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'Museo del Barrio' Offers Latino Art in New York's Harlem - 2002-07-25

In 1969, a group of Puerto Rican parents, educators, artists, and activists in the Spanish-speaking section of New York's Harlem neighborhood, founded a museum. El Museo del Barrio initially evolved out of that group's cultural pride and self-discovery, but it soon expanded its mission to include growing numbers of other Latino populations.

Jimmy: "Could you dance? Could they dance [to Carlos]? Hello? Where's Carlos? Carlos, se puede bailar? Si? No te oigo. Si? Ok!Esto es pa' buena suerte."

Music, dancing and having a good time are often associated with Latin culture. The directors at El Museo del Barrio know this, and they want visitors to enjoy themselves. But they especially want the people of the various Latino communities to take advantage of all El Museo del Barrio has to offer.

Museum Director Susana Torruella Leval says the museum was founded over 30 years ago as a place for the Puerto Rican community to take pride in its heritage. But since then, the director says the museum's mission has grown.

"As the demographics of this city and this country have changed, El Museo del Barrio expanded its mission to be an all-inclusive Latin American museum and represent all of the Spanish-speaking communities of the Caribbean, Latin America, and, of course, their descendants, which is what we call Latinos here in the U.S.," she said.

Ms. Torruella Leval says the museum presents and preserves the art and culture of the nation's Latin American populations through educational activities, cultural festivals, bilingual public programs and children's events. Godfrey Richardson, a student from Guyana, is taking a class in art criticism. He looks closely at paintings currently on exhibit by Mexican artists, including Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo.

"I am trying to concentrate on Latin American art because I'm from approximately that jurisdiction. I'm from South America and I was never exposed to this," he said. "It provides good education and a rich history."

El Museo del Barrio is primarily an art institution but some visitors, such as Hiram Andujar, who has lived in the neighborhood for 50 years, say the museum provides the community with more than just art.

"They throw a lot of dances, like this and we have thrown dances here too," he said. "We have a stickball league [for which] we throw a little benefit and we throw dances in the place here sometimes."

A diverse lineup of music and film from all over the Latin American world this summer stays true to the museum's mission. Neyda Martinez is the consultant for El Museo del Barrio's summer music program. She says the museum reaches out to the community and New Yorkers at large with summer events that offer later hours for viewing the exhibits, watching Latin films, and listening and dancing to some good music.

"We kicked it off with traditional music, in conjunction with the spirit of the exhibition currently on view, with Mariachi Azteca Bustamente," she said. "Then we had King Chango, one of the leading alternative groups credited with fusion, rock, reggae, ska, Latin sounds. That was in association with the Venezuelan Consulate. And now a variety of Latin music."

El Museo del Barrio is located in a largely Spanish-speaking neighborhood of Harlem, fittingly known as El Barrio. Ms. Torruella Leval says Harlem and this Spanish-speaking section have a rich history.

"It's very important that people know that uptown and Harlem and El Barrio in particular, makes a very important cultural contribution and that here we are," she said.

And here they will stay, she says, wanting everyone, Latinos and non-Latinos alike, to see, discover and hear for themselves.