Tag Archives: El Barrio


Dear Friends,

This has been an extremely difficult week for El Barrio/East Harlem. The tragic building collapse that took place just a half block from my district office has been a painful experience for our community. I send my deepest condolences to the loved ones of those we lost and my thoughts remain with the families and friends of those who are still missing.

As I have shared in my public appearances, I was on my way down to City Hall when I received a tweet about the explosion. I turned around and went back to the district right away, establishing a command center out of the District Office.

Since Wednesday, I have been touring the scene throughout the day, monitoring all developments and keeping in close contact with all city agencies. My staff is continuing to connect individuals and families to available resources and seek options for permanent housing in our local community for those who need it.

Services for Residents

Individuals seeking assistance from city agencies can visit the Resident Service Center on Saturday and Sunday from 9 am to 5 pm. The Center is now located at 1580 Park Avenue (@ 114th Street) under the MetroNorth tracks at La Marqueta. The center at the Salvation Army on 125th Street will no longer be open. You can also call 311 or my district office (212-828-9800) with any inquiries.

The City is actively seeking opportunities for short- and long-term housing and is working around the clock to get vacated buildings back on line for families.

As I have been stressing, it is critically important that our immigrant communities in particular understand that no one should be afraid to come forward and seek assistance because they do not have legal status. City agencies are prohibited from asking about immigration status.

How You Can Help

I want to thank everyone for their expressions of support and for wanting to provide assistance during this difficult time. We are currently exploring a mechanism to accept monetary donations and make sure that these funds are used to provide services and support to our neighbors in need. I will be in touch with more information in the coming days.

In the meantime, please continue to keep our neighbors in your thoughts and prayers.

Thank you.


Melissa Mark-Viverito
NYC Council

PRdream mourns the passing of Piri Thomas, September 30, 1928 – October 17, 2011



Nuyorican author, born Juan Pedro Tomas to a Puerto Rican mother and Cuban father in El Barrio, Spanish Harlem, on September 30, 1928. He is best known for his autobiographical novel “Down These Mean Streets.” Other works include “Savior, Savior Hold My Hand,” “Seven Long Times,” and “Stories from El Barrio.”

Piri Thomas traveled around the country as well as Central America and Europe, giving lectures and conducting workshops in colleges and universities. He was the subject of a film “Every Child is Born a Poet: The Life and Work of Piri Thomas,” by Jonathan Robinson. Thomas died from pneumonia at his home in El Cerrito, California on October 17, 2011.

We express our condolences to the Thomas family.

Row over Julia de Burgos Cultural Center in El Barrio, NYC

From the National Latino Institute for Policy

Note: There has been some controversy for some time over charges of the mismanagement of the city-owned building housing the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center in Manhattan’s East Harlem. In a highly controversial move, alleging mismanagement by Taller Boricua, New York City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverto intervened to change the management of the center working through the city’s Economic Development Agency. This has caused major divisions in El Barrio’s artistic community. The latest flare-up is reported below by El Diario columnist Gerson Borrero over allegations that the Councilwoman disrespected elder community leader Yolanda Sanchez at a recent meeting (in which Ms. Sanchez was not present).

Yolanda Sanchez, 78 years old, is an institution in the Latino community who has spent over thirty years in the development and management of diverse human services. She serves as the Executive Director of the Puerto Rican Association for Community Affairs and is President of the National Latinas Caucus, past president of the East Harlem Council for Human Services and former director of the CUNY Office of Puerto Rican Program Development. Ms. Sanchez is a former National Urban Fellow and a graduate of Harvard University’s School of Business, and holds an MSW degree from Columbia University Graduate School of Social Work.

Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico and was elected to the City Council in January 2006 to serve as Council Member for the 8th Council District. She is the first Puerto Rican woman and Latina elected to represent her district. During her first term, Melissa has sponsored several local laws to address tenant harassment and promote construction safety. Prior to her election to the City Council, the Councilwoman worked for the 1199 SEIU New York’s Health Care Union, as well as several community organizations and political campaigns. Besides her professional life, Melissa has been very active in community affairs, founding Women of El Barrio-an organization that promotes the development of women as leaders in the economic, political and social life of their community.

—Angelo Falcón

Bajo Fuego
Row over Julia de Burgos Cultural Center in El Barrio
By Gerson Borrero | Bajofuego@eldiariony.com
El Diario-La Prensa (March 2, 2011)
translated from Spanish by NiLP

In a two-page letter, the Board of Directors of Casabe Houses accuses New York City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito of having insulted and threatened them during a meeting in her office in Manhattan in what was intended to be a discussion about the future of the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center.

As highlighted by the February 24 letter, signed by Frank Quiles in his capacity as president of the organization that provides housing and services to the elderly, Mark-Viverito “used the occasion to talk rudely of Yolanda Sánchez , who is a member of our Board and one of the most respected leaders of the Puerto Rican and Latino community of New York City over the past thirty years. ”

Beyond the bickering that provoked the letter, it was signed by nine other members of the Board, including Ms. Sanchez, and accused of the City Councilwomen of the 8th District of telling them, “I’ve already made the decision,” to support another group to take charge of the Cultural Center, which has been allegedly mismanaged by the current managers.

“They never approached me and did not let me know of their interest” said Mark-Viverito as she thundered against what she considered a lack of respect. According to the Councilwoman, “They came to the meeting with the intention of an ambush and trying to tarnish my reputation.”

After calming down, Mark-Viverito in a telephone conversation admitted that she did tell them, “My support has already been given to another organization.” However, she denied that she threatened them or insulted Ms. Sanchez.

“I was firm in my tone,” said Mark-Viverito, who added, “I am a human being.” She assured us that there will be a formal response to the group.

To all this we assume that once the Hispanic Federation, the theater group Pregones, Los Pleneros de la 21 and the Puerto Rican Travelling Theatre saw this aired in public, they will re-evaluate their participation in the Mark-Viverito coalition created to assume direction of the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center.

“Yolanda is 78 and Melissa, who is not even of El Barrio, disrespected her,” said one activist who asked not to be identified but who is bothered by this rumor. Be seen as making the city agency, Economic Development Corporation, who could receive a formal complaint about what was supposed to come from the mayor. All pending.

“I was firm in my tone,” said Mark-Viverito, who added, “I am a human being.” The official assured us that there will be a formal response to the group.

To all this we assume that once the Hispanic Federation, the theater group Pregones, Los Pleneros de la 21 and the Puerto Rican Travelling Theatre to see this aired in public, re-evaluate their participation in the Mark-Viverito coalition created to assume direction of Julia de Burgos. “Yolanda is 78 and Melissa, who is not even in El Barrio, disrespected,” said one activist who asked not to be identified but who is bothered by the already rumored on the street. We are waiting to see what the city agency, the Economic Development Corporation, who could receive a formal complaint about what the Councilwoman is planning. Let’s wait and see.

In Search of “flamboyant Language”
By Albert Medina
El Diario-La Prensa (4 de marzo 2011)
translated from Spanish by Albert Medina

In an article on 2 March in El Diario/La Prensa, Gerson Borrero commented on a letter received from Frank Quiles in the name of the organization over which he presided, saying that Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito had commented “in showy language” against Yolanda Sanchez.”

What were those flamboyant words?

He also wrote that an activist – not named – had told him that Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito -was not from El Barrio! (the neighborhood) What Puerto Rican is not from El Barrio? Even those born in the United States.

Celia Ramirez, who represents East River North Renewal HDFC, should also have been mentioned when he listed the organizations participating in the coalition supported by Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito.

The values and material objects that make up a shared way of life: the intangible creations of human society; and the products which emerged out of the interactions of people – within the limitations of the then geographic boundaries that encompassed El Barrio, NY – is not something to be glossed over lightly.

Albert Medina
East River North Renewal


Questions prepared by Mary Boncher, psychologist, poet and long-time El Barrio resident. Responses from Marilyn Navarro, long-time El Barrio resident.

QUESTIONS LOOKING FOR ANSWERS: I just read a quote from Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the New Yorker (October 25, 2010 page 81) that seems quite applicable. “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts”

Development of the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center
1. Which organizations and individuals were involved in the conception and early planning (1992-1995) for the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center? What roles did they play?

Johnny Colon – Music School, Ecuelecua – Maria Mar, Teatro LaTea, Taller Boricua – Fernando Salicrup, Edwin Marcial – Teatro Puertoriqueño, A Dance group, and another theater group I have to see if I have the name in some of my older files. The board chair was Carmen Vega Rivera the ED of EHTP at the time. The fiscal conduit and often mediator between EDC, the City, and the groups, was AHA. AHA provided space for their board meetings, and an administrative assistant to support the board of directors.

Side Note… someone should find out who houses the records for the Association of Hispanic Arts, while they are no longer in existence they may have kept copies of the board meeting minutes for the JBLCC board. We called the project the JBLCC project.

2. What was the original idea(s) for the Center?

The Julia de Burgos Latino and Cultural Center – JBLCC

It was suppose to be the mecca for the arts in El Barrio. It was suppose to provide a home to arts organizations struggling to find affordable space to teach, perform, and house Latino Arts in East Harlem. It would have a community Theater that the groups would share and also rent out to other arts organizations, gallery space, classrooms for teaching arts, and spaces for lectures and workshops. While the idea was that the center would be a Latino Arts Center, over 75% of the organizations being considered for moving in, and on the board were Puerto Rican organizations with deep roots in the East Harlem community.

3. In what ways were these ideas modified by the process of opening the Center?

4. What were the financial arrangements? What agency or organization owned (15 years ago) and now owns the building? What agency financed the renovations of the building?

It was owned by the city no one agency owned the space. The city would be leasing it to the organizations who were on the founding board. The organizations would pay rent based on the square footage they occupied. The city financed, but I cannot remember what city agency. I want to say DCA and EDC, but my memory does not carry that far back. A general manager would be hired to run the space. EDC and the City would have oversight for some time (amount of time I cannot recall), but eventually the space would become it’s own entity if they maintained compliance and operated well with some supervision from external agencies for a predetermined amount of time. The rent collected had to be enough to pay the mortgage, cover the operational expenses, and create a reserve. This is what determined the cost per square foot. Many of the organizations on the board who were hoping to move into the space could not afford the rent based on this square footage. There were conversations and the then board chair believed that through fundraising, with a good general manager they would be able to sustain, but overall the groups going in would have to agree to pay the square footage cost that was set, as they could not rely on fundraising when they had not even received the keys to the building, or the okay to move in. They had to prove to the overseeing agencies listed in number 5 below that they could sustain the building based on the only income that was guaranteed at the time… rent.

Side note…. You must all remember this was at a time where Cuomo was governor. The arts were not largely supported. Funding to the arts was not strong at all during this time. The fear of the larger institutions involved, overall, was that the groups moving in did not have the financial resources to be able to afford the rent, and that eventually the consortium would falter, because they would not be able to pay the mortgage, build reserve, and cover operations expenses in general.

What agency signed for and has carried the mortgage?
What were the terms of the financing?
How much money was spent? How much money is still owed?

5. What was the role of the following in the conception and launching of the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center?
New York City Cultural Affairs Commission
Economic Development Corporation
Borough President
City Council Representative
District 11 Community Board

Granting Leases for Space in the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center – What happened in 1995?
1. What entity determined which organizations were granted leases?

The organizations on the original board submitted applications with extensive documentation that was reviewed by members of the organizations outlined in question #5 above. They were supported by AHA in preparing their applications. Those organizations that met the criteria established by the those in #5 above were suppose to move in.

2. What was the basis for determination?

3. What were/are the conditions of the leases?

4. In particular, what are the conditions for the leases granted for the multi-purpose space?

5. How was it that two floors in the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center was rented to the Department of Education for a school??

6. What entities oversee the Julia de Burgos, legally and operationally?
What have they done to ensure that the vision for the Center is actualized?
What power do they legally have?
Who has power over them?

7. What specifically is the role and function of the Economic Development Corporation? Who sits on the board of the EDC? How are they elected/appointed and for what term? To whom are they accountable?

8. What is the relationship between the Economic Development Corporation and Community Board 11, our City Council member, other political entities that affect El Barrio? How does it all work and fit together?

Our Council Woman’s Request to the EDC
1. What complaints/criticisms lead our Council Woman to go to the EDC to ask them to discontinue current lease for the multi-purpose space and to put out an RFEI?

2. What if any discussions did our Council Woman have with Taller Boricua about these complaints and possible solutions?

3. What was/is our Council Woman’s assessment of the responsibility of EDC for the conditions she has identified as problematic with the use and utilization of the multi-purpose and theater space at the Julia de Burgos?

Taller Boricua and the Multi-Purpose Space
1. How has the space been used?

2. Who has and who has not had access to using the space?

3. What does the Taller understand as the complaints/criticisms of the use and utilization of the multi-purpose space?

4. What is the Taller’s response to these complaints/criticisms?

Current Issues from a Broader Perspective
1. What is the EDC’s responsibility in relation to the current situation with the Julia de Burgos?

2. What are the long term ramifications of the following statement in the online NYC Procurement Opportunities

This RFEI is not a formal offering for organizations to locate at the Site. However NYCEDC reserves the right to enter into negotiations with the organization(s) on the basis of the responses to the RFEI without engaging in further processes. NYCEDC and the City reserve the right, at their sole discretion, to withdraw the RFEI; to choose to discuss various approaches with one or more respondents (including those not responding to the RFEI), to use the ideas or proposals submitted in any manner deemed to be in the best interest of the NYCEDC and the City, including but not limited to soliciting competitive submission relating to such ideas or proposals; and/or undertake the prescribed work in a manner other than that which is set forth herein. NYCEDC and the City likewise reserve the right, at any time, to change any terms of the RFEI.” (darkened area not in original)

3. What is the potential negative cost to the Puerto Rican community in El Barrio of yet another “in-fight this time between our Council woman and her supporter and the Taller Boricua and its supporters?

4. What options, if any, are there for the community to handle the differences over the Julia de Burgos spaces in a less contentious manner?

5. What if anything have we learned from past battles over institutions in El Barrio and the ensuing loses to the Puerto Rican Community

6. What mistakes were made in those battles/confrontations? What do we need to learn?

7. What does this all have to do with gentrification?

What visions do we have for how to handle differences within El Barrio so that we do not lose what is left of El Barrio for the Puerto Rican Community.

1. What visions are there for how we can work more cooperatively, forge a stronger community, and combat gentrification?

2. What middle forces are available in the community to mediate the current conflict which presents as quite polarized

Side note…. From what I remember there was a general sense even then in 1993 – 1997 when I worked directly with these individuals, that Taller Boricua monopolized the overall process. While perhaps well intentioned in wanting to be a part of such a historic project and wanting to be in the space, other groups felt that their voice was not as prominent in the process as that of those who represented Taller Boricua. What started out as a collective of arts organizations taking part in a historic projected ended sadly. When those doors opened, the only group that went into the space – from the original organizations on the board – was Taller Boricua. My memory may be wrong, and if it is, not more than one or two others from that original board ever went into the space.

M. Navarro,
Puerto Rican Resident of El Barrio for 38 years
Born and Raised


looking for answers
structuring seeing

to know

to understand
what is

knowing seems
as easy as answering
a question

where from
the question

how is it
to be asked

how is it

how is it



An Open Letter to City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito Concerning the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center

I am writing to you on behalf of my husband, myself, and all our friends who have been attending the Latin dance night at Julia de Burgos Cultural Center. We have been dancing there since the site opened. It’s a wonderful way to preserve the rich history of Latin music and dance, especially since most of us are over 50 and remember Tito Puente, Ray Barretto, Joe Cuba, whose wake we attended, Celia Cruz, Hector Lavoe,and many others.

I can’t think of a better way to promote harmony among people than by congregating at Burgos every Wednesday night. There are dancers from so many varied ethnic and religious backgrounds that it is an excellent representation of multicultural activity. I have never witnessed a harsh word, argument, or altercation in all the years I have dancing there. People come for their love of Latin music and dance. We socialize, talk about old times, eat, drink, take photographs together, and most importantly, share our passion for mambo, cha cha, and merengue. And it is a passion! Every week someone celebrates a birthday with a huge cake, which is offered to friends and acquaintances alike. I celebrated mine on November 17, and I was so happy to have such a spot where camaraderie is at its height.

Unfortunately, you have a reputation of being unsupportive of small business, low-income tenants, and affordable housing, in favor of big business and multinational corporations. I suppose that closing Burgos is in line with your present political leanings and aspirations. If I am wrong about this, please respond to this email. I would like to hear your side.


Jan Mayrick

New York State Senator Bill Perkins honors Judith Escalona, Executive Director of PRdream.com

March 26, 2010 – New York State Senator Bill Perkins and the Caribbean Cultural Center recognized Judith Escalona, filmmaker, writer, critic, curator, producer and executive director of PRdream.com as one of New York’s accomplished women in the arts.

For her work in new media and film, Escalona has received grants from New York State Council on the Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affaris, New York Foundation, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, North Star Fund and Chase/SMART. Escalona is a El Diario/La Prensa Destacada Latina (Distinguished Latina (2000) and a Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College Awardee (2003). She is currently in postproduction on a new film entitled Bx3M which she wrote and directed.

PRdream.com which Escalona founded in 1998 changed the cultural landscape of Northern Manhattan with its new media gallery MediaNoche, Uptown’s only art and technology gallery presenting a roster of local and international new media artists. PRdream.com has been recognized by AOL, About.com, and DMOZ Open Directory Project.

Her work has been featured in WCBS-TV, WNBC-TV, CUNY-TV, the NY Times, Daily News, NY Post, and the Village Voice. Escalona also produces television segments for Independent Sources, a magazine show presenting the views of ethnic and alternative media on CUNY-TV. She is the original creator and curator of Nuyorican Cinema and the Handball Court Summer Film Festival (now known as PRdream Summer Film Fest). Escalona teaches filmmaking at The City College of the City University of New York.

The award ceremony took place on March 26, 2010.

The Puerto Rican Community Speaks Out: The word “spic” is out!

Note: The recent controversy over the naming by El Museo del Barrio of a spoken word series using the word “spic” hit a nerve among many in the Puerto Rican’Latino literary community and others. The Museo issued a statement on this issue on the website, which generated a response from some leading Puerto Rican cultural workers. We thought you would find this exchange interesting and thought-provoking, understanding, after all, that words can be like bricks.

To express your views on this issue to the Museo’s Director, Julian Zugazagoitia, you can write to him at director@elmuseo.org.

—Angelo Falcón

You Spoke Out/We Listened!
El Museo del Barrio (December 9, 2009)

El Museo del Barrio, out of respect for those members of our community who have expressed strong feelings against the use of the word ‘spic’ in the title of our spoken word program, has renamed this series. The new title is “Speak Up!/Speak Out!”

El Museo is proud that many of its programs and exhibitions are at the cutting edge of Latino artistic expression. We are emboldened by the strength we draw from our roots and culture, which allows us to respect the past while helping to chart the future place of the Latino voice in the general culture.

Our program is a platform for addressing contemporary social issues and political concerns-especially in terms of the Latino experience-through the creative use of language. The artists participating in the program over the past two years typically have long professional trajectories, and are deeply passionate about language and its social/political/historical weight and significance. Their aesthetic vision and dynamic engagement have generated lively discussion, debate, and creativity, and has made spoken word programming at El Museo an indispensable forum for ideas. As a result, the program has built a significant and loyal following.

We deeply regret that some of the artists that generated this platform by participating in the series have become targets of hate mail. We strongly believe that as artists they have the right to use words within the context of their art as a means of expression as they see fit. No artist should be censored or ostracized for being evocative or provocative.

We appreciate hearing the range of thoughts and feelings that have arisen in relation to the use of the word ‘spic’ in the title of our spoken word program. While the title was conceived as a re-appropriation of the term as a means of empowerment-an approach that already has a history in our own community, see context information below-the word still evokes strong and hurtful connotations. Therefore out of sensitivity to those who have expressed concerns with the use of the term and with profound respect for those for whom this term is offensive, we have renamed the series “Speak Up!/Speak Out!”

We take this opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to spoken word as a programming area. We continue to be proud that El Museo is a public platform where discussions like this happen for the advancement and understanding of our communities. We strongly believe that the respectful, insightful and articulated expressions of support and concern help us move forward and grow as a vocal, dynamic, and engaged community.
We are grateful for all the passionate feedback we have received for this series and invite you all to continue participating and joining us for our next installments of “Speak Up!/Speak Out!”

Context of Reference for How the Term “Spic” Was Used in the Initial Naming of the Program

El Museo did not intend to be hurtful when using the word ‘spic’ in the initial naming of the spoken word series. We hoped that by re-appropriating a word with a painful history for Latinos one could transform the word into a tool of empowerment.

This kind of re-appropriation and transformation has been successful in other contexts. For example, gay activists now use the old insult ‘queer’ in a positive manner (as in the slogan “We’re here, we’re queer,” among other uses). A group of Jewish journalists now publish a positive, edgy magazine called Heeb (also once a slur). Chicanos on the West Coast who once resented being called ‘pochos’ by other Mexicans now use the phrase with pride and humor in the hilarious satiric magazine Pocho, and comedy troupe of the same name. Each of these groups has been victorious in reclaiming an old slur, thus rendering moot the once painful effect of the word.

Within our own Latino community, the effort to reclaim the term ‘spic’ also has a long history, both in comedic plays and serious literature. The famed late Boricua poet Pedro Pietri used ‘spic’ in his acclaimed “Puerto Rican Obituary”-a poem first read in 1969 at a Young Lords rally-to call attention to racism against Puerto Rican immigrants. John Leguizamo’s Spic-O-Rama is a comedic play about a Latino family, based on his own childhood. This show has been publicly acclaimed since it launched in 1993. It enjoyed a sold-out run in Chicago before relocating to New York’s Westside Theater, where it drew large Latino audiences and won Leguizamo a Drama Desk Award.

Poet Urayoán Noel used the word in his 2000 piece, “Spic Tracts,” to attack present-day racism. And in 2005, Nuyorican performance artist Chaluisan opened a one-person show, entitled Spic Chic, at the Ibiza nightclub in the Bronx, which later enjoyed a successful run at the Wings Theater in New York City’s West Village. Also, acclaimed Mexican-American intellectual Ilan Stavans’ recent book, Mr. Spic Goes To Washington, employs humor to make salient points about Latino political engagement and one fictional character’s rise from the barrio to the halls of power.

To better understand this re-conceptualization, we must think about the history of the word. ‘Spic’ is widely believed to have originated in the phrases “no spic English,” or “I spic Spanish,” as uttered by a recent immigrant. Back when the term was coined, Latinos were often made to feel ashamed of speaking Spanish, or of not speaking English well. Many older Latinos remember teachers punishing them for speaking Spanish in class, or their parents being ashamed to have their children “spic Spanish.” Today when we use that word, we invoke a new meaning; a new pride. We are saying we are no longer ashamed to “spic Spanish.” Latinos across the country now advocate for dual language schools so our children can continue to speak our ancestors’ language (and some schools even teach Nahuatl and Taíno words). We are now proudly bilingual, in our music, movies, and art. Thus, creating this title in a sense celebrates the fact that we have now reached a point where we are proud to ‘spic up,’ in English or Spanish, with and without accents.

El Museo recognizes the charge that words can have and thus has renamed the series as “Speak Up!/Speak Out!” Our commitment to the spoken word is reflected by our listening to the words that were spoken and the feelings those words elicited. Speak Up!/Speak Out! reflects our commitment to having all words spoken with passion, creativity, and respect. Please join us for our upcoming programs and continue speaking up and speaking out for the betterment of our communities.

Open Letter on the Renaming of El Museo del Barrio’s Spoken Word Series “Speak Up/Speak Out”
By Richard Villar Sam Vargas Jr., Carmen Pietri-Diaz, Sam Diaz, Jesus “Papoleto” Melendez, and Fernando Salicrup (December 9, 2009)

El Museo Del Barrio has responded to the controversy surrounding their spoken word series, formerly titled “Spic Up/Speak Out.” The full text of this response, entitled “You Spoke Out/We Listened,” can be read at their website: http://www.elmuseo.org/en/explore-online.

A publicly-funded, community-founded arts institution should know better than to market to audiences, poets, or anyone else using the word “spic.”

In the last two weeks, this simple principle has led several diverse communities of artists, writers, teachers, and community members to gather, discuss, organize, and express their disappointment toward this unfortunate word choice. In recognition of this fact, and in response to the community’s postings, letters, and emails to museum staff (including its executive director), El Museo has chosen the correct path and changed the name of the show to “Speak Up/Speak Out.”

Unfortunately, El Museo has also chosen to continue concealing its poor artistic custodianship and community engagement behind the false fig leaves of free artistic expression and an ex post facto linguistic “context” of reappropriation (i.e. the act of reclaiming the word “spic”) for the original naming of the series.
Among the items unaddressed in El Museo’s three-page statement is that from the spring of 2008 until the summer of 2009, El Museo never claimed this context in its advertising, mailings, show flyers, or show descriptions. In fact, the first noted dispute over the title came from some of the very artists they sought to showcase, who in the summer of 2009 engaged in an email debate about the word choice in question. Then, and only then, did El Museo and its defenders attempt to supply a context of reappropriation to the series title. And only until an article appeared in the New York Times did the institution seem interested in entertaining a change in the name.

This alleged context for the naming of their series perpetuates the false parallel between individual acts of expression and the programming choices of a community-founded, publicly-funded institution.

To be perfectly clear, we believe that no artist should be censored or ostracized for their word choices, even those deemed offensive. We have never called for this series’ cancellation, nor have we pressured individual artists to back out of the series. We reject any such calls. Instead, we encourage all artists contracted to perform in this newly-renamed series to use their considerable artistic talents to voice their agreement or their displeasure with the Museo’s word choice as part of their performances.

We agree that the use of the word “spic” has a history in Latino literature. However, contrary to El Museo’s statement, the history is not an altogether positive one. Not every creative use of a slur implies a reclaiming or reappropriation of that slur.

We take particular issue with the interpretation of Pedro Pietri’s poem “Puerto Rican Obituary.” Neither of the two instances of the word’s use within the poem can be construed as reappropriation. Ironically, the one true instance of reappropriation in the poem is found in the Spanish word “negrito,” a word used by some Caribbean Latinos as an expression of love and a backhanded slap at the racist traditions our cultures have historically engendered. Notice, however, that Mr. Pietri’s line reads, “Aquí to be called negrito means to be called LOVE.” It does not read, “Aquí to be called spic means to be called LOVE.”

Regardless of the poetic interpretations offered or refuted, we reject out of hand the notion that individual uses of an epithet by themselves constitute an excuse for an institution to use an epithet as a program name. Our intent here is to remind El Museo Del Barrio of the difference between artistic expression and curatorial responsibility, a responsibility that has clearly been abdicated by means of El Museo’s latest statement. We read it as neither a true acknowledgment of the community’s outrage, nor as an apology. The fact is, nowhere in its missive does El Museo accept responsibility or explicitly apologize for offending people to whom they refer as “those for whom this term is offensive.” They have instead attempted to define a serious curatorial miscue, the use of an epithet by an arts institution, as an act of free speech and artistic license. To say El Museo misses the point is a gross understatement.

To date, we have yet to receive full disclosure as to how this series name was conceived in the first place. We still do not know which curator, intern, administrator, or committee was responsible to putting the title to paper. No staff member, senior manager, or board member of El Museo was willing to put his or her name on the statement. El Museo’s executive director, Julian Zugazagoitia, has not responded to a single email sent to him.

We continue to be hopeful for a fruitful community dialogue with El Museo and its management, given the activist history and community roots of the institution itself. To that end, we would suggest a community roundtable, one attended by the public and the Museo’s Board of Trustees and management, to give a public, face-to-face airing of all points of view on this particular matter.

We also renew our call for Mr. Zugazagoitia, in his capacity as executive director, to engage this community positively and take steps to ensure that this incident and incidents like it do not recur. And we call upon Mr. Zugazagoitia, the Board, and the public and private funders of El Museo to examine their own statement of purpose and ask themselves if the original choice of the word “spic” in its public programming truly
serves “to enhance the sense of identity, self-esteem and self-knowledge of the Caribbean and Latin American peoples by educating them in their artistic heritage and bringing art and artists into their communities.”

Richard Villar
Sam Vargas Jr., The Acentos Foundation
Carmen Pietri-Diaz
Sam Diaz
Jesus “Papoleto” Melendez, El Puerto Rican Embassy
Fernando Salicrup, Taller Boricua

Previous articles for context:

“Poetry Series Spurs Debate on the Use of an Old Slur Against Latinos,” by David Gonzalez. New York Times, November 20, 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/21/nyregion/21poets.html?_r=1&emc=eta1

“Leaping The Barricades,” by Rich Villar. “El Literati Boricua” (weblog), November 25, 2009. http://literatiboricua.blogspot.com/2009/11/leaping-barricades-reaction-and-call¬to.html

“El Museo Changes Word That Got in the Way of the Meaning,” by David Gonzalez. New York Times, December 4, 2009. http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/12/04/at-el-museo-a-word-got-in-the-way¬of-the-meaning/

“Museo Del Barrio Changes Spic Up/Speak Out Poetry Series,” Village Voice New York News Blog. December 5, 2009. http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/archives/2009/12/museo_del_barri.php

*Las Octavitas with Zon del Barrio*

*Zon del Barrio* @ G & G

*Fri. 1.12.08*

& A special in-store presentation with *Yomo Toro* in
El Barrio, USA on

*Fri. 1.18.08*

*David Fernandez, Aurora, Yomo Toro & Sammy Rosa: Zon del Barrio*

Twelve days of Christmas??? Not for Latinos, the party continues into *Las Octavitas with Zon del Barrio*.

Saturday, January 12 – Two shows: 11:30 p.m. & 1 a.m.

Gonzalez & Gonzalez
625 Broadway & Lafayette, New York, 10012*

Cost : No Cover

There’s never a cover and there’s even a free dance lesson if you get
there early. But bring your own on2 partner for insurance. There’s also
a mouth watering Mexican cuisine for those who want dinner and a full
bar for the drinkers. Performing dance-style classic Afro-Puerto Rican &
Cuban music from the barrios, *Aurora & Zon del Barrio* bring its foot
stomping, funk-based classic salsa, plena, bomba & boogalu to the
corners of the Barrios where Latinos live, work, & play the “son” found
throughout the Caribbean.

Welcome to the barrio zone; Where History Becomes Music. Come check
out our new members of Zon del Barrio. New Year, New Sound, New Soul….
www.ZondelBarrio.com. Click on our EVENTS page to watch a clip from our
sold out x-mas show with YOMO TORO @ SOBs.


PRdream mourns the passing of Raquel Villegas

Community Activist
Woman of El Barrio
She will long be remembered in the hearts
of the men and women of El Barrio
who she cared for so deeply….


WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 13, 4:00 PM to 9:00 PM

(212) 369-6160