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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 UrayoÃ¡n 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 TaÃno 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, “AquÃ to be called negrito means to be called LOVE.” It does not read, “AquÃ 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.”
Sam Vargas Jr., The Acentos Foundation
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-callÂ¬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-wayÂ¬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