Museums by The Marginalized for the Marginalized

From the Muses to the Aristocrats

The memory of humankind can be found in museums. Humanity has a long history of preserving artifacts. Ancient Greeks filled temples dedicated to the muses with scholarship and sculpture. The ancient Greeks coined the term “mouseion” when they first built a temple to the goddesses who kept watch over the arts and sciences known as muses[1]. This tradition would be followed by conquering kings who exhibited spoils of war [2]. Later we had cabinets of curiosity that would become rooms filled with artistic treasures that were the domains of the wealthy elite, open only to the collector and the occasional visitor [3]. The Enlightenment, which concurrently fostered empirical thinking and imperialism, gave rise to the first museums in Europe. Museums in the United States were founded by wealthy patrons who emulated European models and collecting habits.[4]

From the Bottom Up

Five months before the Metropolitan Museum opened its exhibition, Harlem on my Mind, in January of 1969, Thomas P. F. Hoving, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art New York City, noted:

“To me Harlem on My Mind is a discussion. It is a confrontation. It is education. It is a dialogue. And today we better have these things. Today there is a growing gap between people, and particularly between black people and white people. And this despite the efforts to do otherwise. There is little communication. Harlem on My Mind will change that.” [5]

There was no meaningful dialogue. Instead, Harlem residents were excluded from the planning process and artwork by Harlem artist was curiously excluded. The museum instead decided to use oversized photomurals to display images of African American people. The exhibition set off protests that fostered activism from the African American art community that looked to address the patently patronizing discrimination.

Two years before Harlem on my Mind opened, in a stark contrast to The Met, The Smithsonian founded the Anacostia Community Museum in 1967 which focused on local African American history and culture unique to the Anacostia neighborhood. The Smithsonian Institution was founded in 1846 and is the largest museum complex and research center in the world[6]. The Anacostia Community Museum is one of the 19 museums, in addition to a zoological park, nine research centers, and 20 libraries that encompass the Smithsonian. The Anacostia Community Museum is the only Smithsonian museum that has a very local focus. The founding director of the Anacostia Community Museum, John Kinard, was a local minister, civil rights educator, and community activist whose engagement shaped the trajectory of the Museum [7]. The community’s values were embedded in the core ideals of the Anacostia Community Museum. With a focus on local African American experiences and community issues, the Museum evolved its exhibition programs to reflect broad national themes in African American culture in the 1980s. The Anacostia Community Museum is the only Smithsonian museum that has a very local focus. It was the first federally funded community museum in the United States but is under the umbrella of the Smithsonian Institution. The late 1960’s and early 1970’s would see a change stemming from the activism of the day and give rise to museums for the people by people.

The same year the Harlem on My Mind exhibition opened, two museums took root that stemmed from this era of vibrant activism. El Museo del Barrio was founded in Spanish Harlem and was first located in a public school storage room. It focused on the Puerto Rican art from the diaspora that settled in the neighborhood (“El Barrio” is Spanish for the neighborhood). One of the first shows, “The Art of Needlework” was dedicated to the crocheting techniques of Puerto Rican women[8]. Meanwhile, downtown, The Leslie-Lohman Museum, the only art museum in the world to exhibit artwork that conveys the LGBTQ experience, started to take root when Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman, who had been collecting art for several years, mounted their first exhibit of gay art in their SoHo loft on Prince Street in New York City [9].

El Museo del Barrio’s founder, Raphael Montañez Ortiz, was part of a coalition of artists pursuing representation in New York museums. Unlike most museums in New York City at the time, El Museo was founded without assistance from wealthy patrons. It filed as nonprofit organization in 1971 [10]. Similarly, after that first loft show in 1969, Leslie and Lohman opened a commercial art gallery devoted to gay art, but it closed in the early 1980s with the arrival of the AIDS epidemic [11]. The pair then rescued the work of artists dying from AIDS from their families who wanted to destroy it. In 1987, the Leslie and Lohman applied for nonprofit status to establish a foundation to preserve their collection of gay artworks and continue exhibitions. The IRS actually objected to the word “gay” in the foundation’s title and hindered the nonprofit application until 1990 [12].

El Museo moved to its current location in 1977, on the ground floor of the city-owned Heckscher Building, on 5th Avenue and East 104th Street. Meanwhile, the Leslie-Lohman Gay Art Foundation’s first location was in a basement at 127B Prince Street in New York City. In 2006, the Foundation moved into a ground floor gallery at 26 Wooster Street in SoHo. In New York City, two museums took root around the same time that were truly by the people for the people: El Museo del Barrio and The Leslie-Lohman Museum. But are they still for the people? Have they stayed true to their original mission?

The Mirror Manifesto

The annual Museum Mile Festival, which went virtual in 2020, offers free admission to a 30-block stretch of Fifth Avenue for the following institutions: The Africa Center, El Museo del Barrio, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, the Jewish Museum, Neue Galerie and the Museum of the City of New York. In addition to all the art inside, there are outdoor festivities including live music. In August 2019, The New Yorker wrote an article titled “The Battle Over the Soul of El Museo del Barrio [13]” noting that during the annual Museum Mile festival (of which El Museo was one of the founding members) a group of protesters distributed flyers that read “El Museo Fue del Barrio” (The Museum was from the neighborhood). The protesters read from a printed statement, called the Mirror Manifesto [14], that accused El Museo of abandoning its core values as a museum for the community of East Harlem. The Mirror Manifesto notes:

“It requires us to first contend with “El Barrio’s” identity. While Puerto Ricans were instrumental in the foundation of the museum, it is not strictly a Puerto Rican museum. It is a museo “del Barrio.” Further, demographic changes in East Harlem and the overall growth of the Latinx diaspora in the last 50 years render the nationalist led push to make El Barrio mean “Puerto Rican” null. If El Museo is to be resuscitated, we must lay these claims to rest and set about addressing who we mean when we say El Barrio.

If El Barrio means neighborhood, or enclave, and we are defining the institution as encompassing a diasporic latinidad, then what we are contending with is what is now being called “Latinx.”

This is distinct from Latin America and should not be confused. For too long, this ambiguity has rendered Latinx artists invisible. Latinx artists continue to be marginalized, underrepresented, and erased. El Museo has shamelessly latched on to this ambiguity and forfeited its original mission. It has done very little as an institution to foster and cultivate Latinx Art.

The museum has failed to launch a studio residency program, it has failed to create an environment where intellectual work for us, by us, can be incubated. It has failed to cultivate diverse board members that represent the Latinx community. It has failed to expand board members beyond funding/development needs, or made sure to its boards’ institutional actions, partnerships, and programs correspond with its mission.

Given the continued failure of El Museo del Barrio to fully embrace its responsibility to the many diasporas that make up the Latinx communities in NYC and across North America, generations of Latinx artists pouring out of BFA, MFA, & PhD programs have come to see the El Museo as irrelevant.

Recent calls to steer the institution back towards its intended mission therefore have remained unanswered. In order to reinvigorate working and emerging Latinx artists to invest their energy in an institution that has gone out of its way to communicate that it cares nothing for their cultural production, the institution must take radical steps to more clearly define what it is. EL MUSEO DEL BARRIO MUST BE EL MUSEO DE LOS BARRIOS. It must fulfill its original mission or relinquish control to the community of Latinx scholars and artists to steer it back on course. It must DECOLONIZE.

Latinx artists, cultural workers, scholars and concerned residents reject the elitism, white washing, LGTBQIA exclusion and anti-blackness perpetrated in the museum against its own museum goers and community of artists.”

How did El Museo get here?

During its first two decades in existence, El Museo’s mission was clearly defined as an institution that researched and displayed the cultural heritage of the Puerto Rican diaspora that lived in Spanish Harlem. By the late 1980s, Spanish Harlem was longer a Puerto Rican enclave; immigrants from Mexico, Central America, and the Dominican Republic had moved into the neighborhood. El Museo, with some struggle, reflected this [15]. However, in 2002, El Museo appointed its first non Latinx director, Julián Zugazagoitia, a Mexican who was previously at the Guggenheim. That same year, an exhibit devoted to Mexico’s most famous artists, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera was mounted [16]. For many in El Barrio, elite Latin-American art was overshadowing the El Museo’s grassroots mission. These concerns were fully realized this year when The New York Times reported that El Museo announced that its annual gala would honor Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, a wealthy German art collector known for her connections to the European far-right and Steve Bannon who once complained that Pope Francis is too liberal. After considerable backlash, she was uninvited [17]. Two weeks after that faux pas, El Museo was inundated with complaints over a planned exhibit devoted to Chilean filmmaker and artist, Alejandro Jodorowsky. In the early 1970s, Jodorowsky said that a rape scene he performed for one of his films was real and not staged (something he later recanted). The exhibit was cancelled[18].

Why hasn’t the Leslie-Lohman Museum encountered similar issues? Both institutions started with the same idea: a museum by the people for people (OR for the marginalized by the marginalized). While both institutions engage the public in comparable ways, the Leslie-Lohman Museum still has not experienced the full growing pains: El Museo was granted nonprofit status nearly twenty years before Leslie-Lohman and it was only in 2011 that the State Board of Regents finally granted a Certificate of Museum Status[19]. However, the Leslie-Lohman museum does publish a quarterly journal, The Archive, while El Museo does not. El Museo’s early research should have been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Perhaps the one significant thing that distinguishes El Museo from Leslie-Lohman has to do with its very specific geographical connection. The Mexican, Central American, and Dominican immigrants who moved into the neighborhood thirty years ago, as well as most of the Puerto Ricans, are now being forced out via gentrification[20]. The New Yorker article noted that the board includes only one member who lives in the neighborhood. The article also noted that El Museo’s founder, Raphael Montañez Ortiz, now resides in Highland Park, New Jersey. Interestingly, the Brooklyn Museum has recently explored the impacts of gentrification[21]. In November of 2016, anti-gentrification artists and activists protested the Brooklyn Museum when it hosted the 6th Annual Brooklyn Real Estate Summit, which was incongruent with the overwhelming gentrification hitting the communities the museum claims to serve. In April of 2018, an open letter[22] called for the Brooklyn Museum to use the public anger surrounding a curatorial hiring decision (Kristen Windmuller-Luna, a White woman, as an African art consulting curator) as an opportunity to address deeply rooted injustices pertaining to the museum that included the colonial history of the museum’s non-western holdings, the lack of diversity among its curatorial staff and executive leadership, the fact that the museum’s buildings sit on stolen land, and the museum’s role as an agent of gentrification in Brooklyn, a long-standing grievance of community groups.

We are thus calling for the Brooklyn Museum to participate in the creation of a Decolonization Commission of the kind that has recently been demanded of institutions — like the city’s own American Museum of Natural History — that are being publicly asked to account for their own role in the histories of colonialism and white supremacy. This would send a strong message to the people of Brooklyn, and to other art institutions around the country, about the museum’s will to redress ongoing legacies of oppression, especially when it comes to the status of African art and culture. It could be a first step in rebuilding trust with the communities to whom the museum should be accountable.

This decolonization process would have a time-frame, starting with the acknowledgment that the buildings sit on stolen indigenous land, that they contain thousands of objects expropriated from people of color around the world, and that the institution is governed by a group of majority-white members of the 1% actively involved in the dynamics of racialized dispossession and displacement in Brooklyn. Further steps would entail decisions about the framing of the display of its collection; who is appointed to make these decisions, and in consultation with which communities of conscience in the borough and beyond. Decolonization is never a finished process, but, once undertaken, its logic can and should unfold in ways that are transparent and just.”

El Museo needs to do the same starting inside its own doors. Interestingly, in response to the letter, Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, said that the museum “unequivocally” stood by its selection of Kristen Windmuller-Luna for the position.

Regardless of who lives in the neighborhood, El Museo’s leadership should not lose site of the museum’s mission. I would be the first to object if the Leslie-Lohman Museum decided to one day display the work of LGBTQ allies—regardless of their good intentions, they will never understand and properly convey the experience of being LGBTQ, the museum’s mission. The Mirror Manifesto protestors are right, the museum leadership has been gentrified and operating under a disguised blanketed term, “Latin American,” that solely considers the virtue of surname without considering the Latinx communities, and their art, fostered by diaspora (regardless of whether it is from Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Dominican Republic or Central America). And while I certainly think that everyone should experience the work of artists like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, their work comes from a different PLACE (and time) that has little to do with Spanish Harlem, or the Latinx communities now living and creating in New York City and the United States.

The COVID Denouement

Like every other New York City Museum, El Museo shut down in mid-March of 2020. The annual gala, which normally brings in about $1 million dollars, was canceled, event rentals for the newly restored theater space were also cancelled and its store and cafe were closed. A Paycheck Protection Program loan of about $500,000 helped, as well as a $600,000 grant from the Mellon Foundation but they were still losing money. In September, El Museo’s Executive Director was approached by a representative from the Ford Foundation, which had just announced a $156 million initiative called America’s Cultural Treasures, whose contributors include 16 foundations and private donors. El Museo received 68% of its annual budget in one swoop from the Ford Foundation[23].

Meanwhile, at the Leslie-Lohman Museum, the director, Gonzalo Casals, announced, just before the lockdown in March of 2020, that he was leaving to become the Cultural Affairs Commissioner of New York City[24]. A new director, Alyssa Nitchun, was hired in December of 2020. Nitchun is the first queer woman to lead the museum. The New York Times reported that her first mission will be to expand the institution’s reputation abroad and help secure its financial future: “My dream is that we can scale up, welcoming a whole new group of artists and audiences.” [25]

Interestingly, the Leslie-Lohman Museum held an exhibition that would have been perfect for El Museo: “Laura Aguilar: Show and Tell,” is a retrospective that was part of “Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA,” a Getty Foundation-sponsored 2017 exhibition of more than 70 concurrent exhibitions in and around Los Angeles that together demonstrated the influence of Latin America and Latino art on the city [26]. In the 1980s, Aguilar came out as gay and in 1986, she began a portrait series titled, “Latina Lesbians.” Meanwhile, at El Museo, it looks like the words and actions of the Mirror Manifesto did not fall on deaf ears.

“Estamos Bien” is El Museo’s first national survey of what it calls Latinx art, using the oft-debated gender-neutral alternative to Latino or Latina, to describe artists of Latin American descents working primarily in the United States. The museum’s original plan was to have the show coincide with, and reflect, two defining 2020 political events: the United States census and the presidential election. The pandemic derailed that. The title, “Estamos Bien” (“We’re fine”) was inspired by a work in the exhibition, a 2017 painting by the Chicago-based artist Cándida Álvarez, completed in the wake of the devastation by Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico.

The title, “Estamos Bien”, truly embodies El Museo’s history: equal parts of acrimony and hope. However, it is a step in the right direction that promises more and better representation. 

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Todo Sobre El Museo | Accompanying Video for this Blog Entry That Focuses on El Museo Del Barrio

[1] Muses. (n.d.). Retrieved February 6, 2021, from https://public.wsu.edu/~delahoyd/mythology/muses.html

[2] Margaret M. Miles, War and Passion: Who Keeps the Art?, 49Case W. Res. J. Int’l L.5 (2017) Available at: https://scholarlycommons.law.case.edu/jil/vol49/iss1/4

[3] Starn, Randolph. “A Historian’s Brief Guide to New Museum Studies.” The American Historical Review, vol. 110, no. 1, 2005, pp. 68–98. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/531122. Accessed 1 May 2021.

[4] Alexander, Edward P. Museums in Motion. Chapter 1, “What is a Museum?”

[5] “Black Artists and Activism: Harlem on My Mind (1969)” Author(s): Bridget R. Cooks American Studies, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Spring 2007), pp. 5-39

[6] About the Smithsonian. (n.d.). Retrieved March 01, 2021, from https://www.si.edu/about

[7] History. (n.d.). Retrieved March 01, 2021, from https://anacostia.si.edu/About/History

[8] El Museo Timeline, scanned published by El Museo del Barrio in 2004. https://www.dropbox.com/s/itcd0gwvbvt2mg2/el%20museo%20Timeline.pdf?dl=0

[9] https://www.leslielohman.org/about-us

[10] El Museo Timeline, scanned published by El Museo del Barrio in 2004.  https://www.dropbox.com/s/itcd0gwvbvt2mg2/el%20museo%20Timeline.pdf?dl=0

[11] https://rainbowsudan.wordpress.com/tag/leslie-lohman-gallery-the-ultimate-gay-portfolio/

[12] https://rainbowsudan.wordpress.com/tag/artistic-outlaws-leslie-and-lohman-have-fought-to-preserve-gay-art-for-three-decades/

[13] Osorio, Camila “The Battle Over the Soul of El Museo del Barrio” The New Yorker August 13, 2019

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-battle-over-the-soul-of-el-museo-del-barrio

[14] https://elmuseodelosbarrios.home.blog/mirror-manifesto/

[15] Palacios, Nicholle Lamartina “Latino Art in NYC: A Short History of El Museo del Barrio” Huffington Post https://www.huffpost.com/entry/latino-art-in-nyc-a-histo_b_6305488

[16] El Museo Timeline, scanned published by El Museo del Barrio in 2004. https://www.dropbox.com/s/itcd0gwvbvt2mg2/el%20museo%20Timeline.pdf?dl=0

[17] Moynihan, Colin “El Museo del Barrio Drops Plan to Honor German Socialite” The New York Times January 10, 2019.

[18] Moynihan, Colin “El Museo del Barrio Cancels Jodorowsky Show” The New York Times January 28, 2019.

[18] http://columbiajournal.org/get-real-the-leslie-lohman-museum-protects-an-artistic-legacy/

[19] http://columbiajournal.org/get-real-the-leslie-lohman-museum-protects-an-artistic-legacy/

[20] Chiusano, Mark “Is rezoning in East Harlem a Trojan horse for gentrification?” AM New York August 28, 2017

[21] Davis, Ben “Activism Pays Off, as Brooklyn Museum Embraces Anti-Gentrification Forum”

[22] Decolonizemuseums, ~. (2018, May 08). Decolonize Brooklyn Museum. Retrieved March 03, 2021, from https://decolonizebrooklynmuseum.wordpress.com/

[23] https://www.elmuseo.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/EMDB-FORD-ANNT-FIN.pdf

[24] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/11/arts/design/nyc-cultural-affairs-commissioner-gonzalo-casals.html

[25] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/14/arts/design/alyssa-nitchun-leslie-lohman-museum-director.html

[26] https://www.leslielohman.org/exhibitions/laura-aguilar-show-and-tell

Suicide Squad: Get Joker / Comic Book Review

DC Black Label is an imprint of DC Comics comprised of miniseries that take place outside of the regular continuity. The books are printed in Prestige Format (a term coined by DC Comics that later came into wider use), which is a square bound comic book with higher quality paper and printing that uses card stock covers. I find that they are beautifully produced.

The first series produced under DC Black Label was Batman: Damned, which was written by Brian Azzarello and illustrated by the legendary Lee Bermejo, and was nothing short of excellent. Some of the subsequent books published by Black Label have been, for me, varied in their success (Superman: Year One and Wonder Woman: Death Earth were only okay, while Batman: Last Knight on Earth was quite good, though oddly not printed in the Prestige Format). However, I am looking forward to Wonder Woman Historia: The Amazons—it looks beautiful!

The latest publication from Black Label is Suicide Squad: Get Joker. In this iteration of the DC Universe, the antihero, Red Hood, is arrested and is serving time for his crimes. Amanda Waller recruits him to be part of the Task Force X, also known as the Suicide Squad, to track down the Joker and assassinate him. Joker has (finally) been branded as a domestic terrorist. Interestingly, the book mentions the January 6th insurrection. Wild Dog, who is part of this iteration of the Suicide Squad, notes that he is serving time for defecating “on the Speaker of The House’s desk.”

The first issue, written by Brian Azzarello, was an excellent set up for a story that will eventually pit Red Hood against the Joker, who once killed him when he was Robin (watch the below video from Variant Comics for an excellent explanation of this). I loved the artwork by Alex Maleev, who has worked on several Batman titles; his artwork has a classic execution with a modern sensibility (it looks good on paper, which is how I read it, as well as electronically).

I am looking forward to reading the rest of the series. I absolutely recommend this title.

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Recommended viewing:

Looking Up In Black and White

Yesterday, on July 30, 2021, I visited The Met. I primarily went to see the Alice Neel: People Come First exhibition (another blog entry to follow). Of course, I brought my camera. From the moment I got off the train at Penn Station, I found myself pointing my camera upward. After the museum, I wandered around Central Park and Manhattan. It was the first time I had wandered around Manhattan since the summer of 2019. While I was cognizant of the gentrifying construction horrors on what is now being called “billionaire’s row”, it was still a shock to see how much of the skyline had changed—and not for the better.  I prefer the skyline when Essex House was what dominated the southwestern side of Central Park.

I hope you enjoy this photo essay. Let me know in the comments below what you think.

1:17. The clock in the new Moynihan Hall at Penn Station is nothing short of wonderful. It is already iconic.
Viewing Bove. The current facade commission outside of The Met by Carol Bove.
Detalles Clásicos. Even the architectural details of The Met are interesting.
The Sky Above 82nd and Fifth.
A Cloud Over The Great Lawn.
Essex House Still Dominates.
Wayback. As seen along the Central Park Lake.
Dakota Details. I am endless fascinated by this beautiful building.

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In Defense of In The Heights

A skit in the second episode of the brilliant second season of A Black Lady Sketch Show depicts a market research focus group with Black women for a fictious real housewives type series called Black Women Doing Stuff that hilariously doesn’t go very well. Even before the market researcher starts playing the pilot episode, one of the participants invokes Twitter and notes that she would have, “sent my 67 Tweet thread.” The market researcher starts to play Black Women Doing Stuff and the first thing we see is a leg getting out of car wearing a red high heel. Within two to three seconds, the video is paused on the leg: “I have notes!” And WOW, do they have notes:

“A show about Black women and the first thing you show us is a disembodied leg?”  

“Why not have her drive a black Jaguar?”

“Don’t link Black women with cats! We are not catty!”

“And where is Miss Leg even from? Are classy people from the diaspora excluded from this experience?”

“If she is not a descendent of enslaved people, I don’t why I am here.”

“A little light to be dark skin and a little dark to be light skin.”

You get the picture. The researcher never gets beyond the leg getting out of the car. I could not help but remember this skit when I saw some of the unreasonable backlash to In The Heights.

Perhaps the most preposterous assertion came from The Washington Post which declared in a headline that “‘In the Heights’ is just more of the same whitewashed Hollywood.” The article asserts, “With its White and light-skinned leading roles, the film became part of a long tradition in the Americas of Black erasure.” Really? We must not have seen the same film. I did not see one white actor playing the part of a Latino/a/x individual. Corey Hawkins certainly isn’t light skinned and no one in the United States would ever confuse Jimmy Smits, Gregory Diaz, Anthony Ramos, or Daphne Rubin-Vega for white. Most Latino/a/x people are of mixed races. My own DNA shows that I come from people who were Portuguese, Spaniard, Native American, African and several other peoples. In my own extended Puerto Rican family, there is a range of skin tones and hair colors and textures. Better examples of whitewashing would be Natalie Wood playing Maria in West Side Story; Marisa Tomei playing Dorita Evita Pérez in The Perez Family; Kyra Sedgwick playing Suzie Morales in Man on a Ledge. Whitewashing is a film like Birth of the Dragon, which was supposed to be about Bruce Lee but is largely told from the point of view a fictitious white character. Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, noted, “The only way to get audiences to understand the depth and uniqueness of my father is to generate our own material.”

Proper representation is best achieved when the people being portrayed have a voice. Isn’t that exactly what In The Heights is doing? Lin-Manuel Miranda is a Nuyorican (New Yorker + Puerto Rican) from the neighborhood (I grew up a few blocks away from him) who, through this musical, is exploring issues that affect all Latino/a/x Americans, of all colors, in various ways including gentrification, immigration, identity, discrimination, and profiling. The character of Nina, for example, was accused of stealing pearls from her dorm mate at Stanford and her belongings searched: the way the story is told leads one to realize this may not have happened if she looked more like Cameron Diaz. The film even features a brief, but effective, exploration of Latina/x women’s history. Miranda and Chu also manage to prominently highlight authentic Latino/a/x cuisine without one Goya product in sight! Including Goya would have been whitewashing.

During the 2019 Museum Mile Festival, a group of protesters distributed flyers at El Museo Del Barrio called the Mirror Manifesto that accused El Museo of abandoning its core values as a museum for the community of East Harlem. The Mirror Manifesto explored the meaning of Latinx:

If El Barrio means neighborhood, or enclave, and we are defining the institution as encompassing a diasporic latinidad, then what we are contending with is what is now being called “Latinx.” Loosely defined, this is the Nuyorican, the Dominiyorker, the first, second, and third generations of Mexicans, Colombians, Ecuadorians, and Hondurans that make up a barrio in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and New Jersey. It is the El Salvadorian and Guatemalteco kids in Silver Springs, Maryland, the Cubans in New Jersey, the Tejanos, the Chicanos. It is the dreamers and the migrants who identify with a U.S. lived experience. It is the children of immigrants at the border and the children of recently arrived Puerto Ricans in Orlando and Pennsylvania Post- Maria, that have and will grow up here.

In The Heights is not exclusively an exploration of Washington Heights; it is a partial representation of the diasporic Latinidad in the 21st century described above. Miranda and Chu did an exceptional job representing the colors of the Latino/a/x rainbow. Often many of those colors are not represented, except as criminals and maids. You know where the representation is really lacking? American Spanish language television.

James Baldwin, in The Fire Next Time, wrote, “It is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves and what they identify with themselves that they are guarding and keeping, whereas what they are actually guarding and keeping is their system of reality and what they assume themselves to be.” Miranda gave us a story of a hopeful and positive diasporic Latinidad that deftly responded to the bigoted Trump era still lingering. It’s not Scarface or Carlito’s Way. Artists with Miranda and Chu’s scope and vision should be revered, not reviled—they are the ones carving paths. Anyone saying otherwise is just a limited focus group participant.

edwinroman.com

Book Review: The Joker War Saga

The wisdom on social media lately is that Batman is on the brink of overexposure and that Joker is the most overused villain. I can see the validity in that point of view: consider how many actors have played these characters on film and DC comics has published quite an assortment of Batman stories in recent years (Batman Damned, Batman: Last Knight on Earth, Dark Nights: Metal). The fact is that Batman is an endlessly interesting character: I have read all of these stories and they are all superb, The Joker War Saga included.

The Joker War Saga sees the Joker seize control of Bruce Wayne’s vast fortune to launch a brutal attack against Batman, his crime fighting colleagues (Nightwing, Signal, Robin, Batwoman, etc.), and Gotham City. The Joker War Saga collects the full story from Batman #95-100, plus tie-in stories from Batgirl, Red Hood and the Outlaws, Catwoman, Harley Quinn, Nightwing, Detective Comics, and exclusive to this collection, the Batman: The Joker War Zone special.

Let’s start with the good.

The artwork: stirring, sublime, and superb. I have been a fan of Jorge Jimenez’s work since I was introduced to him when he worked on Earth 2: Society. His work is always wonderful, but since coming on to Batman, he has really created something truly special. Kudos also to the artwork of Kenneth Rocafort: for years I thought the only artist that could do Batwoman was justice was J.H. Williams III until I saw his work.

The new characters. I am eager to see more of Clownhunter. I would love to see him go on all out war against Joker. Punchline is also interesting, and I would love to see her mix it up with other members of the Batman family.

The story by James Tynion IV, is quite intense and engaging. Notably, the conclusion shows that if Batman is forced to choose between saving Joker and another individual, he will let Joker die showing that Batman is more important to Joker than Joker is to Batman. The story, of course, leaves the plot open for a return by the Joker.

Now, let’s get to the bad.

The worst thing about this book was the binding. There’s gutter loss on quite a few pages is so bad that it cuts out several words and key art, making it a very frustrating to read at times. Because of the artwork, I would normally recommend buying this in print, but because of the SLOPPY binding, I recommend you purchase this electronically. In spite of the binding, it is still a worthwhile read.

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On Masks

Physicians in 17th-century Europe who cared for plague victims wore a mask with a long, bird-like beak that now has a menacing implication. The reason behind the beaked plague mask was to protect the doctor from miasma: before knowledge of germs, physicians believed that the plague spread through poisoned air. Sweet and pungent perfumes were thought to fumigate plague-stricken areas. Plague doctors filled masks with theriac, a compound of 55 plus herbs and other components like myrrh and honey. The beak shape of the mask would give the air sufficient time to be immersed by the protective herbs before it hit the doctor’s nostrils and lungs.[1]

“Wear a mask.” In 2020, this was a really loaded declaration (and will likely continue to be in 2021 and beyond). As The Washington Post reported in July of that year[2], “at the heart of the dismal U.S. coronavirus response” is a “fraught relationship with masks” as well as “faulty guidance from health authorities, a cultural aversion to masks and a deeply polarized politics have all contributed.” National Geographic noted that humans are experts at interpreting faces and generally use the whole face to interpret emotion which is why wearing masks for health and safety can present some social and cultural obstacles.

Widespread use of masks is critical not just for health reasons but also for social ones. According to researcher Mitsutoshi Horii, when only sick or vulnerable people wear masks, it singles them out, making them targets for fear and stigma. By fostering a culture of mask-wearing, people are showing solidarity with each other and cooperating to ease the strain on their fellow humans. [3]

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[1] Blakemore, Erin. “Why Plague Doctors Wore Those Strange Beaked Masks.” National Geographic, 31 Mar. 2020, http://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/reference/european-history/plague-doctors-beaked-masks-coronavirus/.

[2] Witte, Griff Witte, et al. “At the Heart of Dismal U.S. Coronavirus Response, a Fraught Relationship with Masks.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 29 July 2020, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/at-the-heart-of-dismal-us-coronavirus-response-a-fraught-relationship-with-masks/2020/07/28/f47eccd0-cde4-11ea-bc6a-6841b28d9093_story.html.

[3] Witte, Griff Witte, et al. “At the Heart of Dismal U.S. Coronavirus Response, a Fraught Relationship with Masks.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 29 July 2020, http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/at-the-heart-of-dismal-us-coronavirus-response-a-fraught-relationship-with-masks/2020/07/28/f47eccd0-cde4-11ea-bc6a-6841b28d9093_story.html.

The Perfect Playlist: Goodbye 1990

The modern playlist is the descendant of the mix tape. And like my mix tapes, I make a significant effort to make sure they are right—and by right, I mean that there is a certain cohesion and shared texture that inspires me. What I love about digital versus tape is the great flexibility for experimentation (though, sometimes I do miss walking around Manhattan with my old yellow cassette Sports Walkman).

Thirty years ago, tonight, the world bid farewell to 1990. It was quite the year for me.

I will never forget how 1990 started: I was working for The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation Parks Enforcement Patrol (PEP) and was stationed alone in Tompkins Square Park at the stroke of midnight. PEP was part of the disgusting war, fostered by gentrification (i.e., the wealthy), on homeless people. PEP’s presence in Tompkins Square Park was part of the aftermath of the 1988 riots. I am deeply ashamed of essentially working against the homeless and working indirectly for the gentrifiers, but I will save that for another blog entry.

My life changed a lot in 1990, notably marked by a devastating heartbreak. Thirty years later, I reflect on this key year in my life with the music that defined the time as I am once again facing devastating heartbreak. Not all of the songs on this playlist are from 1990; some are from 1989 and 1991, but they embody what I was going through, the heartache with moments of exuberance.

On December 31, 1990, I was thankfully off from my job with PEP and was able to spend time with my friends. Earlier that week, I had visited Tower Records and picked up the album, Red Hot + Blue, a compilation album from the Red Hot Organization dedicated to fighting AIDS through pop culture. I first listened to the album while getting ready to go out for the coming New Year. The last song, “Do I Love You?” by Aztec Camera was perhaps the best way to conclude that year as well as 2020.

I am proud that I was able to put this playlist together. Just a few years ago, I could not listen to some of these songs because of the memories they stirred. Today I embrace them as  a comprehensive part of the soundtrack of my life.

Let The Beat Hit ‘Em” by Lisa Lisa and Cult Jam from Clivillés and Cole Greatest Hits

Bad Beats Suite” by Sybil from Walk on By

I Wanna Be Where You Are” by Sybil from Walk on By

Power of Love” by Deee-Lite from World Clique

Strike it Up” by Black Box from Dreamland

That’s The Way of the World” by D Mob from That’s The Way of the World

Dancing On The Fire” by India from Breaking Night

The Breeze” by Two Without Hats from Two Without Hats

Together Forever” by Lisette Melendez from Pure 80’s Dance

Come Into My House” by Queen Latifah from All Hail The Queen

Good Life” by Inner City from Good Life

Vogue” by Madonna from I’m Breathless: Music from and Inspired by the Film Dick Tracy

A Dream’s a Dream” by Soul II Soul from Vol. 2, A New Decade

Body To Body” by 2 In a Room from Wiggle It

Tell Me Why (Remix)” by Expose from Arista Heritage Series: Expose

Love Will Never Do (Without You)” by Janet Jackson from Rhythm Nation

Someone In The Dark” by TKA from Scars of Love

Promise Me” by The Cover Girls from Show Me

To Be With You” by Noel from Noel

Here We Are” by Gloria Estefan from Cuts Both Ways

Love Will Lead You Back” by Taylor Dayne from Can’t Fight Fate

I Don’t Have the Heart” by James Ingram from It’s Real

Till the End of Time” by Mariah Carey from Emotions

The Wind” by Mariah Carey from Emotions

Do I Love You?” by Aztec Camera from Red Hot + Blue

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The Perfect Playlist: The Best of Amy Winehouse

The modern playlist is the descendant of the mix tape. And like my mix tapes, I make a significant effort to make sure they are right—and by right, I mean that there is a certain cohesion and shared texture that inspires me. What I love about digital versus tape is the great flexibility for experimentation (though, sometimes I do miss walking around Manhattan with my old yellow cassette Sports Walkman). The playlist featured in this blog entry was easier to compile because it features one artist.

Amy Winehouse. I still miss her.

It has been nine years since she passed away and I often contemplate her missed potential. She was concurrently gruff and tender, but soulful and true. If you think about the state of the pop scene when she rose to prominence, she was a truly authentic voice, not a manufactured cookie cutter. She was the real deal.

She only gave us two albums (Frank and Back to Black), but they were nothing short of extraordinary. A posthumous compilation album (Lioness: Hidden Treasures) was released that contained unreleased songs and a new one that was completed by Nas.

I put this playlist together in January of 2012 and have not changed it once. It is one of the few playlists I have ever gotten right on the first try. The first time I listened to it was on the express bus home and I arrived at my stop just as the last song was playing. I remember I got off the bus and stood there until the song finished. And even after it was over, I stood there for another minute in silence.

The last song on this playlist is “Love is a Losing Game.” I consider this to be her masterpiece. And while this song is indeed an achievement in songwriting, arrangement, recording, and voice, I will always wonder about what could have been.

  1. Body and Soul” (Duet with Tony Bennett) from Duets II
  2. “Tears Dry” from Lioness: Hidden Treasures
  3. In My Bed” from Frank
  4. “Some Unholy War” from Back to Black
  5. “Me and Mr. Jones” from Back to Black
  6. “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” from Lioness: Hidden Treasures
  7. “The Girl from Ipanema” from Lioness: Hidden Treasures
  8. “Valerie” from Mark Ronson featuring Amy Winehouse
  9. “Rehab” from Back to Black
  10. You Know I’m No Good” from Back to Black
  11. Fuck Me Pumps” from Frank
  12. “Like Smoke” (Featuring Nas) from Lioness: Hidden Treasures
  13. “A Song for You” from Lioness: Hidden Treasures
  14. Back to Black” from Back to Black
  15. “Wake Up Alone” from Back to Black
  16. Love is a Losing Game” from Back to Black

https://www.amywinehouse.com/

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A Look At Charlotte Powell, Village Painter (Photograph)

Charlotte Powell, Village Painter seems to be following me around. Most recently, it came up in a course I recently completed for my graduate degree in Museum Studies. I also belong to many historical New York City photography groups on Facebook (Al Ponte’s Time Machine – New York and Bronx Third Ave El are two of my favorites) where I have seen it several times as well as websites like Gothamist and Monovision.

About the Photographer

Jessie_Tarbox_Beals_with_camera_Schlesinger_LibraryJessie Tarbox Beals (1870-1942) was a pioneer for women, working as the first published female photojournalist in the United States. While working, she carried heavy camera equipment while donning the bulky women’s fashions of the late 19th and early 20th century. Beals later opened her own studio as a divorced, single mother.

At the turn-of-the-century Beals lived and worked in Greenwich Village, which she photographed extensively. Greenwich Village, which resisted the City planning idea of the grid, was a haven for bohemian artists and writers. Beals may have found like-minded peers. It seemed natural that she would gravitate toward photographing the bohemians of Greenwich Village in New York City—the part of the City that said no to the grid and gave birth the Gay Liberation movement!  In her photograph of Charlotte Powell, Beals captured a fellow unconventional woman, dressed in overalls, doing traditional men’s work

Notes on the Photograph

The first thing I would like to note about this photograph is the fact that an early 20th century woman is wearing pants. And she is not wearing pants to be fashionable like Marlene Dietrich, she is wearing overalls, work pants, not unlike Amelia Earhart’s aviator pants. Like Earhart, Charlotte Powell is seen working at what was then considered men’s labor. In contrast to her overall gruff fashion, Powell is wearing a rather delicate looking watch. I couldn’t help but wonder what Beals was wearing when she took this photograph.

We see two sets of stairs in this photograph. Stairs are a principal and practical part of architecture that stand with a sense of purpose. In the same way that water gives and takes life, stairs can bring us up and plunge us down. Powell may be at the bottom of the stone stairs, but she is slowly climbing out of the prison (see the bars on the far right) of cultural norms on a rickety ladder being held together by string, of her making.

I find the sign above Powell concurrently appropriate and irksome. Appropriate because it gives us a geographic marker of sorts and irksome, because the curtains are drawn, and we have no idea what that The Village Store sells. But the sign is also well designed—I admired the way the typeface emphasized The Village.

While writing this, I became more intrigued by the photograph and tried to find this location using Google Maps. I wanted to see if this building was still standing. New York undervalues older buildings. I was unsuccessful in finding the possible location of this photograph.

New York Historical Society Label and Link

Title

Charlotte Powell, Village painter.

Collection Title

Jessie Tarbox Beals photograph collection, ca. 1905-1940.

Creator / Contributor

Beals, Jessie Tarbox

Identifier

Print Room – PR-004-02-13

Date

[ca. 1905-1916]

Subject

Women–Photographs
Women painters–Photographs

Subject personal name

Powell, Charlotte–Portraits

Subject geographic name

Greenwich Village (New York, N.Y.)–Social life and customs–Photographs
Greenwich Village (New York, N.Y.)–Photographs

Material type or medium of original

Photographic prints

Physical Description

1 photograph : gelatin silver print ; 10 x 8 inches

Rights management

This digital image may be used for educational or scholarly purposes without restriction. Commercial and other uses of the item are prohibited without prior written permission from the New-York Historical Society. For more information, please visit the New-York Historical Society’s Rights and Reproductions Department web page at http://www.nyhistory.org/about/rights-reproductions

http://digitalcollections.nyhistory.org/islandora/object/nyhs%3A1211

 

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Si Es Goya Tiene Que Ser…Trump? Listing Goya Alternatives

Today is July 10, 2020. The coronavirus continues to rage on in the United States while Republicans continue to politicize wearing a mask. Today, The New York Times noted that the United States was the biggest source of new coronavirus infections, reporting more than 59,880 cases as it set a single-day record for the sixth time in 10 days. Make no mistake and spin it all you want, this is because of Trump failed to coordinate a national effort.  

The New York Times published another story today on how ICE helped spread the coronavirus:

“Even as lockdowns and other measures have been taken around the world to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, ICE has continued to detain people, move them from state to state and deport them.”

Speaking of ICE, the United States is STILL caging the children of individuals seeking asylum—many of whom are from Latin America.

—–

Yesterday, Bob Unanue, the president of Goya Foods, was at the White House to announce that the company would donate one million cans of chickpeas as well as one million pounds of food to food banks in the United States as part of the Hispanic Prosperity Initiative, an executive order created to “improve access to educational and economic opportunities.” Really? What happened to sufficient aid from the federal government for Puerto Rico after a series of natural disasters? Notably, the founder of Goya, Prudencio Unanue Ortiz, a Spaniard, got his start in San Lorenzo, Puerto Rico before he moved to New York City.

During this event, Unanue bizarrely said the United States was “blessed” to have Trump as its leader.

While I truly applaud the company’s humanitarian efforts, I have to wonder if Unanue has been living under a rock these last three years? Trump is enormously unpopular among Latinx Americans: according to the latest New York Times/Siena College poll, Latinx Americans favor Biden over Trump by a 36 percentage-point margin. The timing of the Hispanic Prosperity Initiative is curious.

The following day, Unanue went on to Fox “news” to say he wasn’t going to apologize.  He claimed a double standard in the reaction to his remarks about Trump, noting that he accepted an invitation from Michelle Obama in 2012 to an event that promoted the former first lady’s healthy-eating initiative. Unlike the Hispanic Prosperity Initiative, the healthy-eating initiative had been in full swing by 2012 and President Obama was not trying foster divisiveness. In short, Unanue was simply acting as a cog in Trump’s publicity machine.

Predictably, conservatives belly-ached about freedom of expression. Unanue indeed has the right to express himself, but I also have the right to no longer buy Goya products (in spite of the fact that they employ many Puerto Ricans) and express it. Maybe the company needs a change of leadership, much like the United States does right now. My message to Unanue is to look at what Trump does, not what he says.

—–

Looking into my pantry, it is FILLED with Goya products and I have to plan on how I am going replenish them once I have consumed them (and to anyone thinking about throwing out Goya products, don’t be foolish—eat it or donate it). I would like to present you with some possible alternatives.

  • Sofrito and Recaito: Iberia makes a product similar to Goya.
  • Abodo: Iberia makes a similar product  as well as Simply Organic. I have tried the latter and it is more expensive, but it is organic and the taste is on par with Goya.
  • Sazon: I have not tried these, but it seems that Iberia also produces this (with achiote).
  • Tomato paste and sauce: Again, we have Iberia as well as an assortment of other companies. I have tried the organic brand, Muir Glen, and it is very good, but more expensive.
  • Beans: Again, Iberia, like Goya, offers canned and dry varieties. I have tried the canned beans by Eden Foods and they are quite good (expensive, but organic). In a pinch, I once used Bush’s kidney beans and they were quite good.
  • Rice: If you can find Vitarroz (I feel their presence in stores has diminished in the last few years, and the company doesn’t appear to have a website); I actually prefer to use sushi rice (which is a lot like Valencia rice) when I make the classic rice and beans and having been using the one produced by RiceSelect for several years now.
  • Empanada dough: This was a tough one because I have been using the Goya discs for a very long time. Then I remembered that my Mother used La Fe.
  • Frozen banana leaves: These are often used for pasteles, but Asian markets also sell them.
  • Frozen yuca: Since I discovered Goya packaged these, I started using them for my pasteles as they save a ton of time. Thankfully, La Fe packages them as well.

I feel like Unanue is having his ‘shooting someone on Fifth Avenue and not losing voters’ moment—I can shoot my mouth off and praise Trump and I won’t lose customers. Words matter and let’s show Unanue how much they do.

#BoycottGoya #goyAWAY #BoycottGoyaFoods

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