To the Reader,
I seriously doubt your broad readership understood the context or relevance of Jeff Huebner’s story (October 9) on the demise of the Latin American Museum of Art (LAMA). When I was interviewed for the piece I suggested to the writer that more issues needed to be examined to get a clear picture. After reading the piece, the impression many readers can only be left with is that the story is about bruised egos, a struggle for literal turf, and an argument over a name.
What is missing from this account is that it never tells us the why of the LAMA project. It is not about the building, nor the specific events that led to the demise of the project. It is about the Puerto Rican community of Humboldt Park. For myself and other Puerto Ricans, this is precisely the issue and where the story might have begun. LAMA began as a cultural initiative for the Puerto Rican community. When the name changed so did the whole of the project. Puerto Ricans were immediately absorbed into a larger constituency and our identity and our history in this community were eclipsed.
The history of Humboldt Park is about a community that has been in an embattled position for virtually the whole of its time in this city. I grew up here with my family in the 1950s and ’60s, and I watched my community expand as many new immigrant families from Puerto Rico chose to settle in the area. Thereafter followed the anger and racial hatred against a people and race who simply wanted an opportunity to work. We shielded ourselves the best we could through the onslaught that became worse and more violent as I grew older. Some of the attacks originated with those sworn to protect us. As Puerto Ricans became more rooted, we demonstrated and looked to civil rights for solutions. Some of us went to war and came back to riots. So much for the heady days of 1968.
We established ourselves through businesses, churches, and cultural events, but we could not fight or protect ourselves against series after series of local and national economic downturns, factory closings, redlined communities, and successions of urban-renewal programs that failed to stop a tide of urban decline. All these events hit the Puerto Rican community extremely hard, and what barely had a chance to begin turned dark and ugly as poverty and despair sent Humboldt Park into a long night of horrific deterioration.
Comparatively speaking, Humboldt Park looks considerably better today given the vantage point of some 40 or 50 years. (Though I doubt that the new members of our community would agree.) But those of us who were here remember, and have some degree of clarity about the times. We still struggle with violence, poverty, and drugs, but today this community takes itself to the streets, fighting our own fears in order to hold night vigils against violence. We hold community meetings in churches and community centers, establishing our own community organizations to deal with the issues at hand.
Today we confront those who would erode us further as we fight for our neighborhoods block by block. Throughout we’ve pressed to make it clear that we didn’t just come to Chicago with an open hand. Puerto Ricans arrived here with a culture, and we’ve tried hard to make a new history. For better or worse, the dark moments we’ve experienced are part of it. Who today remembers that there was once a strong community of Puerto Ricans living in the DePaul area? We do, and we remember what happened there.
What’s in a name? An institution that bears our name should be a continuation of our story–a place of education, a place where our history, our art and culture can be visualized and their sounds heard. It can tell the story of our diversity as a culture of indigenous, African, and Spanish descendants, and it can serve all of us who care about this community and this city. It is also a legacy we Puerto Ricans would like to leave behind in this sometimes tumultuous place called Humboldt Park. It is this place where an important part of our American story has taken place and is still unfolding. We want nothing else but the opportunity to tell this story.
The organizers of the LAMA project may be well intentioned, but their decision to look broadly overshadowed their looking at the ground on which they stand. This is why so many turned away from the LAMA project. Some of us who argued against the project did it vocally, and many more of us did it as we have always done, with quiet despair. But the failure of the LAMA project should not be seen as a failure of the community. Its failure rests on its own terms.
LAMA organizers never communicated a clear mission or initiated any open dialogue by which its goals and achievements could be evaluated. They never demonstrated a clear programmatic vision, nor did they articulate with any detail what the institution would do for the immediate community, except in sweeping terms. This project evolved with little community involvement that I am aware of. If they proceeded in the direction they chose, it was on their terms and their terms alone. It also left some feeling like second-class citizens again. We all wish the situation had been different.
The issue of choosing one name over another means a great deal, depending on who you are and where you stand. At the moment two steel Puerto Rican flags demarcate an area along Division Street, symbols for what we desire to maintain in our community: our history and our identity. But what the community here looks forward to goes beyond symbols, to an institution with our name, one that speaks to the scope of who we are, and one that binds us together with other groups who have moved forward in this city and nation, such as the DuSable Museum, the Hellenic Museum, the Lithuanian museum, the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, the Polish Museum of America, the Spertus Museum, and the Ukrainian Institute.
Edward M. Maldonado
Puerto Rican Arts Alliance
PS: Speaking of names, the initial statement on the cover about “ethnic rivalries” is misleading and incorrect. The principals interviewed in your story, including myself, are all Puerto Ricans, with one exception–Carlos Tortolero, a Mexican. Carlos Tortolero has no interest in LAMA and is a strong supporter of the Puerto Rican community. Puerto Ricans are a single ethnicity comprised of three races, and the suggestion of there being “ethnic rivalries” is a mischaracterization.