At the Museum of the City of New York
Reviewed by J.A. Marzán
"The Ponce Tigers"
The brochure for this exhibit is bilingual. The Museum offers a brochure for each of its other several exhibits, but those brochures are not bilingual. Is it that the museum administrators think that Spanish speakers who still cannot read English travel all the way from, say, Brooklyn, only to learn the history of El Barrio? Wouldn't those Latinos also want to learn about Glamour: New York Style, on high fashion dress? Those questions are, of course, facetious. The Museum was obviously deviating from its anglophonic norm to accommodate symbolism important to the exhibit's curator, cited in the English portion of the brochure as Hunter College's Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños (Center for Puerto Rican Studies).
Since 1898, Puerto Rico has preserved Spanish as its official language to resist being culturally wiped out, as Anglos would have wished, in order to effect our "improvement." And linguistic resistance, even if more symbolic and halting than fluent, has served as cultural armor here in New York. But Spanish is also used to toggle island-centrism over collectively humbled mainland heads, and the Centro has always walked a thin line between feeding by the hand of the mainland and loyalty to the island, which is disloyal to the diaspora. So, while the Centro does a good job of archiving and researching todo lo puertorriqueño, from its roots to the present, what it researches and has to say about mainland "Puerto Rican" is usually politically correct dispatches that document social justice and feed pride with little introspection -- in part because the Centro is always in war mode, spinning unity against cultural imperialism, while the diaspora is an X-ray of cultural flaws better left unexamined.
A historic photo exhibit is not the place to delve into every intricacy and nuance, but it is a place to reflect our complexity; and the images of this exhibit do document internecine complications, even as the accompanying texts, brochure, and captions downplay them to make the photos into flickering frames of cultural continuity that everybody can live with. In the process, everybody is allowed to see what they want and, in the brochure, gets to read what they want to hear: for example, the brochure notes that, unlike quickly-assimilating European immigrants, second-generation Puerto Ricans "took a different path...proudly embraced their linguistic heritage." But we are also told that they became "deeply connected to New York City...They were Nuyoricans," and, as well, "celebrated their connections to Africa."
Nuyorican itself is a problem. As the brochure shows, Nuyorican has stuck as generic, but this more catchy and now popular homonym of Newyorican is not exactly a synonym and has understandably confused many unaware of its subtle agenda. The form Nuyorican was popularized by a Lower East Side movement to wrest centrality from the Barrio, historically blanco and mountain-jíbaro, and reflect the coastal roots that discovered those African connections. Nuyorican was proposed as an of color American identity. As the brochure rightly observes, "Nowhere was the New York Puerto Rican identity stronger than in El Barrio" -- and along with it, the mythically all blanco image of Puerto Rican culture -- and Nuyorican countered that cultural power. Arturo Schomberg, Jesús Colón, and Piri Thomas have written on the racial problem. Felipe Luciano's poem on the jíbarito as, defiantly, "my nigger," is about that complexity. All those writers figure in the exhibit, but not in this thematic context.
The curators' decision to invoke the "Nuyorican" idea is therefore ironic because, in this exhibit, El Barrio is not the literal neighborhood, serving instead as a symbol of, as the subtitle tells us, "Puerto Rican New York" -- although we never quite know when the subject is El Barrio and when it is Puerto Rican New York. For example, El Barrio is better known as the neighborhood where poorer islanders settled after World War II, but this exhibit goes back to the turn of the century, when the more skilled pioneros came to the mainland. Not all settled in New York, many moving to bordering states. There is a Jazz Age feel to those photos of steamships that shuttled between the island and New York, bringing a class spread of passengers. One photo shows a passenger list of mainly first class passengers from San Juan, and, judging from the pictures, they would not be the sort who would hang out in El Barrio as we know it today.
Passing into the post-war decades, the transition rightly devotes a few pictures to the importance of airplanes, the Puerto Rican migration being history's first large-scale movement by commercial airlines and the first transoceanic, non-European influx into the U.S. Another transition grouping is devoted to La Marqueta, on Park Avenue, under the suburban line's elevated rails. Its rise and decline as the source of island foods and botanicas, well documented here, reflects the community's evolution (although signs appear that it might have a second life, as boricua social mobility and a new Mexican immigration are changing the face of East Harlem.) This section on La Marqueta, the most subtle, proves to be the most evocative.
These earlier historical pictures carry us through the fifties to arrive at groupings of photos that reflect the more promising post-sixties, ending short of the more sobering and disjointed nineties. One grouping features photos taken by Barrio photographer Hiram S. Maristany -- shots of culturally representative imagery, bodegas, botanicas, street scenes, individual Barrio residents. Another couple of groupings document the post-civil rights movement consciousness, offering pictures of The Young Lords, a radical political party of the late sixties and early seventies (not, strictly speaking, a Barrio organization, although born of its spirit), at political activities or at meetings. The photos capture the times more than the place, a diffusion aggravated by selections of photos of members who, we are told, are not from El Barrio, and in one case of a sympathizer who wasn't Puerto Rican.
The second seventies grouping reflects the parallel cultural militancy, in the Puerto Rican Day Parade and in the creation of the Museo del Barrio and the Taller Boricua. Their island-born founders, photographed here, represent a link between generations, although their cultural vision also raises profound questions when juxtaposed with the pictures of the Young Lords Party, whose original platform called for liberating the island, reclaiming our past, before being shunned by the island to return to contemplate the destiny of being mainland Puerto Ricans. (Out of experience is born the notion of Nuyorican.)
Standing before photos of young artists painting, guided by mentor artists at the Taller Boricua, we have arrived near the exhibit's circular end and are close enough to glimpse the opening pre-war, Jazz Age photos. By this time the exhibit's imagery has made us keenly conscious of demarcated themes, the island culture transplanted and the island culture transformed. But, like the corridor that cuts across the exhibit, a gap separates those two themes in the presentation. A bridge is implied, but we don't actually see it.