During the last weekend in September, members of SP374/HI150/HU300—a team-taught interdisciplinary course on Latinx History and Literature taught primarily in Spanish—immersed themselves in the art, culture and history of Latino communities in NYC. Piling into a van at 5:00 am on Saturday morning, the first big stop was El Museo del Barrio, New York’s leading Latino cultural institution. Students viewed artwork from the Taino culture that preceded Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World and modern pieces that challenged current perceptions of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos in NYC. Each student had a favorite, including senior Josephine Roy, a Biology and Spanish double major. She spent a full 30 minutes watching and listening to a video in which two Latina indigenas (persons of Native American descent) created a social experiment that played on the space between the public’s fascination with “uncontacted peoples” in Latin America but lack of knowledge of Latino culture in the U.S.
The group then met New York city artist Adrián Viajero Román, who creates immersive installation environments. We explored a recreation of his grandmother’s house from Puerto Rico, which was destroyed in Hurricane Maria, but which continued to exist in memories, salvaged and treasured furnishings, and protests of discriminatory treatment of the island’s residents, who are U.S. citizens.
We were lucky to be joined by Latino community builder and media promoter George Torres who gave us a four-hour tour of key parts of the Latino community in New York City. From the history of street murals and graffiti to the economic obstacles to generational wealth accumulation, Mr. Torres used personal history and humor to help us all see parts of NYC hidden from the casual visitor. As senior Abby Mitchell, a Sociology major and Spanish minor from West Hartford, Connecticut put it, “I have been to NYC many times with my family, but in one day George showed me how much more there is—and how much pride and energy many Latinos have invested in these less-seen parts of the city.”
Sophomore English and Secondary Education major and Spanish minor Cam McIntire was particularly struck by our visit to the Bronx to see Amaurys Grullon, founder of Bronx Native and recent recipient of the Bronx Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Leadership Award. Mr. Grullon and his colleagues were preparing a party for Jharrel Jerome, the first Dominican American to win an Emmy for this role in Netflix’s When They See Us. Yet he took the time to explain to us his entrepreneurial approach to building respect for a borough that has historically been excluded and perceived as violent (with highways built to direct traffic away and trap residents within). Celebrating the rappers, politicians, and artists that have risen from the Bronx, Bronx Native seeks to curate art, make records, film videos, produce products, and build connections that promote Bronx pride and showcase Bronx successes. As Cam noted, “Bronx Native is both a store and movement that seeks to unite the people of the Bronx. The owner and artist seeks ways to help the community build confidence in its identity, to know and understand its heritage and to have faith in its own culture.”
The Pregones festival was next, a series of performers highlighting all aspects of the Latino experience in NYC. Poet Rob Vassilarakis spoke about being gay and Latino in NYC, a theme of intersectionality or multiple identities that has come up often in class. LaBruja or Caridad de la Luz made clear that while her Latina momma expected her to sing Latino folk songs, this Latina rapped—and how! Power Malu spoke about how the Freddy Gray shooting was originally an environmental tragedy, as lead in the soil of Freddy Gray’s neighborhood had robbed him of intellectual capacity long before police officers robbed him of his life. Power Malu emphasized the need for more urban Latinos to get involved in environmental awareness. Meghan Wilson, a senior Spanish and Sociology major with an Education minor, was particularly struck by a poet who told her personal story of struggle growing up Afro-Latino and feeling excluded in white, black and Latino culture: “We’ve learned about the history of discrimination and the challenges faced by Latinos, so it was inspiring to hear from a person who is living that reality today, but fighting and taking pride in her heritage, her identity, and her skin color.” Sophomore Valeria Mendoza felt that experiencing the Pregones festival was the best part of the trip because it provided such a diverse set of Latino points of view. She noted, “In class we see primarily the big picture, but here it was smaller with more specific and personal experiences. We could see what is similar or different across experiences and groups and hear people’s feelings.”
Kudos to the students for amazing energy (and Professor Jaime Orrego for organizing, and then handling a very long day of NYC driving and parking!). After this packed day, we trekked to the hotel, had an amazing pan-Latino dinner, and checked out the East River waterfront across which we could see the Empire State Building in lower Manhattan. Professor Orrego and a group of students even took an Uber to Times Square to see the bustling, hustling city on a Saturday night!
The next day, after sleeping “late” (breakfast at 9:30 was early for some students), we headed back into Manhattan for one last stop—the 9/11 memorial and a street food festival. Full of Bolivian salteñas (empanadas) y salchipapas (french fries with cilantro and pork), we finally headed back on the long drive to campus. Senior Josephine Roy summed up the experience well: “When I enrolled in this class I thought we would be studying the past. Now I understand we are studying the present, since people are still living with the impacts of the past today.”
For more information on the locations, activists, and artists mentioned in this piece, see https://www.elmuseo.org/ , http://www.viajeroart.com/work , http://sofritomediagroup.com/ , https://www.bronxnative.com/ , https://pregonesprtt.org/ , https://www.pepatian.org/roberto-simply-rob-vassilarakis/ , https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caridad_de_la_Luz , https://www.facebook.com/IamPowermalu
Or if you are an Instagram user, you can check out @viajero, @thebronxnative, @powermalu, @labrujanyc, @simply_rob_vassilarakis, @pregonesprtt and @urbanjibaro.