Strangers in a (not so) strange land by William Bowles

By William Bowles
featured writer
Dandelion Salad
1 December 2008

In another life I lived in New York City and for about six of the seventeen years I spent in the Big A I was the designer of the US’s first Hispanic museum, El Museo del Barrio, situated in an enormous building, a block long and half-a-block deep, a former Boys Harbor orphanage. New York’s Hispanic community during and after this period was a powerhouse of creativity in all the artistic fields, music, fine art, photography, fashion, theatre and of course, writing. I was extremely lucky and privileged to have been a part of it.

So what brought on this nostalgic trip into the past? Well the other day, I went to a superb concert by Gilad Atzmon at the Purcell Room, here in London. In fact it was Gilad with a string quartet as well as his regular group, performing some of The Bird’s songs from the album Charlie Parker made, ‘Bird with Strings’, as well as Gilad’s take on the invasion and destruction of Iraq (see Gilad’s Valencia gig).

In any case, this guy sitting in the front row turns round and we make eye contact and I recognized him immediately and he I, after around twenty years! This was truly a blast from the past. Tontxi Vazquez, living in London these past six years.

The other day, he gave me this photo, taken sometime in the late 1970s by another Puerto Rican artist, Jorge Soto (1947-1987), outside El Museo on 104th Street that in turn triggered this essay as I stared into these faces and thought about all the events and changes that had taken place since this photograph was taken.


Left to right, Tontxi Vazquez, me, Carlos Ortiz, Nestor Otero

Grouped around an arts project in East Harlem called Taller Boricua (Boricua is the original Taino name for Puerto Rico and Taller is workshop) and El Museo were a band of brothers and sisters, painters, printmakers, musicians, writers and especially photographers, for the most part Nuyoricans, caught up in the creative and deeply political whirlwind of New York in the 1970s, the Young Lords and the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, the PSP, and the ‘terrorist’ Boricua Popular Army or the Macheteros, some of whom, unknown to me at the time, worked in El Museo (the Macheteros were famous for a 7.2 million dollar Wells Fargo Heist in 1978, see the Wikipedia entry).

At the root of it was the Puerto Rican independence movement and the (essentially) forced migration of tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans to New York City in the 1940s, many of whom settled in what was then a largely Italian neighbourhood on the Eastside of Manhattan, between 96th and 116th Streets.

vito-2.jpgVito Marcantonio, an Italian immigrant was the Congress person for this Eastside neighborhood and probably the only real leftie ever to sit in Congress until he was driven from office during the McCarthy witch-hunting days of the 1950s.

“Vito Marcantonio (1902-1954) was a rare phenomenon in American political life: a radical, who was elected seven times to Congress (1934 to 1950). He represented a district coterminous with East Harlem, a working class quarter that contained large communities of Italians, Jews, and later Puerto Ricans. (In 1944, the district was expanded to include Yorkville, which at that time was home to large German and Irish American, and smaller Czech and Italian American communities.) He aroused the enmity of powerful interests by championing all those left out of the American dream. His parliamentary acumen, oratorical skills, and personal charisma made him one of the most prominent New Yorkers of his day; his unrivaled role as spokesman for the agenda of the Left made him, depending on political predilection, a figure of national notoriety or fame.” — Introduction to ‘I Vote My Conscience: Debates, Speeches, and Writings, of Vito Marcantonio, 1935-1950’, by Gerald Meyer, Edited by Annette T. Rubinstein.

The amazing thing about Vito Marcantonio is that even decades later, long after the great majority of Italian-Americans had left East Harlem, Marcantonio’s legacy lived on, indeed was (and maybe still is) celebrated in Spanish Harlem by its Hispanic inhabitants.


W.E.B. DuBois and Vito Marcantonio

In part I think this legacy explains how I came to be a part of East Harlem’s Hispanic community, in fact I just kinda ‘dropped’ into it, barely causing a ripple in the turbulent waters of Spanish Harlem. We were all ‘strangers in a strange land’, a theme I have never stopped exploring.

Inevitably the arts became a major expression for Puerto Rico’s desire for independence and just as importantly, rediscovering Boricua’s indigenous inheritance, the Tainos, exterminated by the Spanish Conquistedores (although the island was first occupied by the Dutch and even for a brief period, the English).

With the Tainos exterminated (who just couldn’t get their heads around the idea of working for someone and thus lost them), African slaves were brought in to work the sugar plantations and African-Hispanic culture was born, later to re-emerge in Spanish Harlem.

Moreover, it was also out of this heritage that Hip-Hop came and the related movement, Fashion Moda, a mix of art, clothing and music and very much a product of the New York street scene and interestingly, given the macho nature of Hispanic culture, young Puerto Rican women played a central role in its development.

What today is high street fashion, hoodies, sneakers, baggy pants and so on, so-called urban culture, originated in the Bronx/Manhattan connection where working class life in the ‘hood and culture fuzed together.

The African-Spanish-Taino mix is a heady one and reinforced by Puerto Rico’s close connection to Cuba, where, aside perhaps from Brazil, the African heritage is most deeply rooted not only in the music but also in religion and language, especially from Angola and what is now Nigeria (see also Salsa).

One person, the artist Nestor Otero was to have a big impact on my life in Nueva York, although it wasn’t until many years had passed that I came to recognize it, for it was while working with Nestor that I discovered a communality that transcended our very different histories.

Perhaps it was the fact that we were both immigrants to Nueva York that cemented the bond between us but it was also our shared politics and the projects we worked on together including a project for Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños based at Hunter College in Manhattan, on the Migración titled ‘Voices of the Migration’.


Made of a corrugated industrial cardboard called Tri-Wall and held together with Velcro, the design was based on the ‘point-of-sale’ constructions seen in supermarkets. The first (and unfortunately only) one was on the writer Jesus Colon. Fully demountable (it even turned into its own carry case), with removable panels, it toured schools and libraries.

At some point Nestor asked me to write an essay for what was if I remember correctly, his first one-man show. My initial reaction was ‘why me?’ to which he responded, ‘write it and then we’ll talk’.


Relaxing in the studio of José Morales (photo by José Morales).

The essay ended up exploring my question that in turn became the answer and triggered a series of thoughts about how the capitalist economy is incapable of creating anything. Instead, all it can do is appropriate, market and sell because it owns the means of distribution, but without our creativity, it has nothing and if only we realized it, this was our power.

Thus the real point of connection was and is our creative powers. The fact that we came from such different different cultures and experiences is in fact what unites us and why it was possible to draw inspiration, a fusion if you like, of our heritage.