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  • Amanda Guzman and Nicole Garvin

Mi Querido Barrio by the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute (CCCADI)

Full disclosure: Amanda and I went on the Mi Querido Barrio tour twice!

Memorial Murals of the 1990s: Tee Memorial Mural By Oliver Rios

Our first tour experience presented commissioned, virtual installations by nine artists through the platform of augmented reality technology (AR) and the Blippar app. With over twenty designated neighborhood sites from a bus depot to street corner murals to apartment and museum courtyards, participants surveyed the themes of “Barrio Art, Music and Popular Culture,” “Homage to El Barrio’s Afro-Latinx Ancestors,” and “Legacies of Community Activism.”

Our second tour experience was more of a traditional walking tour which marked the first day of our participation in the sixth annual cycle of the Innovative Cultural Advocacy (ICA) fellowship at the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute.

Barrio Art, Music and Popular Culture

NG: El Barrio has a unique history of residential diversity from which has emerged a real legacy of community sites including centers, gardens, and murals. The interactive experience of our first Mi Querido Barrio tour enhanced the visitor experience with art - thus providing the visual context for the cultural contributions of earlier Puerto Rican residents in contrast to the current and ongoing demographic shifts to the area.

Both tours were led by Carlos Jesus Martinez Dominguez, a New-York based artist and museum educator as well as a former ICA Fellow at CCCADI. The tours shared a exploration of the roles of spaces including but not limited to record stores (and music venues more broadly), bodegas, and botanicas as well as that of the larger process of gentrification in shaping the lived experiences of community residents in the Barrio - past, and present.

AG: I agree - both tours leaned into the genuine tension and frustration that accompanies any artistic celebration of the historical significance of Barrio’s landmarks considering the present-day context of growing housing unaffordability and community displacement. As Carlos outlined, the process of gentrification can take on different forms. He particularly highlighted the power of names. For example, Carlos gestured to the changing neighboring marketing or more specifically, the re-branding of El Barrio (with all of the implications of the place name both as being a Spanish word and its definition as a community) to East Harlem. He also emphasized the traumatic disjuncture when memory and experience fail to correlate to your physical environment - with another example of how many native New Yorkers identify corner stores as bodegas and yet, the actual term bodega is increasingly rare on store awnings.

The sobering material realities of displacement in El Barrio were made especially apparent during the first tour. Its use of technology drew us, as tour group participants, into imagining past cityscapes through virtual reality augments that imposed artist-made, archival curated images over contemporary sites in the neighborhood. One example of such a project was a documentary entitled, “Last Tenant Standing” chronicling the efforts of long-time Barrio resident Raymond Tirado to remain in his childhood home despite plans for the building to be demolished in order to make way for a luxury development complex.

Through a range of visuals and anecdotes, Carlos analyzed different examples of community place-making as resilient expressions of cultural identity and group solidarity. Both CCCADI tours revealed the importance of documentation and memorialization or in other words, not just the recording of what was or what is but also the continued valuing of cultural histories and futures.

Legacies of Community Activism

NG: There was an explicit emphasis on the community of artists that came together to create themed work drawing on their experiences being of Puerto Rican or Caribbean descent and how those individual experiences gave them a group purpose to authentically represent El Barrio. In the first tour, Carlos was our local navigator through the various augmented reality projects while in the second tour, we came to understand El Barrio through his eyes.

Throughout the Mi Querido Barrio tours, Carlos guided the audience towards a new perception that they may have felt as somewhat familiar (as mostly native New Yorkers) but by layering art, technology and personal experience, we began to tap more tangibly into the history of El Barrio and its contributions beyond our pre-existing views of the neighborhood.

AG: Yes, the tours were not just about what made up El Barrio but also who made up El Barrio from the contemporary artists who contributed to the digital elements of the first tour to the historical actors who contributed to the neighborhood’s legacy of community activism.

In terms of New York grassroots movement history, I’m thinking particularly here of Carlos’ discussion of the Young Lords Organization and their famous 1969 burning of a garbage pile in the middle of Third Avenue, as part of their Garbage Offensive, to protest the city’s refusal to regularly maintain the community’s waste. Carlos stressed his belief in the need to incubate local talent and to continue to push for an end to resource disparity between El Barrio and other Manhattan neighborhoods that persists today.

Homage to El Barrio’s Afro-Latinx Ancestors

NG: The tours also stopped in front of the Taino Towers, affordable housing projects named after the indigenous peoples of many Caribbean islands. The Towers were troubled from the beginning of construction and took over ten years to complete because of vandalism, corruption, and lawsuits. Despite these challenges, the survival of the building and its name represents the long-term resilience of a community of Caribbean descendants of not only indigenous ancestors but also of African ones. Often Afro-Latinx people are overlooked in popular culture but it is vital to appreciate the links between different, but related human experiences.

AG: Both CCCADI tours provided a documentary touchstone for participants to continue to think through the spatial legacies of El Barrio. It transformed the act of seeing and experiencing the neighborhood (even with something as seemingly small as acknowledging the African culinary influences in Nuyorican cuisine the next time I stop to enjoy an alcapurria at a cuchifrito).

Beyond the techniques of a more traditional walking tour, narratives of past human experience were also made material and meaningful through the digital (e.g. viewing on iPhone screens the largely since-removed memorial murals for victims of drug and gang violence in the 90’s).

With a new-found appreciation for how the places in El Barrio index lesser-known spatial relationships and intersectional histories (whether immediately obvious to the naked eye or not), I have periodically returned to the neighborhood since to virtually explore other sites listed in our tour program from a bus depot that stands over an African burial ground to a virtual rendering of a Pre-Columbian ballcourt at the entrance of the Museo del Barrio. Amidst growing challenges to its societal recognition/depiction and very survival, El Barrio has remained a complex contextually rooted, yet ever-emergent space of community place-making.

Nicole and Amanda first experienced the Mi Querido Barrio Tour by CCCADI on November 20, 2016 and then again more recently, on March 24, 2018.

#CCCADI #ElBarrio #NYCHistory #Harlem #AfroLatinx #PuertoRican #CommunityActivism #Ancestors #Art #Music #PopularCulture #UrbanAnthropology

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