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Activists Occupy El Museo del Barrio During Its 50th Anniversary Celebrations

A group of 15 protesters occupied El Museo’s galleries to read out the Mirror Manifesto, an open letter that Latinx activists released in April in an attempt to steer the museum back toward its roots as a community-based institution.

Activists reading from the Mirror Manifesto inside El Museo del Barrio (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

El Museo del Barrio in East Harlem celebrated its 50th birthday today, June 11, with live Puerto Rican music concerts, salsa dances, and workshops for families and their children as part the Museum Mile Festival on 5th avenue. At the center of this festive event was the opening of the second part of Culture and the People: El Museo del Barrio, 1969 – 2019, an exhibition featuring highlights from the museum’s permanent collection. Against this background, activists from the Latinx community took to the museum to voice their concerns over its future and mission.

Around 7pm, a group of about 15 protestors dressed in T-shirts that read “El Museo Fue del Barrio” (which is loosely translated to mean, “the museum left the neighborhood” according to the organizers) occupied El Museo’s galleries to read out the Mirror Manifesto next to some of the most political works in the exhibition.

The Mirror Manifesto is an open letter that Latinx activists released in April in an attempt to steer the museum’s management and board in a different direction. The letter was signed by 544 artists and cultural workers, as of April 19. The manifesto charges the museum with abandoning its community in favor of a new market-driven agenda that preferences art from Latin America for branding and fundraising purposes. The letter demands that the museum allocate more resources to Latinx artists and appoint Latinx curators and workers to take leadership in this museum.

“We will not be erased,” the activists chanted inside the exhibition while distributing copies of the manifesto to visitors. Debbie Quinones, the former Chair of the Cultural Affairs and Preservation committee in East Harlem, read an excerpt from the manifesto in front of artist Denise Oliver’s “Young Lords Party: Struggle – Health/Food/Housing/Education” (1970).

“The issue is that we are concerned about the direction of El Museo del Barrio,” Quinones said, “We want to make sure that our voices are heard, that we are not erased, and this institution reflects and affirms the people here in the community and in the United States.” She broke into tears as she said, “I do this out of love … and that’s the most important thing, that this community represents us.” In closing, she raised the manifesto pamphlet and said, “this is called the Mirror Manifesto because we want to be seen.”

Debbie Quinones next to Denise Oliver’s “Young Lords Party: Struggle – Health/Food/Housing/Education” (1970)

Activist Lissette Olivares read another segment from the manifesto on behalf of Dominican artist Nicolas Nicholas Dumit Estevez, one of the manifesto signees. Olivares performed her reading in front of Estevez’s installation “The Flag” (2003-06). Yasmin Ramirez, a former curator and board member at El Museo, continued the reading against Richard A Lou’s photographic series Border Door (1988), taken at the Mexico-United States border. Later on, the activists read the manifesto again in unison at the exhibition’s entrance.

The Mirror Manifesto was triggered by a series of controversies and scandals involving the museum, including conferring an award to the rightwing Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis (later rescinded) and scheduling a retrospective of Alejandro Jodorowsky (later canceled), an artist/filmmaker of Chilean descent who once boasted of raping his co-star to achieve a more realistic effect in his film.

More recently it was the appointment of Brazilian curator Rodrigo Moura as the museum’s chief curator that drew criticism from the community. “How can this museum claim that there’s not one person in the United States that could serve as its chief curator?” Ramirez told Hyperallergic. “[We have] no personal animosity against anyone on the board,” she continued, “It’s about maintaining [the museum’s] mission, and that mission was broken in the last three months with the [Lucio] Fontana exhibition, who was a former fascist, the plans for the Jodorowsky exhibition, which we stopped, and unfortunately the hiring of the curator from Brazil instead of prioritizing the hiring of a curator who’s an expert in Latinx art.”

Founded by Puerto Rican artists, educators, and community activists in the late 1960s, El Museo del Barrio’s mission was to support and promote marginalized Latin American artists living in the United States. Since then, the activists claim, “Latin American Art” has become a blanket term that erases the cultural needs and particularities of Latinx communities in the United States. This growing community, the activists say, requires a broader definition of the term el Barrio to include all Latinx people in the United States, and to prevent the exclusion of Afrolatinx individuals.

“We’re very upset that in 50 years, there is only one resident of the barrio on the board of trustees,” Ramirez said. “The majority of the board of trustees members are from Latin America [sic] who have nothing to do with this community and who are not collectors of Latinx art,” she added, “we want to have a board of trustees that supports the art of Latino artists in the United States, not Latin art collectors.”

At the time of the manifesto’s release, El Museo del Barrio told Hyperallergic that it was in the process of taking steps that would answer the community’s concerns. In an email, the museum said, “We are already in the midst of a number of new initiatives — including expanding our curatorial team with the call for a Latinx Curator and other programs that will launch in the future.”

El Museo del Barrio’s press office declined to provide a comment to Hyperallergic over email.

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