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Sawyer, Lynnette Arvelo


Growing up just one block away from New York’s “Museum Mile” and surrounded by cultures from every corner of the world, it’s easy to say that Lynnette Arvelo Sawyer was destined to create her own museum dedicated to the cultures she grew up with. Lynette is a proud Puerto Rican and Afro-Latina from El Barrio of East Harlem in New York; her roots extend from the island of Puerto Rico to the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa.

Lynnette’s mother was born in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico and her father was born in Santurce, Puerto Rico. Both came to the United States in the 1940s; her mother by plane and her father by boat through Ellis Island. Lynnette grew up very close to her parents and in her oral history reflects on the history of her family within the context of the history of Puerto Rico. Her “checkerboard” heritage is a portrait of the racial and cultural diversity that exists within the Latinx community.

Lynnette’s career in education stems from her upbringing surrounded by books and mother’s work as an educator. She embraces her cultural heritage as she discusses the history of Puerto Rico, highlighting pre-Columbian history with the Taíno indians. She takes us down Park Avenue in Manhattan, through the marketa she frequented with family and friends exploring the Puerto Rican and Dominican cultures. She speaks fondly of her travels abroad as a student at the State University of New York in Spain and Puerto Rico, which would later become a part of what she imparted as an educator.

After getting married in 1978, she came to Las Vegas for an “eternal honeymoon” with her husband who was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base. Here, she discovered tumbleweed and lived in St. Louis with her husband and three children, Joseph, Marcello, and Isaac. While working as a bilingual interpreter in the Nevada detention system, she witnessed the growth of the Latinx community of Las Vegas through the late 1970s and 1980s, identifying community members such as Isela Gutierrez with Viva Mexico, a folkloric dance group, and Eddie Escobedo, Sr. with El Tiempo, the first Latinx newspaper in Las Vegas.

Following her mother’s advice, she became a teacher and found her place in the Clark County School District with the help of her fifth-grade teacher and now Director of the Public Education Foundation, Ms. Judi Steele. From administrator in the Clark County School District to stay connected to her children and devoted to building her community. From first-grade teacher to English Language Learner Facilitator, Lynnette describes the different hats she wore during her time with the district with her goal of building a multicultural and holistic education for students.

A true educator in her manner, Lynnette expanded her classroom to include the Las Vegas community through the Hispanic Museum of Nevada - La Casa de la Cultura Latina where she celebrated over twenty-one cultures from Latin America. Taking us to the halls of St. Christopher’s Catholic School in the late 1980s, she builds the story of how the museum was born from a single broken display cabinet that would become the first display she ever made. With the help of locals including Paco Álvarez, Claudia Ferreiro, and Arturo Ochoa her vision expanded from a few cabinets in the Arturo Cambeiro Senior Center to an entire gallery in the Boulevard Mall and a myriad of community events including the Las Vegas Latino Short Film Festival. Her mission was to create a place where families “could learn all of the different aspects of Latino culture and expand their horizons.” For Lynette Sawyer, museums are a place that unite communities across demographics and generations.