The Subtle Language of Caribbean Identity at El Museo del Barrio

ArticleEduardo González-CuevaComment

A New York subway rider going north along Lexington Avenue, will realize that right after 96th Street a noticeable demographic change takes place in the train. It is as if an invisible border has been crossed: the fancy clothes leave the train in God-awful boring York City and, suddenly, a new imaginary country assaults the senses. Most of the riders speak Spanish now, with the accents of the Caribbean; Blacks and Latinos make up the majority in the car, and working-class smarts replace fashion smart.

Walking out of the subway at 103rd Street, the traveler takes the first steps into Spanish Harlem. Puerto Rican flags hanging from the windows of the apartments mark the territory clearly, a mural celebrates Celia Cruz, and the bodegas bustle with the comings and goings of the neighbors. These gritty streets were once walked by the likes of Ray Barreto, Tito Puente, Marc Anthony. Who knows—they are probably being walked today, by the next big star of salsa, jazz, or some other genre we can’t even imagine. That a neighborhood hard hit by poverty and unemployment manages to be a cradle for writers and poets is not really a mystery: where identity is strong, young, creative minds thrive.

A flagship of this creativity is El Museo del Barrio. Founded in late 60s to host Latino artists, it has become a burning core for cultural life and has expanded into a massive collection, far overflowing its handsome galleries on 5th Avenue. All the questions about Latino identity converge here, as the original Puerto Rican sediment becomes the foundation over which new voices–Mexican, Guatemalan, Colombian–build stories for themselves.

When I visited El Museo, it was featuring the exhibition “Caribbean: Crossroads of the World,” the result of years of painstaking work by curator Elvis Fuentes at the head of a team in three different museums in New York. The exhibit defies the assumptions of the visitor by showing unexpected connections, material, ideological, artistic, between the Caribbean and New York.

Rossana Martínez, Golden Islands, 2006.

Rossana Martínez, Golden Islands, 2006.

“Caribbean…” is a meditation on the linkages between the centuries-long exploitation of the region’s resources and people, and the emergence of ideas of liberation and universalism. From the early depictions of the disappeared Taíno Indians, exterminated by the gold-driven Conquistadors, to the economies of sugar and tobacco, the Caribbean has been imagined as a region of unimaginable riches. All major Western empires have disputed the products of the region, but, little by little, New York City has absorbed most of its traffic and has proven to be a Mecca to its people.

New York was made rich to a large extent by the massive transportation of sugar and rum from the West Indies and tobacco from Cuba; and similarly, it became a space of encounter, not just for robber barons and financiers, but for revolutionaries and liberators: Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Simón Bolívar, the liberator of South America, and José Martí, apostle of the independence of Cuba, all personified these linkages of Caribbean lands and the salons of New York where Utopia was imagined to replace a reality of slavery and oppression.

That an oppressive reality can coexist with the lush colors of the land and the bright light of the sun, is reflected in the different directions explored by the artists: exoticism, primitivism, impressionism, surrealism; the Caribbean has been an explosive arena for painting. A precious, small-format painting by the Puerto Rican master Francisco Oller shows Cezanne reclined in the grass, and that little square of color causes a jolt of joyful connections among Oller, Camille Pisarro, Paul Cezanne, and Paul Gauguin.

But the sugar and tobacco that replaced gold as the connection of the Caribbean with the world economy, are themselves being replaced by the search for oil, and the invention of an immaterial industry –one of imaginary landscapes and theatralized life: tourism. The center of the Caribbean is displaced from Cuba and Haiti to Venezuela, Mexico, Trinidad: photography and installations become suddenly in the exhibition, a poignant black and white presence, replacing a waning, colorful world.

The original product, tobacco, is replaced by the image of tobacco: a performance, simulacra of times past and imagined futures: Cuban artist Abel Barroso is featured with a little box of habanos that he has transformed into a rolling image of Socialist kitsch. “Puros con ideología” (Habanos with ideology) offers artifacts that convey the uncertainty of a fluid region, a changing landscape and the demands of an explosive life that overwhelms any ideology.

As you leave El Museo del Barrio, it takes some time to adapt to the regular images of New York. A stop at the museum’s cafeteria provides nourishment and another assault on the eyes, as the place mocks one of the local bodegas through its assortment of bright-colored sodas. Your walking becomes more tentative, your senses more acute, as you are granted access to the creative horizon of Spanish Harlem. As 103rd street climbs the heights of Lexington Avenue, you start to perceive in yourself the subtle music of Latino identity in the northernmost Spanish-speaking city of the Americas.

Photos by Jorge Ochoa.