El Museo del Barrio in New York City feels like a best-kept secret. Located on Museum Mile, it hides away on Fifth Avenue, with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History only a few blocks away. This intimate museum marks as a milestone for Puerto Ricans in New York and beyond, when only fifty years before the Young Lords of New York were fighting to be seen equally in the eyes of the law in New York. Running from July 22 to October 18, the exhibit focuses on the legacy of the Young Lords, who, in 1969, started a movement that embodies early social work activism. In order to understand the artwork, one must understand the movement.
It started in the streets of El Barrio (East Harlem), 1969. The Sanitation Department refused to pick up trash in these Puerto Rican dominated communities, leaving it to rot in the streets during a hot summer. The community tried to fairly approach the city, and received no response. Then, on to retaliate – from students to the elderly, residents dragged trash into the streets, creating a barricade to ensure that traffic on Third Ave would not be able to move. The NYPD was called, and after hearing the cries of a people who were being treated unfairly and degradingly, finally won this small victory as the NYPD dragged the rotting garbage out of the streets. Child care programs, and free breakfast programs soon came after. The Young Lords wanted a voice for a community that was stigmatized and shunned by all parts of the government. Notably, news anchor and journalist Geraldo Rivera was apart of the movement.
Inspired by The Black Panthers and a Chicago-based activist group by the same name, the Young Lords demanded equality. Born of this movement were important works of art, poetry, and music. With the first part of the exhibit focusing on the historical background, the progression made around El Museo’s Galleria shows the artwork that was born out of the frustrations of the Puerto Rican struggle.
Antonio Martorell, “Fuera la Marina yanki de Culebra” 1970
Antonio Martorell is one of the most well-known Puerto Rican artists and graphic designers. This poster reflects the battle between the Island of Culebra and the U.S. Marines. A protective mother is shaking her fist while holding her child, representing resistance against U.S. imperialism and military presence in Puerto Rico.
Tony Evora, “Cero plebescito/Cero puertorriquenos a Veitnam” (“Zero Plebiscite/Zero Puerto Ricans in Vietnam”), 1966
Quick history lesson: The Jones Act of 1917 granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship. Yay! Equal rights for all! Well, no. This partial citizenship was not equivalent to constitutional citizenship, so we still didn’t have full rights in the eyes of the law. This didn’t stop Puerto Ricans from being drafted during the Vietnam War.
Carmelo Sobrino, “Lolita Lebrón: No hay victorias sin dolor” (“There are no victories without pain”), 1977
If you’re looking for more feminist, badass icons, look no further than Lolita Lebron. She was a nationalist who led an assault on the United States House of Representatives, and was convicted of attempted murder in 1954. After moving to New York in 1940, she found the injustices that Puerto Ricans faced in the United States completely intolerable, and moved to have it established as its own country. Her and her accomplices were able to wound five members before being arrested, and she was granted clemency in 1977.
Rebecca is a recent grad from Iona College in New York who decided to become a writer when her hopes of being a Spice Girl were dashed at a young age. Her love for music thrives, as well as her love for travel, fantasy fiction, and art. Brutal honesty, dark humor, and black coffee are the ways to her heart. Follow her on Twitter/Instagram @RebeccaEstherC