By: David Flores
On Saturday, September 20, 2014, my Puerto Rican Diaspora-themed piece was commissioned and then excluded from being displayed as part of a public art initiative specifically because of its affirmation of Puerto Rican identity. And in the U.S. community with the highest percentage of Puerto Ricans! It was a part of a set of pieces created in conjunction with the Holyoke Alleyway Revitalization Project (HARP). HARP is a public art initiative that was funded by a grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council/ Holyoke Local Cultural Council. The grant guidelines specifically state:
“In accordance with state law, local councils may not discriminate against applicants on the basis of race, gender, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, disability, sexual orientation or age, nor may they fund projects that discriminate on the basis of these attributes.”
However, before the piece could go up, the owner of the building on which it was to be installed decided that it could not be displayed on the property. The owner said that my piece would do more harm than good to Holyoke’s Latina/o community, and that in order to display it I would have to change it to make it “more diverse.” Ironically, Holyoke’s public streets are covered year-round with giant green shamrocks that represent the city’s Irish Population.
The other artwork funded through the grant continues to be displayed on the building whose owner discriminated against me and my piece based on its affirmation of Puerto Rican identity. The city has not yet acted in response to this situation, which amounts to a tacit endorsement of discrimination. Because this is a public art initiative, issues of censorship are also at play.
The mural consists of an 8’ x 16’ Puerto Rican license plate with “HOLYOKE” written across the center. Whereas many Boricuas throughout Holyoke proudly display similar license plates that point to their hometowns on the island, my project intended to claim that Holyoke is part of Puerto Rico. As stated, Holyoke is the community with the highest percentage of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. (44.70%), yet Puerto Ricans are deeply marginalized in almost every aspect of the city.
Although the building owner had approved of my design and seen the finished project well in advance of the scheduled installation, she prohibited my public display of Puerto Ricanness in Holyoke at the very moment of a scheduled installation. Thus, the decision to exclude my mural from this public art exhibit is emblematic of the wider suppression of Puerto Ricans and Puerto Ricanness throughout Holyoke.
With my mural, I hoped to contribute to efforts toward claiming public space in solidarity with Holyoke’s Puerto Rican community. However, this building owner’s decision and logic amount to the race-based exclusion of Puerto Ricanness in Holyoke at best and the censorship of Puerto Ricanness in Holyoke at worst.
While the Holyoke Alleyway Revitalization Project has supported my mural, the decision to collaborate with a bigoted building owner on this project reflects the fundamental problems with this “revitalization” initiative. In fact, like other “revitalization” efforts in Puerto Rican neighborhoods and communities of color throughout the U.S., such projects end up participating in processes of gentrification despite their organizers’ best intentions.
As a Mexican artist born and raised in Chicago, I have been deeply inspired by Chicago’s Puerto Rican movement, particularly the strong Puerto Rican leadership in schools, community organizations, elected positions, and artistic initiatives. This community also taught me the value of Mexican-Puerto Rican solidarity, as expressed through joint efforts to combat educational inequality, gentrification, and (im)migrant stigmatization. This solidarity is most clearly represented in a chant that is often used in Latin@ political demonstrations in Chicago: “¡Boricua y Méxicano, Luchando Mano a Mano!” This solidarity represents a form of diversity that exceeds the imagination of the building owner who prohibited my mural. I hope that this piece finds a prominent home and that it helps to celebrate Puerto Ricanness in Holyoke.
Moving forward, I not only hope to find a highly visible home for my mural, but I also want to bring attention to the importance of supporting public affirmations of Puerto Rican contributions to Holyoke. Public art is a great way to do this. Rather than violating its non-discrimination guidelines, the city should instead commit to investing in Puerto Rican public arts initiatives bringing together community members of all ages to celebrate Holyoke’s unique Puerto Rican heritage. I am currently seeking to collaborate with longstanding community residents to create site-specific public art in Holyoke through a fundraising effort I have named “¡Más Color, Más Poder!”. I also hope to adapt my Puerto Rican license plate project in other U.S. cities with large Puerto Rican populations. By affirming Puerto Ricanness in Holyoke, I seek to contribute toward the creation of communities that embrace and uplift marginalized populations throughout the U.S.
Updates: Holyoke’s mayor welcomed the mural to be displayed near City Hall. The city council subsequently banned funding for public art. There is disagreement whether the mural spurred the ban. Read the latest response from the artist.
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.