Museo del Barrio Investigates its Roots
November 17, 2002
By Maruxa Relaño and Liliana Martinez
It is possible that the tension between the popular and the elite,
the local and the global, the past and the present, the Puerto Rican
and the Latin American that has El Museo del Barrio at its epicenter
is as much an issue of identity and politics as it is of effective
communication. Those involved say that they are open to dialog and
cooperation, and that everyone wants to promote Puerto Rican art
and culture, but the tension persists. At least for now.
Julian Zugazagoitia, the new museum director hired "to honor
its mission," will assume his position in less than a week.
Everyones eyes are glued to this 38 year old Mexican with
a solid trajectory in the art world.
According to Zugazagoitia, part of the museums current problem,
defined by community members as "moving too far from its roots,"
is that "we dont communicate enough of what we are doing
with the community."
This judgement is confirmed by Deborah Quiñones, president
of Community Board 11s cultural committee, who has presented
the museums board of directors with a series of tasks. They
include a demand to include more community members in the museum
board, in order to strengthen ties to the popular base that gave
the institution its beginning. This is part of a campaign called
"We are Watching You." The community doesnt just
want services but also the power to make decisions. This, in Quiñones
perspective, was once an essential part of the museums mission.
Until now, "there has not been a dialog," recognizes Zugazagoitia.
"But I want to make it clear, he adds, that the community is
closer to the museum than they think." To corroborate the notion
that "El Museo del Barrio has never stopped being in contact
with the community," Tony Bechara, president of the museums
board of directors, cites multiple educational and formative programs
and workshops for children, artists, educators, adults and even
retired people, with an emphasis on the Puerto Rican and on the
Latino. So, why is there such resentment?
What is problematic is a debate marked by identity issues and emotional
ties. According to Quiñones, "many people consider the
museum to be part of their identity."
A group of activists that give a voice to the community, among them
the Puerto Rican painter and photographer Juan Flores, feel that
the museums importance to the Puerto Rican community is closely
tied to the communitys history of being marginalized from
the American and Latin American context. One just has to think of
Puerto Ricans colonial condition, and its need to affirm its
identity and cultural as well as sociopolitical value. "We
are floating in limbo, and the museum is part of this fight to keep
from disappearing," said Flores.
Work of the Displaced
The creation of the museum in 1969, in the context of the fight
for civil rights, responded to a great extent to the needs of displaced
people. From the very bottom of the social scale, the creation of
this space gave the working Puerto Rican community a chance to say
to the world, to the United States, to New York, and above all,
to themselves, "we exist."
Deborah Quiñones, Juan Flores and Aurora Flores, an activist
that took part in the museums beginnings, now lament that
when they walk up to the building at 1230 Fifth Avenue they are
hard pressed to find a Puerto Rican or a Spanish-speaker, besides
the security guard. "There are no Puerto Ricans at important
positions in the museum," said Juan Flores. None of the curators
are Puerto Rican. "No one who has an idea of what is going
on in the museum is Puerto Rican," said Aurora Flores. However,
"we have people that are very prepared [for these jobs]."
According to Quiñones, the museum was founded to give artistic
validity and commercial viability to Puerto Rican art, and in this
sense, the mission is unfulfilled. Juan Flores agrees, "we
continue to be marginalized everywhere."
A class conflict?
The current tension, then, may well represent a fear that popular
Puerto Rican artistic expression will disappear or disintegrate.
"The museum has always wanted to evolve towards the international
scene, but maintaining a firm connection with the community,"
said Juan Flores. But this is exactly the intention that Zugazagoitia
Besides, nearly half of the members of the museums board of
directors are of Puerto Rican descent. "No one more than they
want to see their museum continue forward," said Zugazagoitia.
The community wants the same thing, but, for Juan Flores, the museum
board does not share "this same link, established with so much
sacrifice. They dont have the same conscience." For Aurora
Flores, this comes down to a question of class.
The similes are painful: "It is as if a family of immigrants
here, they sacrifice so that their child goes to school, the child
studies with Americans and when he graduates, he says, my
mother doesnt know how to speak English, she has no culture.
And he looks down on her," said Aurora Flores.
Juan Flores said that the progressive exclusion of the community
by the board of directors is like "inviting someone into your
home, only to have them take control of it and kick you out."
Bechara dismisses attempts to define the situation as a class conflict:
"we humbly feel that those that feel this way are profoundly
mistaken. The objective of every cultural institution, like El Museo
del Barrio, is to offer a cultural service to the entire community."
But the community wants to participate in making decisions about
what kind of services it wants to see, and Zugazagoitia says that
he has already started "the process of moving closer."
It is true that Zugazagoitia has inherited a boiling cauldron of
conflict, but it seems as though he is hearing all of the voices.
"I hope that they will allow me to make some errors among many
successes," he said.
The dialectic tension that rises from these voices in opposition
will create a new order sooner or later. Today, El Museo del Barrio
is the only Puerto Rican museum in the United States, because all
of the others have disappeared.
It remains to be seen whether this will be so tomorrow.
Translated from Spanish by Erica Pearson.
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