You might call Lynnette Sawyer a pioneer. Proud to call herself Nuyorican, she moved to Las Vegas, Nevada in 1978. Sawyer brought along the most precious belongings given to her by her family – a güiro, a piece of mundillo, a cemi, a Fania All-Stars album, and a Puerto Rican flag. Little did she know these few mementos of her heritage, which she held so close to her heart, would lead her to become the founding director of the only cultural museum in Las Vegas.
Culture was always a part of Sawyer’s life. She says she lived through the Black Panther and Chicano movements, and was exposed to the elements of NYC’s El Barrio and Museum Mile growing up.
Sawyer left her historically-artistic haven and comfort zone to follow her military husband to the city of lights and casinos in the desert Southwest. Las Vegas was a city of only 37,000Latinos in 1980.
She vividly remembers when DJ Rae Arroyo played salsa music for the first time on a Vegas radio station around 1993.
“Tears came to my eyes, when I heard ‘Vamanos pal’ Monte’ play. When you hear something like that after so long it’s like, “Am I hearing things?’,” Sawyer reminisces.
Sawyer taught middle school at St. Christopher’s Catholic school for more than 25 years and is now retired. In 1990, she says her life changed for good – all because of a broken glass display case in the school’s hallway.
“I asked the principal if I could fix it and put some things about Hispanic culture there,” says Sawyer. “From there on we kept growing.”
Sawyer and her husband started a family in Las Vegas, and she wanted her sons to be exposed to culture. But since there wasn’t much of a museum scene, she started adding items to the glass cabinet, from pieces she brought from NY, to pictures and posters about Cesar Chavez and Selena. She says others also started to chip in with special objects of their own.
A few years later, Sawyer opened the first Hispanic Museum of Nevada in the lobby of The Nevada Association of Latin Americans.
For the past 20 years, Sawyer says the Hispanic Museum led a nomadic existence, moving to different community centers and lobbies depending on the group’s budget. In November, it moved into its sixth home in the Boulevard Mall, after an anonymous donor agreed to cover the expenses for a year. Those expenses range from $30-50,000. The official grand opening was Jan. 27.
“The reason it was given to us was the person knew the work we have done in the community through the years, and that we would be an asset wherever we went,” says Sawyer. “And now with the focus on tourism from President Obama, there isn’t another cultural museum in Nevada.”
At the Boulevard Mall, the museum is now at a central location. It’s the only cultural institution in a city which only has six other museums. Among them, the Atomic Testing Museum and The Mob Museum, according to the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce.
“We have a whole demographic of people that may or may not go to a museum, and then they walk by and come in,” says Sawyer. “At our grand opening we had artists present their talent, their work was for sale, and we had different countries showcased.”
She says the favorite part of her job, which she calls a “lifelong passion,” is interacting with the many different cultural groups – ranging from Colombian, Cuban, Mexican, and Dominican, and seeing how they light up when they see their traditional dances and art showcased.
“We know that although we are termed Hispanics in the U.S., we have our own differences within our own subculture, but because we are called Hispanics in the Census, we should then unite to become more of a force in our country,” says Sawyer. “We are able to that and we are doing that. I feel that is where the strength is – in unity.”
Originally published in NBCLatino.com.