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El Museo del Barrio Investigates its Roots
From Hoy
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. Everyone’s eyes are glued to this 38 year old Mexican with a solid trajectory in the art world.

According to Zugazagoitia, part of the museum’s current problem, defined by community members as "moving too far from its roots," is that "we don’t communicate enough of what we are doing with the community."

This judgement is confirmed by Deborah Quiñones, president of Community Board 11’s cultural committee, who has presented the museum’s 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 doesn’t just want services but also the power to make decisions. This, in Quiñones’ perspective, was once an essential part of the museum’s 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 museum’s 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 museum’s importance to the Puerto Rican community is closely tied to the community’s history of being marginalized from the American and Latin American context. One just has to think of Puerto Rican’s 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 museum’s 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 expresses.

Besides, nearly half of the members of the museum’s 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 don’t 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 doesn’t 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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