Friday, March 6, 2015

Painting Spanish Harlem

“Pariah” (1970-1979) by Marcos Dimas

Marcos Dimas is the co-founder of "Taller Boricua", a Puerto Rican art gallery located in Spanish Harlem. He is 72 years old and has been living in New York City for 64 years. “Pariah” or “Outcast” is one of Dimas’ earlier works. “Composition in Coabey” is one of his more recent works, using vivid colors to portray the Coabey River in Puerto Rico.


I’ve Lived Here All My Life
I've lived here all my life, most of my life. I was born in Puerto Rico. I was brought here when I was about eight years old, yeah. So basically, well, I did have some schooling in Puerto Rico. I went up to the third grade in Puerto Rico and when I came here, I had to do the third grade all over again because when I came in, at that time, there was nothing like ESL [English As a Second Language] so you had to learn English from the beginning.
My parents decided to move here because the economy in Puerto Rico changed. Puerto Rico was originally an agricultural society, so sugar and coffee and pineapples were like the basic main product. Tobacco, also. So, you had all these…all those businesses...and during the late 40s or so, mid-40s into the 1950s, the United States…all these purchases of these things started purchasing from South America. Same products, but it was cheaper from uh, what they used to call "Banana Republics". So in order to compensate, Puerto Rico started to become an industrialist economy rather then agricultural economy. So they started bringing factories and different things, and they started giving out incentives for no taxes for ten years, or something like that. So yeah, basically the economy went from agricultural to industrial, you know? A lot of people who have work in farms—agricultural people—they don't have any work. My parents, we were from a farm. My father, mother, younger sister...we were from a sugar plantation. My mother's family was…well, they were already in the needle trades, sewing, clothing. My grandfather was a shoemaker and all his sons were shoemakers or tailors and the women were seamstresses, but my father's side of the family were all agricultural people from the plantations. My father and his line of family were sugar people. So basically they migrated to the United States because of jobs. Yeah, for jobs, you know?

I Was Drafted Into the War When I Was Eighteen
When I graduated from junior high school…well, you specialize [in a profession] in high school. You go from elementary school grade one to six, then six to nine is junior high school, then you go to high school. When you go to high school, you specialize in a field. It could be auto mechanics, it could be teaching. So there were different high schools that catered to the different things. I graduated from the High School of Fashion Industries; it's on 23rd Street. I was originally studying to be a tailor, a clothing designer. But…I actually went to school [college] after I got back from doing, from doing military service and this was during the Vietnam War, but I was sent to Korea.
I was drafted into the Vietnam War when I was eighteen. Uh...I was young. Yeah...eighteen years old…something like that. I just uh, I just graduated from high school...and I start to work. Uh...I had a job...you know? And then I got drafted. I wasn't in high school very long...and I got drafted. I went through, you know, the military educational indoctrination period. I became a soldier. I was lucky that I wasn't sent to Vietnam. I was sent to Korea...and the reason why was, because, Korea still has military...United States military still stationed in Korea. So, Korea is divided into North and South Korea, you had the militarized zone in the middle and North Korea is Communist and South Korea is Capitalist, I guess. So uh, we were sent there because you still had to keep an armed presence as part of this country's program. Yes, I was on the field...but you know, it was part of the job. We didn't look at it different. That was what we were there for. We were soldiers. So yeah, we'd go on the field. I was in uh, a communications unit. So we would do it, we'd go to the mountains—high in the mountains—and set up this communication equipment and communicate with other sites and relay communications to different countries and different things. So it was just…yeah.

We Created the Puerto Rican Workshop
When I returned to the United States [after military service], I tried to get into Fashion Institute of Technology, but for some reason I could not get in so then my next step was to...I joined the School of Visual Arts on 23rd street between 2nd and 1st Avenue. It is an arts’ college. Before, I would draw sometimes....but, I was originally thinking of a career as a fine artist, as a designer. So when I came back from the service, I start to go to School of Visual Arts and I graduated with a Fine Arts Degree. That's when I got involved in the Art Worker's Coalition…that's when we started creating a lot of the galleries here.
During that time, that was uh, the late 60s, early 70s. We had the social unrest with the Civil Right's Movement and all that. So, during that period I joined the Art Worker's Coalition. That's an important step because the Art Worker's Coalition was a group of artists. That was…social conscience…dealing with the issues of...of the Civil Right's Movement, but also dealing with the arts of the city, which was very elitist to say the least, you know? The museums weren't exhibiting minorities or third world art at that time. So, we did a series of demonstrations against the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of the City of New York and the Metropolitan Museum to make the museums more inclusive…to deal with all the different cultures. So that was an important step and eventually we did quite a number of demonstrations against the so-called “administration” of all these institutions. You know, the elitists. The final analysis...there was a faction within the Art Worker's Coalition which was of Afro-Americans and there was a faction of Puerto Ricans which included myself and about eight or ten other Puerto Ricans. So, we decided to create our own institution. We created this, the Puerto Rican workshop which translates to…well, in Spanish it is "Taller Boricua”…art studio workshop. If you translate it to English, it is “Puerto Rican Workshop.”

Migration Was a Tier of Things
There's a big difference between the Spanish Harlem back in the 60s...back then, it was 99% Puerto Rican and compared to now, now is…very diverse. The Puerto Rican population is very small now, because well, for one reason...a lot of Puerto Rican people had moved on. Their children have become professionals and have moved on to different areas throughout the United States...and different jobs and different things. So a lot of the people who were here during that time were like my mother—garment district workers. Factories. Uh, mainly they were the working force during that period. During that time, there wasn't that many different people and mostly the people who were here doing that work before were mostly like the Italians and the Jewish and uh, the Blacks, because the Blacks always kept coming up from the South. Big migrations came from the South...from Southern Carolinas and uh, Georgia and all those places. They would go up and stay in Chicago, Cleveland, Ohio and into Pennsylvania and eventually they would get here to New York. So when the Puerto Ricans got here in the late 40s, early 50s, they inherited all those buildings from the previous minorities. Prior to us, it was the Jewish people. A big migration of Jewish people that came after the war, the 1940s...1945...after the Nazis, that was a big Jewish migration. Prior to that, there was an Italian migration...big Italian migrations in the 30s and the 20s. Prior to that, was the Irish. The Irish were here between, like, the 1840s...big migration...1840s to 1890s. They had the potato famine in Ireland and all that, so they had a big migration of Irish. The Chinese have always been here, they've always been here...since uh, the 1800s, and they came over for various reasons...one was for the development of railroads, so, so uh, yes. And...and each migration developed a different part of the city. East Harlem—as far back as I can recall—was originally a heavy Irish community. That church right next door, St. Cecilia's, was built by the Irish. All this past Hudson Street was all farms. New York City was just like Canal up to 23rd Street; everything else was just farms. The Irish and the Italians were up past 3rd Avenue, 2nd Avenue…that was all Italian at one time. And then the Puerto Ricans came to 3rd and 5th Avenue, between 96th and 100th and something street. From there on, on the west side was Black Harlem. So there was different territories for different cultures and different ethnicities. Migration was sort of like a tier of things, you know? Usually migration...um, jobs...or persecution you know, the Irish were persecuted...and jobs. People were looking for better lives.

Spanish Harlem Now
It's hard to gauge what the best thing about Spanish Harlem is...other than there is more variety. So, East Harlem is more like the rest of New York, a mix of everybody, you know? When one time, it wasn't. Um…that's I guess, the best. The worst is that a lot of the old people that were here have been gentrified and uh, they can't afford to live here anymore because of the income, and a lot of them are retired...a lot are living on social security, they've worked all their lives and then…now, everything has changed because it's too expensive. Everything is so expensive… So, that's the bad part.

Spanish Harlem Before
Back then, the best thing about living here, and the south Bronx…was the cultural development that happened. West Harlem was developing Jazz. East Harlem was developing what is now called Salsa. So there was a lot of cultural, artistic development. I have a lot of great memories...uh, first of all. I went to uh, I was living in the Bronx for a while and I went to the school that was PS52 [Public School 52]. And that school nurtured—had a great music program—and nurtured a lot of the best musicians that, that went on to create a movement, a cultural movement that could only happen in New York City. That was called Latin Jazz…so that was interesting. I played…uh I started out with the bass fiddle, the violin. And I started doing that in PS52 when I was in junior high school. And then I went out to study at the…I forgot the name of it…but anyway, it was a school for Jazz. And, and then, I played with a lot of bands. Then, I got…I was drafted…into the service. That was all during my teenage years. Like I said before, when I came back from the service, everything had changed. So, I went to art school.

Painting Spanish Harlem
In my art….well, a lot of it has to do with knowing art. You know art history, you know what has been done throughout the years, you have influences from all the different movements, you have different...different styles and all that. Then, what I did and what my contemporaries did was to start going back to our ancestral roots and start dealing with our history, which is not taught in high schools, in colleges or anything like that. So, it was up to myself and my contemporaries to start doing research and look into that and learning and studying that type of work and history behind it. You know, and then incorporate Puerto Rican as part of the body, the aesthetic…and I've been doing work for years. I started to do work which was related to the Pop Art Movement, because I was influenced by Andy Warhol, Rauschenberg [Robert Rauschenberg], Lichtenstein [Roy Lichtenstein], and all those people. That's when I started to go to school…those were the people who were teaching art in the schools there. So…like I said before, I eventually started doing research into my own cultural heritage and I come up with what you see around now, which is a combination of work that's influenced by both the American experience and our cultural heritage. 

“Composition in Coabey” (2010-present) by Marcos Dimas

*This interview was originally written for an NYU class and turned in as part of my personal schoolwork.*