Archive for the ‘The Forum’ Category

Speaker of New York City Council Melissa Mark-Viverito — Congratulations!

Friday, January 10th, 2014

Melissa Mark-Viverito (born April 1, 1969) is the Speaker of the New York City Council. She is the member from the Council’s 8th District, which includes the northernmost part of the Upper East Side, Spanish Harlem/El Barrio/East Harlem, Manhattan Valley and part of the Upper West Side as well as part of Mott Haven in the Bronx. Her district also includes Randalls and Wards Islands and Central Park. She was elected as Speaker January 8, 2014 and succeeds Christine Quinn.

Mark-Viverito was born in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, she came to New York at 18 to attend college, earning a BA from Columbia and a master’s from Baruch College. She is not married. Her hyphenated last name comes from her late father, Anthony Mark, and the maiden name of her mother, Elizabeth Viverito. Her father was a doctor and a founder of San Pablo Hospital in Bayamón, where her mother still lives.

She graduated from Columbia University in 1991 and earned her Master of Public Administration degree from Baruch College, City University of New York in 1995. She is a former member of Community Board 11, coordinator of the movement Todo Nueva York con Vieques[4][5] and president of Mujeres del Barrio. Mark-Viverito ran unsuccessfully against Philip Reed for City Council in district 8 in 2003. Before running for City Council, Mark-Viverito was Strategic Organizer for Local 1199 of Service Employees International Union (SEIU), an influential health care workers union.

Mark-Viverito was elected to her first term in the City Council in 2005. During her first four years in office, she sponsored and passed several pieces of legislation, regarding tenant harassment, building safety, green buildings and park conservancies.

Mark-Viverito is currently in her third term and serves as Chair of the Council’s Parks & Recreation Committee. In March 2010, Mark-Viverito and 11 other Council Members announced the formation of the City Council’s Progressive Caucus. She currently serves as Co-Chair of the Caucus along with Brooklyn Council Member Brad Lander.

In November 2013, the New York Daily News cited Mark-Viverito as “the front runner” for “New York City’s second most powerful political post – Speaker of the City Council.” According to Politicker, a grassroots effort to boost the Speaker candidacy of Mark-Viverito – including social media, fliers, phone banking, and volunteer recruitment – was involved in the effort. Mark-Viverito was elected City Council Speaker on January 9, 2014 at age 44.

¿Fuga de cerebros? por Jorge Duany, Catedrático de Antropología

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

El Nuevo Día
11 de diciembre de 2013

http://www.elnuevodia.com/voz-fugadecerebros-1663790.html

El aumento en el grado de escolaridad y el nivel ocupacional de los emigrantes puertorriqueños en las últimas dos décadas ha llamado la atención pública. Algunos artículos periodísticos han dado la alarma de una “fuga de cerebros”, alegando que la pérdida de recursos humanos altamente calificados “desangra” a la economía boricua. Miles de jóvenes con títulos universitarios han tenido que irse del País al no conseguir empleos acordes con su preparación académica debido a la prolongada recesión. Esta exportación de talentos supone un alto costo demográfico y económico para la Isla, como contribuir al envejecimiento de la población insular y agudizar la escasez de personal especializado en renglones clave como los servicios de salud y educación.

Cada vez más miembros de la clase media puertorriqueña se han reubicado en Estados Unidos desde la década de 1990, buscando una mejor “calidad de vida” -refiriéndose a seguridad, tranquilidad, salud, vivienda y educación. Los nuevos emigrantes incluyen una cantidad considerable de maestros, enfermeras, ingenieros y médicos, entre otros profesionales. Como promedio, su nivel educativo supera al de los emigrantes de los años cuarenta y cincuenta del siglo pasado. Sin embargo, el grueso del éxodo contemporáneo sigue siendo personas atraídas por mejores oportunidades de empleo, salarios y condiciones de trabajo en Estados Unidos.

El destino principal de la emigración puertorriqueña desde los años noventa ha sido el estado de la Florida. La población de origen boricua residente en ese estado aumentó de 247,010 a 847,550 personas entre 1990 y 2010. El crecimiento de los “floriricans” se concentró en la Florida Central, especialmente en el área metropolitana de Orlando-Kissimmee, donde residían 269,781 boricuas en el 2010.

Los últimos datos censales constatan que los puertorriqueños residentes en la Florida tienen un perfil socioeconómico más aventajado que en estados como Nueva York, Pensilvania, Connecticut y Massachusetts. Entre otros indicadores, tienen niveles de escolaridad e ingreso más elevados, así como tasas de pobreza y desempleo más bajas.

No obstante, los emigrantes boricuas a la Florida no constituyen una “fuga de cerebros” en el sentido de representar mayoritariamente a los sectores más educados del País. Según los cálculos censales, entre los años 2007 y 2011, el 38.9% de los emigrantes no se había graduado de escuela superior, comparado con el 29.5% de la población insular. Apenas el 13.7% de los emigrantes había completado un bachillerato y el 4.7% estudios graduados o profesionales, comparados con el 17.4% y el 6.7% de la población de Puerto Rico, respectivamente.

Los estimados censales también confirman que los emigrantes recientes a la Florida no provienen principalmente de las ocupaciones más calificadas en la Isla. Solo el 21.6% de los emigrantes, frente al 27.6% de los residentes de Puerto Rico, se desempeñaba como gerentes y profesionales. Los emigrantes sí tenían una mayor proporción (31.4%) de vendedores y oficinistas que la fuerza laboral de la Isla (27.9%). Además tenían un mayor porcentaje (12.7) de trabajadores de construcción, mantenimiento y reparación que en Puerto Rico (6.6). En conjunto, el 48% de los emigrantes eran trabajadores de servicio y cuello azul, comparados con el 44.4% de la población insular.

Tales estadísticas sugieren que se ha exagerado la magnitud de la “fuga de cerebros” en Puerto Rico. El economista Kurt Birson, del Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños de Hunter College, ha llegado a la misma conclusión, al examinar las características socioeconómicas de los emigrantes puertorriqueños a Estados Unidos entre los años 2000 y 2011. Por lo tanto, se requiere revisar la popular visión de que la mayoría de las personas que se han ido de Puerto Rico en la última década son graduados universitarios con destrezas profesionales. Más bien, el éxodo contemporáneo abarca a una amplia gama de la sociedad boricua, agobiada por el desempleo, la pobreza y la criminalidad.

Tato Laviera, Nuyorican Poet, Dies at 63 – NY Times

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013

Librado Romero/The New York Times

Widely anthologized and with numerous titles that remain in demand among students and fans, Mr. Laviera was one of the best-known representatives of the Nuyorican school of poetry.

By DAVID GONZALEZ

Published: November 5, 2013

Tato Laviera lost his sight, but not his vision. His acclaimed poems and plays captured the rhythms and language of Puerto Rico and the Lower East Side — his twin loves — with equal measures of protest, playfulness and hope.

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When health problems briefly left him homeless in 2010, he took part in poetry readings with residents of the shelter where he stayed. “I can create here, and that makes me feel liberated,” he said in an interview at the time. “Being here has given me the spirit of continuity and centrality, and that’s better than a salary.”

Mr. Laviera, who had been in a coma since late January, died on Friday in Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. The cause was complications of diabetes, which years earlier had left him legally blind, said his sister, Ruth Sanchez, who survives him along with his daughter, Ruth Ella Laviera. He was 63 and lived in East Harlem, renting an airy apartment that his admirers helped him get when they learned he had no place to hang his ever-present Panama hat. In a career that spanned more than four decades, Mr. Laviera published books, plays and poems and made hundreds of appearances at colleges, workshops and literary events. Widely anthologized and with numerous titles that remain in demand among students and fans, he is one of the best-known representatives of the Nuyorican school of poetry.

His words could dance, shout and laugh — in English, Spanish and Spanglish. In “My Graduation Speech,” he showed a playful touch in writing about his multicultural life, and his hair, in these lines:

i think in spanish

i write in english

i want to go back to puerto rico,

but i wonder if my kink could live

in ponce, maygüez and carolina

“The American thing is to forget who you are and become homogenized,” said Jesus Melendez, known as Papoleto, a friend and fellow poet. “The whole Nuyorican struggle was to maintain your roots because they are the groove that keeps it all together. Tato personified that struggle.”

He even took the word and turned it inside out in one collection, “AmerRican,” whose very title made clear his people’s place in the world. That book also featured poems that embraced the city’s diversity as well as his own people’s rich racial roots.

“Tato’s voice was not a singular one, but one that gave voice to people and even objects who did not have a voice but should,” said William Luis, a professor at Vanderbilt University and co-editor of an upcoming collection of essays on Mr. Laviera. “He was able to reach across boundaries and reach all those different people.”

Jesús Abraham Laviera (Tato was a nickname) was born on May 9, 1950, in Santurce, P.R., near San Juan, and moved to the Lower East Side as a child. He graduated from Seward Park High School and attended Brooklyn College and Cornell. But his real education, friends and relatives said, came in the neighborhood, where he showed an early knack for activism and organizing (not to mention music and dance).

Elizabeth Colón, a community advocate who befriended him when they were both teenagers, described Mr. Laviera as a natural leader who inspired others to rally around causes, especially youth and education.

“His poetry and creativity came from that,” she said. “It came from his involvement and his participation in the community’s struggle, growing up on the Lower East Side, seeing the abuses and how others who were in charge had the power to intervene and did not. He deeply understood the need of people to participate in their future.”

Mr. Laviera left community organizing to become a full-time poet in the 1970s. (He told the website Latino Rebels that he wanted to be a poet once he saw Luis Palés Matos recite in Puerto Rico in the late 1950s.) His first collection, “La Carreta Made a U-Turn,” was published by Arte Publico Press in 1979.

“To him, poetry was the highest calling,” said Nicolás Kanellos, his publisher. “Even though he lived in relative poverty, he was proud of being part of a tradition that went all the way back to the ancient, epic poets.”

But Mr. Laviera lived — and performed — very much in the moment. In recent years he had been working on a novel about East Harlem, as well as staging his play “The King of Cans” at a theater inside the housing complex where he had been living. He also continued to inspire future poets, sharing encouragement and advice.

Li Yun Alvarado recalled clutching a poem at a workshop Mr. Laviera gave at Yale 14 years ago. She was nervous. He calmed her down, telling her to “embody the work” and feel the words, linger on the beats and perform. It reminded her of how her 93-year-old grandmother could still remember a poem she had learned as a child.

“He took me back to that history of poetry as part of our culture,” said Ms. Alvarado, who is a now doctoral candidate at Fordham University. “He was our troubadour. He told our story.”

PRdream mourns the passing of Diosa Costello, “The Latin Bombshell”, first Latina on Broadway

Monday, November 4th, 2013

Diosa Costello (Juana de Dios Castrello) was an actress, performer, producer and club owner, known as “the Latin Bombshell”. She was born in Guayama, Puerto Rico on April 23, 1913. After performing at various venues in Spanish Harlem, she paired with Desi Arnaz at the La Conga club. Her Broadway debut was in “Too Many Girls” (1939), where she became the first Latina on Broadway. She performed in film but refused to move to Hollywood, California. Her filmography:

Miss Sadie Thompson (1953)
The Bullfighters (1945)
They Met in Argentina (1941)

The Smithsonian filmed an interview with Costello in 2006. She died in her sleep on June 20, 2013 at the age of 100 in Hollywood, Florida.

PRdream mourns her passing.

Raza con “A”: A Latina Artists Exhibit at the Gallery Space at Wagner

Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

 

 

Please join us on Tuesday, November 12, for a special panel discussion and live music reception celebrating the opening of Raza con “A”: A Latina Artists Exhibit, the Fall/Winter 2013 exhibition at the Gallery Space at Wagner.

When:
Tuesday, November 12, 2013
6:00PM-9:00PM

Where:
NYU Wagner
The Puck Building
295 Lafayette Street, 2nd Floor
Rudin Family Forum for Civic Dialogue / Gallery Space

PRDREAM’S COMMENT ON RIVERA AND KENNICOTT “DEBATE”

Saturday, November 2nd, 2013

PRDREAM’S COMMENT ON RIVERA AND KENNICOTT “DEBATE”

The arguments here are at cross-purposes and the two gentlemen are both right. There is a need for focused exhibitions, with specific curatorial themes. Ironically, the value of the current exhibition at the Smithsonian is in manifesting this issue in a highly visible way. The quality of the work displayed cries out for a series of exhibitions that take on the oeuvre of several of these accomplished and highly skilled artists on their own turf. This is a major challenge and opportunity for curators, scholars, artists, institutions, and galleries.

We have a small new media gallery in New York City’s Spanish Harlem called MediaNoche, which exhibits works by new media artists worldwide–including Latino digital artists. As the founder and chief curator of MediaNoche, and as a Latina, I have always sought to articulate a clear curatorial theme to our exhibitions that eschews identity as a basis for exhibition, though identity does figure into our artistic practice through our ethos, our history, our philosophical and political view of the world, and our gallery’s mission. We have shown many Latino new media artists and many Asian and European ones as well. We have also shown non-Latino American new media artists.

Our shows focus mostly on individual artists. That presents its own set of issues around selection. When they have been group shows, the curatorial vision was absolutely critical. Actually, it always is. What is the raison d’etre for the exhibition? Is it enough to be simply shown?

From the perspective of the artists, the answer is yes—especially in an institution such as the Smithsonian. And so “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art” is valid in attempting to be inclusive of as many of the “best” Latino American artists as possible within the scope of their curatorial aim. Problem is an all-inclusive agenda of the “best” Latino artists always results in leaving out some of the “best”. It is simply too broad. Curators might also wind up selecting artists through criteria unsuitable to curatorial integrity, such as population proportionality or quotas of representation. This is at best a dubious practice better left to activists trying to right a historical wrong, or politicians or museum heads who are chasing audiences and pandering to the masses. It is corrupting and can negatively impact real scholarship –especially if this criteria is not explicitly stated and addressed. It usually is not.

Given the dismal historiography of American art history, the absence of a truly comprehensive and inclusive scholarship, (which admittedly would be hard but not impossible to do), and given the years of exclusion of Latino artists in our nation’s major galleries and institutions, one can expect exhibitions such as “Our America” to be inevitably polemical and politically charged, at once encouraging and disappointing. That explains but does not excuse the need for a rigorous curatorial trajectory. We hope “Our America” is only the beginning of a new unfolding narrative in which all currents of American Art flow freely into a confluence of themes and visions. Then and only then can we speak of a truly American Art. Then and only then can it be said that the category of Latino Art is meaningless.

Till then, the dialectic created through exhibitions such as “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art” can lead to exchanges that engage scholars, curators, artists, and the public to explore freely and openly what is called American Art.

From the Washington Post/The Style Blog: Alex Rivera, Philip Kennicott debate Washington Post review of ‘Our America’

Saturday, November 2nd, 2013

Alex Rivera, Philip Kennicott debate Washington Post review of ‘Our America’
BY PHILIP KENNICOTT
November 1 at 5:58 pm

My October 25 review of a new exhibition at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art” ignited strong reactions from some Latino artists. Several participants in a conversation on Facebook took particular exception to my claim that the show’s lack of focus was “a telling symptom of an insoluble problem: Latino art, today, is a meaningless category.” I asked the author of the original post, digital artist and filmmaker Alex Rivera, if he would like to have the conversation more publicly. He agreed, and what follows is a transcript of an email exchange over the past two days.

ALEX RIVERA: Can you explain why you used your review of this show to make a pronouncement about the entire concept of “Latino Art”? This is the sentence I’m referring to: “…an insoluble problem: Latino art, today, is a meaningless category.”

It seems to happen over and over again: when a group show like this one is mounted, critics attack the fundamental notion of looking at the work as a group. Why? The problem is that, while critics raise doubts about categories like “Latino Art,” there’s never any discussion of the absence of that work in show after show that keep groups like Latinos on the margins or excluded entirely from the American conversation. For example: the 2012 Whitney Biennial featured exactly zero Latino artists. How can that be a survey of “American Art”? Where is the questioning of that absence in publications like the Post? It seems like the absence of Latino artists is normal, not newsworthy, but the organizing of our presence causes questions about our existence.

PHILIP KENNICOTT: I called Latino Art a meaningless category for two reasons. First, I think it is so broad as to be meaningless. The exhibition I was reviewing includes work by artists of Cuban, Puerto Rican and Mexican descent, but it might just as well include artists who claim heritage in almost all of the countries in South and Central America. And is all of this art in fact linked by some, essential unifying thing? Is the art made by a Cuban exile educated in Paris somehow similar to street art made by a Mexican American in Los Angeles? Maybe, but then tell me what the link is. As a critic, you hear over and over again that artists don’t want to be pegged by their nationality, language, ethnic group or sexual identity.

The second reason I said it was that the curators seem to argue exactly that: They insist that the show isn’t about labeling, isn’t about defining anything essential about the category of Latino art. As a critic, you begin to wonder why bother doing these group shows if the ultimate intent (and a desirable one) is to place the focus back on individual artists, and individual art works, rather than the group identity that everyone seems to resist? Make the show more specific, perhaps more limited, with a more specific argument, and use the best art and artists from this larger show to make a point you can stand by.
I take your point about the absence of Latino artists in many exhibitions, though one of the best shows I’ve seen recently that attempted to negotiate the idea of group identity, the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek” devoted to gay artists, had a robust representation of art by Latinos.

AR: I should have mentioned in my first message: I wish you’d had a better time at the museum! Reading your comments, a question comes to mind: do you find “Latino Art” meaningless, or do you find the notion of “Latino” meaningless? I ask because I understand your observation that there’s a lot of diversity within the imagined community of “Latinos.” But what big grouping of people doesn’t embody diversity and conflict within itself? I imagine you regularly review shows in museums of “American Art,” but never spend the review space critiquing the concept of “American” (which is more broad than the category “Latino”).

Why attack categories like “Latino” when they’re used pro-actively to organize a show, while other vague categories are left unquestioned? In terms of what unites Latino artists, well… It might be aesthetics that one way or another trace back to distant Spanish and Indigenous influence. It might be an engagement with questions of assimilation in the U.S. or of migration or exile. It could be none of these. But one strong glue that unites the community of Latino artists I know is awareness that we’re still “outsiders” in spaces which claim to speak for the nation. Isn’t long-standing absence enough ‘glue’ to make this survey of Latino Art at the Smithsonian a worthy endeavor?

PK: You ask if it’s Latino art I find meaningless, or “the notion of ‘Latino’” art? Emphatically the latter, and if that wasn’t clear in my review, then I should have been more careful. I say that I enjoy much of the art on display, only I wish it was better presented, better contextualized, better focused. What I grappled with is the use of the label—“Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art”—in a show that doesn’t seem to want to define or even accept the validity of that label. You give one possible avenue for finding meaning in the category: the origins of some of the visual material in the “distant Spanish and Indigenous influence.” I think that would be an interesting way to focus an exhibition. And I gave some other possibilities: One would be looking at the wonderfully provocative and visually incisive Chicano art movement of the 1960s and 70s.

But you see, we’re already whittling a big category down to smaller ones. That’s a healthy thing, I’d argue, forcing people to think about real connections, not simply labels. Again, I point out that my problem with the label has a lot to do with how many Latino artists resist it… just as many African-American artists resist being labeled, and so too gay artists. I remember a recent show in Washington called “30 Americans” which looked at three decades of recent African-American art. Again, the catalog writers went through the usual contortions of saying that they didn’t want to imply that these artists had anything in common, stylistically, or in terms of content or approach, simply by virtue of being African American. Very similar to the intellectual contortions surrounding the Smithsonian’s Latino Presence show. The difference, however, is that the content of “30 Americans” at least had a common sensibility, and tone, and often stylistic approach. Whether or not that was because the artists were African American, or because the show was derived from a single private collection, didn’t matter. The important thing was a sense that the show had a focus.

That was what was lacking in the Smithsonian exhibition. Let me ask a question: Do you think it’s enough that a major show of Latino art at the Smithsonian can only be summarized as having included a lot of art by Latinos? Is rectifying the absence you speak of all that matters, or should it have also been a good show in traditional museum terms (ie., with focus, an argument, a scholarly component)?

AR: Apologies for any confusion. To be clearer, you explained that you find “Latino Art” a meaningless category because it is broad (encompassing Chicano, Cuban, Puerto Rican artists, etc.). So, I was curious if it was not “Latino Art” that you had trouble with, but the simpler notion of “Latino” as an identity category at all. That’s what I meant to suggest – that perhaps you don’t find grouping together tens of millions of people in this way helpful. And if you don’t see the commonality of experience in that imagined community, then of course a survey of our artistic output would seem a fruitless exercise.

And so… Do you think “Latino” is a useful category for thinking about people? Does it illuminate anything about history or just confound? If not, what do we call ourselves? If so, why can’t we have something called “Latino Art”? Finally, in answer to your questions about whether this particular show at the Smithsonian need be a “good show” as well as a simple manifestation of presence… Well, of course I’m going to say “yes.” The trouble is that the metric of “good” is always subjective and questions of “quality” are hard to get at when the argument is shifted to whether or not the fundamental organizing concepts have any merit or not. If your review had contrasted the qualities of this survey of Latino art with others, focused on the strengths and weaknesses of particular aspects of the show, and accepted that there needs to be a presence of something called “Latino Art” in a museum like the Smithsonian, I probably wouldn’t have gone nuts on Facebook.

PK: As a demographic category I’m sure Latino is useful, and I don’t want to suggest that the category isn’t meaningful for people who embrace it. As a gay man I find the category “gay” meaningful even though many younger people who might have embraced it a decade ago now reject it. Identity is deeply personal and something we construct. But demographic categories aren’t necessarily useful for explaining habits, preferences and behavior. “Latino shoe preference” or “gay driving habits” don’t really refer to useful ideas, do they?

The question posed here is whether Latino is useful for explaining something interesting about art. Here’s some text from the “Our America” catalog essay by Carmen Ramos: “Latino art is an imperfect composite construct that traditionally refers to the art of Mexican Americans/Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans, and more recent arrivals such as Dominicans. These demographics, however, are by no means settled or clear-cut. Nor can one term adequately shoulder the divergent histories it seeks to contain. I use the term ‘Latino art’ not as a sign of cultural essence but as an indicator of descent, shared experience, and art historical marginalization.”

So from the very beginning we have curatorial acknowledgement that the category is “an imperfect composite construct” and isn’t “settled or clear cut” and it can’t “shoulder the divergent histories” it seeks to contain. And the work it is supposedly able to do–indicator of descent, shared experience and art historical marginalization–is in fact so broad that it can’t really focus the exhibition. The last two of these subcategories in the definition Ramos offers–shared experience and art historical marginalization–are more useful than the first–indicator of descent–and they would offer grounds for a better exhibition. But it would have to be much better focused than what is on display at the Smithsonian.
As for your argument that “there needs to be a presence of something called “Latino Art” in a museum like the Smithsonian” I would agree… if we insert one word: “Great.” There absolutely needs to be a better representation of great Latino art in a museum like the Smithsonian. And many of the pieces in the exhibition I reviewed qualify for that inclusion.

AR: Well, for starters, I agree that “Latino shoe preference” is not a meaningful category, so we can at least agree on that!
(But I bet readers involved in marketing shoes would disagree.)
I also agree that how we identify is a personal decision. And that “Latino” is a big, unruly way to categorize people. Like “American.”

But here’s the rub: the review you wrote sparked heated reactions among some Latino artists, in part, because we’re very used to reading reviews like it.
Take this review in The New York Times of “Phantom Sightings,” an exhibition of post-Chicano art, which starts with the line: “Is it time to retire the identity-based group show?”
Or this mention in The Times of a show featuring an American majority – women – whose work somehow rarely makes it into American museums: “Sexism is probably a good enough explanation for inequities in the market. But might it also have something to do with the nature of the art that women tend to make?”
Time and again reviews of shows that feature work of “minority groups” (who are in many instances majorities in cities where the art world thrives, but whatever) become the occasion not to talk about the show at hand, but to attack the fundamental gesture of curating shows featuring our work.

We read these reviews against the backdrop of media silence which has for decades enabled our erasure from spaces like museums and galleries. In your review, you took an angle which attacked not the show at hand – but the entire meaning of “Latino Art” as a category. A good portion was also spent on critiquing the general direction of the institution of the Smithsonian.
I don’t doubt the show is imperfect, and worthy of critique. I don’t doubt that the show is broad in nature. But in the future I hope to read reviews that take me into the show, on the show’s terms. Reviews that help me understand what specifically works and what doesn’t. And reviews that accept as a starting point that presenting the work of people who inhabit big categories like “Latino Artists” is vital and urgent.

Alex Rivera is a digital media artist and filmmaker, best known for his Sundance award-winning feature film “Sleep Dealer.” His film and digital media work has been screened at The Berlin International Film Festival, the Museum of Modern Art, The Guggenheim, The Getty, Museum, Lincoln Center, PBS, and other international venues.
Philip Kennicott is chief art critic of The Washington Post.

Art review: ‘Our America’ at the Smithsonian — From the Washington Post by Philip Kennicott

Saturday, November 2nd, 2013

One begins to wonder if it’s even possible to organize a major art exhibition devoted to an ethnic or minority group. So many try, and so many fail, and so, too, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which opened a rather dutiful show called “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art” on Friday.

It isn’t a bad show, but surely work made by artists who belong to the more than 50 million people who identify as Hispanic or Latino in the United States is more vibrant, provocative and interesting than what is on display here. Surely there’s a more compelling way to present it, and more interesting things to say about it.

Mostly one feels the strictures placed on the curators, the rules they are following in a leaden, academically proper way. Of course, if it’s a show about Latino art, it must be inclusive and relatively comprehensive, and no major movements or artists must be left out. Of course, if it’s about a population group that has suffered prejudice, it must cut a fine line between accurately presenting the impact of bigotry and reducing Latinos to victims. Of course there isn’t really any universally agreed upon sense of what Latino means, and who belongs to the group, so the label must never be applied in a limiting way. And it mustn’t make any claims that might alienate artists or art lovers, about what Latino art should or shouldn’t be. Add to that a problem particularly acute at the Smithsonian: That the show offend no one, give no heartache to the notoriously timid overseers in the Castle, and prompt no visitor to write so much as a single angry e-mail.

Sample the prose from essays that will eventually be published as a catalogue for the show when it travels to other venues: “The tone and character of much current expression revolves around personal responses to global realities,” writes one author. “These rich examples encourage us to see Latino art not as a bounded category but as a fluid one, open to many dialogues and trajectories,” writes another.

This isn’t just the usual academic blah-blah, but a telling symptom of an insoluble problem: Latino art, today, is a meaningless category. Historically, there are movements and periods when the category is interesting, for example the politicized Chicano and Nuyorican art movements of the 1960s and ’70s, whose artists provide some of the best material on display. There are also subdivisions of “Latino” art that might make sense as a focus for a more targeted exhibition (such as Cuban art dealing with themes of exile). There are also myriad stylistic and formal categories that might narrow the subject enough to see useful detail: abstraction of 1960s, conceptual art, video, poster and mural work.

But throw it all together and try to argue that it’s a virtue rather than a failure of curating to stress the fluidity of definition, the unbounded categories, the many trajectories, and you get a big mess.

That shouldn’t detract from the work, which is often well-made and fascinating. Raphael Montanez Ortiz’s brilliant 1957-58 vivisection of an old cowboy and Indian film, chopped up with a tomahawk and reassembled in frenetic bits and pieces, some of them upside down, is still hypnotically powerful and encompasses so many basic conceptual moves that similar work by other artists since feels derivative. The Puerto Rican artist ADAL embeds a video monitor in an old suitcase, and mashes up scenes from the film “West Side Story” with other kinds of music and voices from a police scanner: The results are strikingly powerful, as the fake sentimentalized emotion of the film’s caricatures takes on a more desperate, authentic sense of trauma.

Manuel Acevedo’s 2004 photographs of a slum in Hartford are altered to include ghostly suggestions of architectural additions, though their lines, rendered in strict perspective, suggest prison fences as much as they might intimate the hope of urban renewal. And Delilah Montoya’s nearly empty photographs of border regions in the Southwest (including her celebrated image “Humane Borders Water Station”) give us a powerful sense of the land as a beautiful, dangerous, eternal constant, unforgiving (to those who confront its arid and torrid expanse) and disinterested in our affairs (especially where we place our borders).

The exhibition also includes work that has become or should be canonical. One of Abelardo Morell’s wonderful camera obscura images rendered inside an empty room (made in 1996) is included, but feels strangely out of place, shy and inward looking, just like the technique that produces it. There is also a faux documentary photograph by the collective Asco, “Decoy Gang War Victim,” made in 1974, and widely seen on the cover of Artforum two years ago. The Asco image, which shows a body lying in the street under dim blue light, was shopped around to television stations with the ridiculous claim that it represented the “last” victim of gang violence in the barrio. The intent was to underscore the sensationalism and credulity of lazy local news programs.

But even strong work doesn’t stand much of a chance if one sees it in isolation, decontextualized or in the company of uninspiring neighbors. Jesse Amado’s “Me, We” reproduces in smooth, beautifully processed granite and marble two wooden shipping palettes, gritty, almost invisible industrial objects. It is a coy and smart gesture, not just to elevate the everyday, but to focus on the mythic power latent in these purely functional objects. One thinks of Atlas, with the world on his shoulders, and all the backbreaking uncelebrated, miserable work it takes to keep a relatively small number of people supplied not just with the necessities of life, but art too.

But why place it in a room with undistinguished abstract paintings? It’s cool, circumspect power would make much more sense in another room, where some of the strongest visual invention — posters that chart the politicization of Latino groups — is displayed.

There is also plenty of work that simply isn’t very good, derivative and dull, adding little to the precedents that inspire it: knock-offs of Claes Oldenburg and Cindy Sherman, second-rate abstraction, and sentimental treacle in regionalist styles.

The exhibition only includes work from the museum’s collection, 92 pieces by 72 artists. Most of it has been acquired since 2011, which is impressive, though one wonders if the museum is getting the strongest pieces by each artist. One also wonders if there is need for some introspection at the American Art Museum. This isn’t the first disappointing show it has mounted in recent seasons (“Art of Video Games,” “Annie Liebowitz: Pilgrimage” and the “Great American Hall of Wonders” were all problematic). The last truly substantial show was the small but rigorous George Ault exhibition in 2011.

It’s painful to say: Someone, or something, seems to be driving the museum toward exhibitions that feel a bit spineless, or formless, or that overtly pander to the audience. And why is the catalogue not ready for the opening of this show? Don’t Washington audiences deserve better?

Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art

on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through March 2. For more information visit americanart.si.edu.

PRdream mourns the passing of Tato Laviera, Nuyorican poet, 1951 – 2013

Saturday, November 2nd, 2013

PRdream mourns the passing of Tato Laviera, Nuyorican poet and a major proponent of Afro-Boricua identity in its earliest manifestation in the Latino literature of the U.S.

Tato Laviera is a first generation Nuyorican poet. Born in Puerto Rico, he moved to New York City with his family in 1960.
Laviera’s poetry, which is written sometimes in Spanish, sometimes in English, more often in Spanglish, addresses language, cultural identity, race, and memory, particularly as it affects the transculturated lives of Puerto Ricans in the United States.
Scholar William Luis describes Laviera’s work as follows: “His poetry is full of the music of bomba and plena, and of rap and preaching. However, it is also socially minded and historical in content. Indeed, his poems are a conglomeration of voices, songs, dialects, and cultures producing a unique synthesis which is moving, instructive, and aesthetically appealing”. From wikipedia.

LATINO AMERICANS — A new PBS documentary series in three parts

Saturday, August 31st, 2013

1949: Four years after the end of World War II. My parents had only recently met. Through dances and other socials like the Annual Armistice Ball, war veterans were finding their future wives and husbands and reintegrating into civilian life. People were celebrating all across the American Empire, from the Caribbean to the Pacific, Puerto Ricans among them. Having served in the American armed forces, they were returning to their families in Puerto Rico or New York, where they became part of the Great Migration.

My mother had established a foothold in New York after working to bring her own mother and most of her siblings stateside from Puerto Rico. In 1949 the first democratically elected Puerto Rican governor took office. Operation Bootstrap, aimed at industrializing the island, was only beginning. My mother Maria Antonia Torres was ready for a new life.

My father Mariano Virgilio Escalona had journeyed from the East after his father, an officer in the Philippine Army, was beheaded during the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. He sought new opportunities to help support his mother and siblings from afar. Filipinos have a term for those compatriots who go abroad and provide for their families — balikbayan. My father was a balikbayan when he met my mother.

The history of these times is written on the faces of my Puerto Rican family. Eight of us look Eurasian. My mother’s sisters, Titi Celia and Titi Julia (“titi” means “auntie”), also married Filipinos. People imagine we are related through our Asian side because of the way we look.

My mother and her two sisters jointly purchased a three-story row house on Bryant Avenue in the Bronx, each occupying a floor with her husband and children. We spent the first ten years of our lives together in what might be considered an early co-op. Our households exemplified Puerto Rican matriarchal rule, with our Filipino fathers usually away at sea. Uncles Sammy and Andy were lifers in the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard; my dad was in the U.S. Merchant Marines.

The Escalonas occupied the first floor with ready access to the porch and backyard. My brother and I spent a great deal of time playing outdoors. My mother was a strong believer in the health achieved by basking in the sun and breathing fresh air.

The Evangelistas lived on the second-floor. When not in church, my two cousins passed the time on their fire escape and on religious outings. Titi Celia had converted to the Pentecostal faith in the late fifties. My grandmother Uquita, our great matriarch, lived with them.

The Julatons moved into the third floor where the previous owner left an old upright piano. Titi Julia had been married before and brought her four Puerto Rican children to live with her and her four half-Filipino girls. Uncle Andy did not seem to mind. These older cousins sang Doowop and R&B. They played conga, guitar and piano. They taught their younger sisters to sing and dance to the latest Salsa, Soul, and Rock. I still remember the great fiestas Titi Julia threw during the holidays. The entire Torres clan would turn up.

Puerto Ricans thrived in New York. Many moved to the suburbs, others bought homes in Puerto Rico. Six of my aunts and uncles relocated to the island after retiring or saving enough to start a small business. My Uncles Gallardo and Eduardo owned barber shops in the Bronx and returned to Puerto Rico to open shops there.

The Julatons were the first to leave our co-op, returning to Puerto Rico in the late sixties as part of the reverse migration. I was too young to remember their sorrowful farewell, but old enough a decade later to suffer the departure of the Evangelistas. My mother bought her sisters’ shares and eventually lost the property to urban blight. We lived in what came to be known as Fort Apache. It almost cost my parents their lives.

Our neighborhood had been a mix of Jews, Italians, West Indians, African Americans, and ever-increasing Puerto Ricans. My best friend Fishy, Raymond Alvarez, was Puerto Rican and Cuban. He lived across the street from us. Fishy’s father emigrated from Cuba because of growing political unrest there. Most of the homes on our block were privately owned and our street was paved with red brick. Our family doctor made house calls and had his office in a beautifully appointed apartment building at the corner. This was our world before the city’s economic crisis devastated the Bronx.

How different we may have seemed to our neighbors is unclear because the neighborhood was diverse and our family formed its own little society or enclave. We seemed more Puerto Rican than Filipino though we looked Asian. We seemed more American than Puerto Rican because our education and most of our cultural references were American. We enjoyed hamburgers, hot dogs, and French fries. We savored meals with platanos maduros, bistec encebollado and arroz con habichuelas. We relished pork adobo, pansit, and ginger chicken soup. When our fathers were home, we feasted on foods from both sides of the empire and some American dishes too. Like New York cut steak, medium rare, with a dash of ketchup, accompanied by slices of buttered French bread, and washed down with ice-cold Seven-Up. A favorite dish of my dad’s and mine too—though today I rarely eat steak or drink soda.

Some of us still live in the Bronx, but all the Puerto Rican-Filipinos are gone. My parents eventually moved to Long Island. I wound up on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, going to college. My brother joined the service.

Many who first arrived from Puerto Rico have passed away but not before seeing an increasingly diverse generation of Puerto Rican-Filipinos. My niece and five nephews are Puerto Rican-Filipino and Polish. Most are married and have their own children, adding Mexican and Chinese to the Puerto Rican mix. The history of these times is written on their faces too.

CHECK OUT THE BLOG AND KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR THE SERIES: http://www.pbs.org/latino-americans/en/blog/2013/08/29/History-Written-Faces/