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.
“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, “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. 
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 similar challenges. 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.
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.
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 (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.
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
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.
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.
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.
I grew up in the Inwood neighborhood of upper Manhattan. Back then the neighborhood had a clear physical division: east of Broadway was primarily populated by Dominicans and other people of color, while the west of Broadway was primarily populated by whites. The neighborhood residents seemed to coexist and share public spaces such as Inwood Park without any strife I was cognizant of. I attended a Catholic grade school where I had friends of varied ethnic backgrounds. I was fortunate in that my first encounter with bigotry was not until I was 12 years old (though as I got older, I certainly experienced it).
In the summer of 1979, I entered Inwood Park and saw this boldly spray-painted on a wall: “Disco Suxs!” For some reason, it rattled me. What was so bad about disco? I was a fan. It had ENERGY and you could dance to it. It made me happy. Back then, and to this day, I never understood people who severely went out of their way to slam something that was not of their taste. If you don’t like something, ignore it and move on—why deface a wall? Why troll online?
I asked my parents about it and that became our first talk about bigotry. Because they knew I loved music so much, they used the history of Motown Records as a way to explain it to me. They noted how Motown played an important role in the racial integration of popular music. After that talk, I never looked at or heard those records in the same way again.
Years later, on a VH1 Behind the Music episode on disco, virtuoso musician and producer, Niles Rodgers conveyed that the hate stemmed from the fact that it was the music of minorities that included people of color and the LGBTQ community. Music critic Robert Christgau noted that homophobia, and most likely racism, were the driving forces behind the anti-disco movement that resulted in a preposterous disco demolition night at Comiskey Park in Chicago. The way the 1960s counterculture ended at Altamont, disco ended at this event (by the way, those in attendance trashed the stadium). The haters were also likely intimated by the liberating physicality of disco dancing and hastily labeled the music as vacuous.
Concurrently forceful and sensual, disco was the resurgence of Dionysian pagan culture in the 20th century. Disco is not vacuous and is indeed complex.
First and foremost, disco took significant effort to produce than say the four-piece bands found in other genres. Disco often contained an ample band, with chordal instruments, drums, percussions, horns, a string orchestra, and various classical solo instruments like the flute. The recording of complex arrangements with a large number of instruments required a team that included a conductor and mixing engineers. Disco also had extraordinary vocalists that included powerhouses such as Donna Summer and Barbra Streisand as well as Gloria Gaynor, Diana Ross, Chic, France Joli, Michael Jackson, Cheryl Lynn, Sylvester, A Taste of Honey, and Barry White.
After the ridiculousness of disco demolition night, disco found a second life in early rap, notably “Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugarhill Gang which sampled Chic’s brilliant song, “Good Times.” Disco still lives on under the sapped title of dance music. Dance music is not as beautifully produced as disco but has had many remarkable moments over the last forty years.
If you hated disco in the 1970s, let me encourage you to put aside your prejudices and put on a pair of headphones and embrace the genius. Let the music take you away.
DC Daily is a soon to be cancelled daily comic book news show available on DC Universe, a unique streaming service that includes original programming AND comic books.
My love affair with comic books began in the 1970s with the television series Wonder Woman: it was because of Lynda Carter that I picked up a comic book! I remember the first issue I ever read where Wonder Woman said things like, “Great Hera” and “Merciful Minerva.” This intrigued me because I was learning about Greek mythology in school. I read Wonder Woman to find the connections in the architecture of Paradise Island or the Greek Gods and Goddesses the Amazons worshiped. I remember once noting an inconsistency with regards to how she would sometimes use the Roman names for Greek Gods and vice-versa.
About one year after I started reading Wonder Woman, the now classic Superman: The Movie was released, and it cemented my bond with comic books. I then started to read other titles such as Action Comics, All Star Squadron, Justice League, and, without fail, The New Teen Titans. I read the first five years The New Teen Titans—stories that today’s generation appropriately lauds (and was discussed several times on DC Daily!)
When DC launched the streaming service in 2018, I enthusiastically signed up on the first day. Did I mention how much more fun it is to have ‘adult money’ to indulge in my comic book pleasures?
From day one, I was hooked on DC Daily. I loved the mix of interviews, comic book discussions, back lot tours, fan interaction, and artist showcases (they even once had a cooking show). I looked forward to seeing the articulate and thoughtful hosts. Their interaction with each other reminded me of being 15 years old and discussing comics with friends. I especially loved when John Barrowman appeared on the show—he was born the same year I was and is a fellow middle-aged fanboy (and quite hilarious, unlike the character he played on Arrow)! DC Daily was what I did every day when I got home from work: it was the thoughtful escapism I desperately needed after a long day at work and from the day’s news and events.
Most importantly, DC Daily was there for me when I needed it the most: during the pandemic. I am really angry and heartbroken that the streaming service cancelled the show while the pandemic is still raging. Every time I go to Midtown Comics or JHU Comic Books alone, I always get into conversations with a stranger or staff and they are always so thoughtful and engaging. I always feel a sense of community in comic book shops—they are spaces for creative minds. I got that same feeling watching DC Daily. True, I wasn’t speaking directly with them, but that same stimulation is there.
DC Daily is not the only comic book show I watch. Variant Comics on YouTube is probably the best after DC Daily, but they are not on every day and don’t have access to things like back lot tours or many interviews with people in the industry.
I hope that DC Universe reconsiders this cancellation. They are thoughtlessly losing a bright jewel in the crown.
P.S. Thank you to everyone on DC Daily for being a bright spot these last two very long years. I hope it not is good bye, but see you later.
A Brief History of Community Organizing in the 20th Century
Community organizing seeks better responsiveness of institutions to the needs of the community by addressing and restructuring decision-making processes. Community organizers recruit residents to take on powerful institutions in their community through direct, public confrontation and action. Respected figures such as Saul Alinsky and noted organizations such as the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) have advanced community organizing.
Saul Alinsky founded the Industrial Areas Foundation in 1940. The IAF is a grassroots organizing network involving people in over sixty cities in the U.S. that draws together coalitions of poor and middle class people to address poverty, housing, education, public infrastructure and many other issues. However, the IAF is not necessarily about issues: its aim is to build a culture of vibrant participatory democratic practices that gradually transform political and economic power. The IAF is an organization of organizations, drawing upon religious congregations, neighborhood associations, community centers, and unions. Issues tend to be chosen and negotiated with an eye to how they might strengthen and broaden grassroots democratic relationships. The IAF has been successful at drawing people into long-term democratic practices and bridging relationships that cross lines of complex difference, creating new political relationships that concurrently work with traditional and the emerging.
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), like the IAF, is also a grassroots community organization of low and moderate-income people. Started in 1970 by Wade Rathke and Gary Delgado, the early version of ACORN helped people obtain clothing and furniture; it campaigned for schools to provide healthy, affordable lunches and promoted Vietnam Veterans’ rights. The organization then branched out into housing and workers’ rights advocacy and has helped thousands of working-class and poor citizens obtain home loans, register to vote and fight for better wages. ACORN differed from IAF in that it engaged in electoral politics as a way of gaining power and ddi not rely on support from organizations and churches, but on door-to-door solicitation and dues paying members. ACORN did not limit itself to local issues and campaigns; and was very particular about picking winnable issues. ACORN found that it could win on issues that are not just about welfare and the poor.
As the IAF expanded, Alinsky felt that the most essential element of organizing was relational organizing. To make IAF organizations more cohesive and assertive, especially when dealing with municipal government, Alinsky encouraged face-to-face meetings. He also believed in establishing local power through individual local leaders who organized and mobilized the poor. One of ACORN’s strengths is its combination of insider and outsider tactics and strategies: activists and leaders often work both inside the system (organizing the poor) and outside the system (protests and confrontation). ACORN did not shy away from using the in-your-face confrontational protest tactics. ACORN was unapologetic about its tactics because it helped draw attention to neglected issues and built membership.
One criticism of the IAF was the lack of diversity among the organizing staff. ACORN’s organizing staff was 90% white in the 1970s and 1980s, but the organization has made considerable progress hiring and retaining organizers of color. Regarding matters of membership and possible racial issues, both organizations approached it in somewhat similar ways: they essentially ignored it. IAF’s practice of multiracial equality presupposes that common religious values creates a basis for cooperation that over time could overcome longstanding prejudices and create a mutual understanding. IAF emphasized the economic and ignored the racial fearing that raising the issue of race could disrupt and divide their organization. ACORN rarely framed issues racially; therefore, it had difficulty forming alliances or coalitions with Black organizations. ACORN also did not organize around single issues such as desegregation, police brutality or the loss of needed public services.
Interestingly, The IAF and ACORN had chapters in some of the same cities that often work on similar issues, but they never work together. Because the IAF uses religious values as a unifying force, their local chapters usually had more members than ACORN’s, but it never sought to build an amalgamated organization that could have waged national policy campaigns. Interestingly, IAF’s Baltimore affiliate, BUILD, coordinated the first successful living wage campaign, but was not able to translate that into a national movement. ACORN, on the other hand, had used its amalgamated structure to build a national living wage movement, with victories in several cities.
While organizations such as unions have historically played an effective role in representing everyday citizens, those organizations now have weaker organizing power. What we have left are community-based organizations. The IAF and ACORN both sought broad-based constituencies that spanned race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, and geography. But in this political atmosphere, can they survive?
The Mid to Late 2000s
In 2007, ACORN had field offices in 100 cities and 260,000 members, mostly from minority communities. ACORN helped register more than 1.6 million voters nationally between 2004 and 2008. In 2004, it initiated a successful ballot measure raising Florida’s minimum wage. But by 2008, Republicans were accusing ACORN of voter fraud, even though prosecutors across the country failed to find any evidence. Let us be clear that ACORN was indeed contributory in getting Barack Obama elected.
In 2009, workers at ACORN were secretly recorded by conservative hacks Hannah Giles and James O’Keefe. The videos were heavily edited to create a misleading impression of their activities.
In September of 2009, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted to ban the ACORN from receiving federal funding. Here’s how the Democratic leadership voted on the “De-fund ACORN” amendment (A “yes” is a vote to de-fund”):
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi: did not vote.
Assistant to the Speaker Chris Van Hollen: Yes
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer: Yes
Majority Whip Jim Clyburn: No
Senior Chief Deputy Majority Whip John Lewis: No
Chief Deputy Majority Whip Maxine Waters: No
Chief Deputy Majority Whip John S. Tanner: did not vote
Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman Xavier Becerra: No
Steering/Policy Committee Co-Chair George Miller: Yes
Steering/Policy Committee Co-Chair Rosa DeLauro: Yes
Organization, Study, and Review Chairman Michael Capuano: No
In December of 2009, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) released a report on ACORN activities, commissioned by the House Judiciary Committee. It noted that ACORN has not been found to violate any federal regulations in the past five years. The report’s other findings included that there were no instances of voter fraud by people who were allegedly registered to vote improperly by ACORN or its employees, and no instances where ACORN violated terms of federal funding in the last 5 years. In fact, the CRS found that O’Keefe and Giles may have violated Maryland and California laws banning the recording of face-to-face conversations without consent of both parties.
I can’t help but wonder how could an organization that had become a force across the country, mobilizing low- wage minority workers and Democratic voters, be pushed to its downfall by its beneficiaries? Alinsky wrote, in the afterword of his Reveille for Radicals (on page 225), “A political idiot knows that most major issues are national, and in some areas international, in scope. They cannot be coped with on the local community level.” He also warned against jumping directly to a national organization while skipping “the organization of the parts” (page 226). Is this what happened to ACORN? Were they not firmly rooted in the communities they worked in? If they were, would politicians have been less inclined to throw them under the bus?
Speaking of politicians, I want to single out Debbie Wasserman Schultz as one glaring example of what is wrong with the Democratic Party.
In 2011, she missed 62 votes of Congress. In December 2015, Wasserman Schultz was one of 24 co-sponsors of H.R. 4018, authored by GOP Congressman Dennis A. Ross, which would delay the implementation of Consumer Financial Protection Bureau regulations. Wasserman Schultz was among a dozen Florida representatives who cosponsored the legislation that would delay the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s payday lending rules by two years. The fees for these loans, over the course of a year, can add up as high as the equivalent of a 300% APR.
The following year, during the 2016 presidential primary, Wasserman Schultz only scheduled six debates, significantly fewer than in previous election cycles (and half as many as the Republicans counterparts). Some of Wasserman Schultz’s actions that the media covered during the primaries included:
halting the Sanders’ campaign’s access to DNC databases;
defending the superdelegate system used in the Democratic primaries;
rescinding a prior ban on corporate donations;
and accusing Sanders supporters of violence at the Nevada Convention.
The right wing’s efforts to demonize ACORN had made the organization a discomfiture to Democratic leadership, and it was far easier to throw ACORN under the bus than it would be to stand up for fundamental fair play and justice, and actually investigate the charges before deciding what the appropriate response might be. After the debacle of the 2016 election, as well as later this year, Democrats like Wasserman Schultz will wish they hadn’t been so cavalier especially if the GOP continues to prevent those who put them into office from voting.
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.” [i]
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 photo-murals 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[ii].
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[iii]. 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[iv].
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[v]. 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[vi]. 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 artwork and continue exhibitions. The IRS actually objected to the word “gay” in the foundation’s title and hindered the nonprofit application until 1990[vii].
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. Both museums were founded under a similar premise, but fifty years later, only one of these museums has upheld its innovative mission.
In August 2019, The New Yorker wrote an article titled “The Battle Over the Soul of El Museo del Barrio[viii]” 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[ix], that accused El Museo of abandoning its core values as a museum for the community of East Harlem. The Mirror Manifesto notes:
“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.”
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[x]. However, in 2002, El Museo appointed its first non-Puerto Rican 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[xi]. For many in El Barrio, elite Latin-American art was overshadowing the El Museo’s grassroots mission. These concerns were fully realized in 2019 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[xii]. 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[xiii].
Why hasn’t the Leslie-Lohman Museum encountered similar issues? Both institutions started with the same idea: a museum 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[xiv]. 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[xv]. 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[xvi]. El Museo needs to do the same starting inside its own doors.
Regardless of who lives in the neighborhood, El Museo’s leadership should not lose sight 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 that has little to do with Spanish Harlem, or the Latinx communities now living (and creating) in New York City and the United States.
Given the direction that El Museo is currently navigating, it is not hard to imagine that they will one day have an exhibit called “Spanish Harlem on My Mind.”
[i] “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
[ii] “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
Last year I noted that 2018 was not a very productive year with regards to photography largely stemming from health issues. 2019 was not much better, but for different reasons. In the fall, I started a Master’s degree in Museum Studies at the CUNY School of Professional Studies. And just before I started at CUNY SPS, I spent time working on the two photography books I self-published in November. The first book, 21st Century Coney Island, is a collection of photographs taken over the course of three years starting in the summer of 2016 and up to August 2019. Proceeds of this book will be donated to Habit for Humanity of Puerto Rico. The second book, A New Yorker in New Mexico, collects photographs from two trips, one in 2012 and another in 2018. Proceeds of this book will donated to the While they Wait fund.
The photographs I am sharing here have not been published anywhere online or in print. They were taken between February and August of 2019. I hope you enjoy this collection.