Jennifer Zuniga Ad Manager
On Nov. 3, the Organization of Latin American Students (OLAS) organized a trip for its members to New York. Upon arrival, we went straight to a museum called El Museo del Barrio (the neighborhood museum). When I first stepped inside the museum, I couldn’t help but notice that I was surrounded by colors, rhythms, and intense cultural richness. The museum was founded in 1960, by Raphael Montañez Ortiz, an artist and educator. He and a coalition of Puerto Rican parents, educators, artists, and activists, noted that mainstream museums largely ignored Latino artists. The main objective of the museum was to present and preserve the richness of the history of Puerto Ricans and Latin Americans in the United States through the use of art. El Museo has a permanent collection of over 6,500 objects that span more than 800 years of Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino art. The pieces include photography, narration, abstract art, videos, and more.
At the beginning of the museum tour, there were many photographs that resembled neighborhoods in cities such as Los Angeles and New York. There were black and white images that displayed the dark and saddening realism of the neighborhoods. There were also color photographs, that showed that the community still has hope for the future. The artists did this by identifying the subject. Frank Espada, for instance, captured humanizing portraits of urban residents in their surroundings. Hiram Maristany and Winston Vargas captured street life in Latino neighborhoods in New York City. These showed rare glimpses into a busy community life unfolding with urban neglect and community activism. An Oscar Castillo piece captured the efforts of renewal projects amongst the residents to shape their own neighborhoods. Perla de Leon’s photographs were taken in the South Bronx and focused on the physical devastation of the neighborhood and the people who called it home. John Valadez took portraits of stylish young people in East Los Angeles, which contrasted ideas that inner cities are places of crime. Camilo José Vergara and Anthony Hernandez captured the passage of time in neighborhoods transformed by the urban crisis. Ruben Ochoa and Manuel Acevedo’s work, the barren “concrete” landscapes, showcased the public space that shaped the lives of urban dwellers.
The museum also offers narrative pieces and abstract art. The narrative that was showcased was a poem named “Born Anew Each A.M.” by Piri Thomas. This poem uses allusions and extended metaphors to describe the contrast between hope and despair in poor, urban neighborhoods. El Museo’s Modern and Contemporary Collection includes pieces that rely on associations with language. They were created by artists trained in the global artistic languages that emerged in urban industrial centers in the Caribbean, Mexico, and South America in the late 1950s. They include geometric and perceptual explorations of color and shape, process-oriented works, and expressionistic modes of abstract language that allow for intensely personal and psychological responses. Examples include a clock whose side is cracked, a flower plant that is being “watered” by a man, a broken piano that is being fixed by a man, a chair with a small person who painted most of the leg of the chair, and my ultimate favorite piece: a small human model who started to paint and the more you look to your right, the paint is spread to create a bigger image.
Additionally, they had a screening room where you can sit on bean bags to watch a video. The video stated “protect your health!” and showed a bear drinking several sips out of a bottle. After this, a statement was made about social problems within early pregnancy by showing a mother holding a baby and another girl holding a baby in her arms. Thirdly, they displayed an accident in a rural area by showing a cow on the floor. This hybridized style exemplifies global postmodern trends, such as Puerto Rican artists that choose to work in New York. This incorporation of everyday objects and printed matter led to a collage of styles, serving to reference prior cultural production. This was gently humorous and showed the critical challenges of stereotypes and cultural assumptions.
To sum up everything, I recommend going to the museum if you are ever around the area. By going to El Museo, I was able to see a huge collection of art that spanned over a variety of mediums. This allowed me to view Latin American, Caribbean, and Latino art in a completely new light. This also made me realize that everyone interprets art differently. Through this trip, I saw the richness of history recorded by different types of art forms and it took me less than two hours to see all the pieces. I left the museum wanting to see more, but also feeling the hopefulness that most Puerto Ricans and Latin Americans that live in New York and Los Angeles have and currently are feeling. I too, long for neighborhoods to improve and for change to be made.