but the federal grant stipulated that the two organizations team up, which led to the founding of the Sea Mar Community Health Centers.
Sea Mar opened its first health center in a leased clinic in the South Park neighborhood and bought the facility in 1979. As of 2019, the Sea Mar network included more than 90 medical, dental, and behavioral health clinics in 13 counties -- one of the largest community health organizations in the country. Sea Mar also provides affordable-housing options and educational services and outreach. Riojas, its president and CEO, has been with Sea Mar since it was founded in 1978. In 2013 Governor Jay Inslee appointed Riojas to a six-year term on the UW Board of Regents, and he was reappointed for a second six-year term in 2019.
Education and Awareness
In addition to focusing on earlier generations of Mexican American immigrants, the museum also tells the story of their children and grandchildren who went on to get educations, earn professional degrees, assume community and government leadership positions, and start successful businesses.
The impact of the University of Washington on the history of Mexican Americans in the Northwest is prominently represented at the museum through text and photos. In 1968, 10 Mexican American students were enrolled at the UW -- all but one the children of migrant farmers. The university had reached out to these students through affirmative-action recruiters sent in person to small towns in eastern Washington, including Othello, where Riojas was living at the time. Once on campus, the students banded together and became powerful political activists, changing campus culture and calling attention to social-justice causes across the state and region.