What Holyoke’s Ban on Public Art Means for Puerto Ricans

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By: David Flores

Photo: robdezaphoto.com

Photo: robdezaphoto.com

Within a month of Holyoke, Massachusetts attracting national attention because of the exclusion of a Puerto Rican-themed art piece, the Holyoke City Council instituted an indefinite ban on public art. My mural was part of a city-funded public arts initiative in the city with the largest concentration of Puerto Ricans in the United States.

Several commentators have insisted that the ban on public art preceded the mayor’s decision to display the piece in question near City Hall and was in fact a response to an unrelated non-Puerto Rican themed piece. However, this timeline obscures the widely publicized debate about Puerto Rican-themed art that took place in the weeks leading up to the ban. Instead of expressing absolute outrage over this decision, Holyoke’s Latina/o elected officials have remained mum on the issue, attempted to silence the debate, and/ or suggested that this ban has nothing to do with the heated debate about the Puerto Rican-themed art piece.

To claim that this ban on public art is merely a reflection of the need for guidelines surrounding public art in general, insults the intelligence of Holyoke’s residents at best, and disserves them at worst. In a community where Puerto Rican residents are already so comprehensively marginalized, it is shocking that Holyoke’s Latina/o leaders have not come out in front in this situation and used it as an opportunity to demand respect for Puerto Rican identity. It is sad that our Latina/o elected officials appear to be more committed to self-promotion and the representation of a sanitized image of Holyoke than defending its most vulnerable residents.

In reference to the current situation in Holyoke, Dr. Wilson Valentín-Escobar, a Hampshire College faculty member, whose research focuses on art and activism, writes:

“This is a candid effort of censorship. Censoring art is basically a declaration that the social identities connected to and/ or associated with specific art pieces are unwanted and unwelcome. This discussion is rooted in fear and an implicit understanding that the claiming of public space is an affront to the old guard in that city, where they also prefer to treat and relegate Puerto Ricans and other Latin@s as second-class citizens. They prefer to keep the Latin@ community invisible and politically marginalized. It’s censorship and a way to avoid building community and claiming space by not having any visible aesthetic ethnic markers. But it’s interesting that this only happens when it becomes an issue of Latin@ art.”

This analysis emphasizes the nature of the current debate about public art in Holyoke. Processes of racial marginalization are being cloaked in seemingly apolitical discussions of city regulations and whitewashed invocations of diversity. These deceptions highlight the need for widespread media coverage of the indefinite public art ban and Puerto Rican repression plaguing Holyoke. Rather than seeking to chastise reporters or sanitize media coverage, Holyoke’s Latina/o leaders should be turning to every available outlet to bring attention to this outrageous affront to Puerto Rican identity.

The Holyoke City Council must immediately stipulate the length of the indefinite public art ban and affirm the importance of claiming identity through public art. Without active support of Puerto Rican art in Holyoke, the city’s emerging “creative corridor” will be doomed to reproduce the longstanding marginalization of Holyoke’s Puerto Rican residents. This tendency is reflected in the gentrifying public arts initiative that sparked this debate, which promoted a whitewashed vision for public art in Holyoke with limited participation of longstanding Puerto Rican residents and affirmations Puerto Rican identity.

Holyoke’s Latina/o elected officials should take the lead in efforts to combat these forms of marginalization and seek to empower longstanding Puerto Rican community members to participate in these decision-making processes. This debate about public art and Puerto Rican identity is indicative of the broader need to transform the city’s power structure – from City Council to the Cultural Council to the School Committee to the police force – so that it reflects the city’s demographics. It is encouraging that the mayor has used his platform to bring attention to this issue and highlight the need to address Puerto Rican marginalization in Holyoke, which suggests that there is at least some political vision for Puerto Rican inclusion in the city. It remains to be seen how Holyoke’s power holders will work to enact this vision.

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David Flores is an artist, designer, and community activist who focuses on Latin@ placemaking through art and design. He has worked creatively with nonprofits and community based initiatives in Chicago, IL and Holyoke, MA for over a decade. A native of the south side of Chicago, his work challenges the fears and anxieties that are associated with low-income communities of color by emphasizing their value, beauty, knowledge, and resilience.

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The views and opinions expressed are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by La Respuesta magazine. We encourage dialogue, debate, and learning in order to forge stronger, healthier Boricua communities and to strengthen alliances across social difference. 

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