My life in Nueva York
The amazing thing about “Día,” a photographic exhibition recently shown in the arty Brooklyn neighborhood known as DUMBO, is how it records the birth of the Nuyorican. Yet the photographers–Frank Espada, Ricky Flores, David Gonzalez, Perla de León, Pablo Delano, Máximo Colón, and Francisco Reyes II–had no intention of documenting algo como un nacimiento; if anything, they were trying to illuminate stubbornly resistant signs of life against a background of almost morbid decay.
In these photographs, taken in the 1970s and ’80s, we see las caras linda de nuestra gente, algunos recién llegados de la isla, otros ya establecidos en esta nueva isla, Manhattan (y el ancla del archipiélago, El Bronx). Although the Nuyorican is often thought of as having left behind la esencia de ser puertorriqueño, there are those caras, tocando el conjunto jíbaro, la bomba y la plena de San Antón, holding onto that flag like it was part of their own flesh.
They are faces of people asked to live through recession after recession, the reduction of much of their home neighborhoods to piles of rubble and trash, to defend political prisoners and their own image from dismal stereotyping of sensationalist Hollywood films. They were the elders, who never quite learned English, young adults who let their hair run wild to their shoulders, helped to invent modern salsa, who did the freak and the bugaloo. And there were the children who hardly knew the calculated madness of the social experiment of urban depopulation they were forced to grow up in.
Delano’s work, the only series shot in color, is the most hopeful of the exhibition, signaling how the Lower East Side (later dubbed “Loisaida” by poets Bimbo Rivas and Jorge Brandón) became a successful corner of organized resistance by the Nuyorican community. Although plagued by the same problems as Boricuas in El Barrio uptown, the smaller buildings seemed to let more light into the frame. New York Times reporter David Gonzalez, enjoying a moment of exploration through photography as a recent college graduate in the early 1980s, focused on festive moments of pleasure as well as the carnivalesque procession of Nuyoricans on the streets during parades or street fairs.
Joe Conzo, whose father was a close confidante of Tito Puente, had an insider’s view of the Nuyorican historical moment. He captures a street protest over the movie “Fort Apache: the Bronx,” which ironically starred Nuyorican poet Miguel Piñero, but was denounced by ex-Young Lord Richie Pérez because of its relentlessly negative depictions of Boricuas. He also freeze-frames an aging Héctor Lavoe, Machito, and Charlie Palmieri, and a beautiful piece by one of our most renowned street muralists, Manny Vega.
Frank Espada’s images are more stark, feeling more like Depression-era photography, with an emotional weight that captures the Nuyorican pre-history of the 1960s. Here we find the transplanted jíbaros, and the street corner preachers, and the strangely eerie sight of El Museo del Barrio’s Three King’s Day Parade trudging through the snow and under the iconic Park Avenue viaduct. One wonders what was on the other side? Espada seems to be soliciting guesses.
Among the most striking photos of the exhibition is the work of Máximo Colón, who created portraits of the living transformation we experienced in the ’70s. Here are photos of many who I seem to recognize hazily but can’t quite place, and some I do know, like the poet Sandra María Esteves, peeking through the hair of her infant child in 1975. There is a tremendous sense of nostalgia transmitted through that look of hers, as if she knew the moment wouldn’t last for long.
But of course, the moment lasted longer than we could have predicted. We no longer live in rubble, or at least it’s more of a metaphorical rubble. Las caras lindas persist, exploding in street colors, a rabble of bilingual energy and music, the template of style and substance for Latino (and black and white) New York. I salute these photographers for allowing us these half-lived, half-imagined memories.