"Mural History of the Puerto Rican People"
Thanks to the combination of local grants and public funds, the city of Cleveland provided inner-city youth the opportunity to earn money during the summer hiatus. Under the supervision and guidance of trade professionals, a variety of community service projects were designed to develop good citizenship skills and work ethics among the youth. The programs not only kept kids off the streets by providing instruction and gainful employment, they also provided area non-profit agencies and community centers with badly needed help. In addition, college students and local artists were also recruited as instructors and supervisors. In every respect, this was the type of civic program that benefited everyone in the community.
During the spring of that year I was approached by my good friend Ana Sanchez (a very talented and dedicated youth social worker) to design a project for Hispanic students, ranging in ages from fourteen to seventeen. Not being particularly inclined to work with teenagers, I agreed to get involved on the condition that, instead of working with students assigned to the project at random -as was the custom, I reserved the right to do the selection.
My main concern was not one of artistic skill, but rather, it was one of discipline. In my experience, nothing proves more chaotic and counter productive on a worksite than a group of unruly kids, and I have no patience for it. Ana worked the arrangement and, after reviewing about one hundred applicants from the Cleveland Public Schools, I selected a group of thirty students. Not one of them had ever painted before but they were smart and eager to learn and I was pleased with their enthusiasm.
All the students were of Puerto Rican heritage (Cleveland's largest Hispanic group). However, only two of the students had been native to Puerto Rico. The rest of the group were third generation Puerto Rican-Americans; they had little or no knowledge of Puerto Rican history or how their parents and grand parents ended up living in the United States mainland. I soon realized that this "knowledge deficiency" was also endemic in the Hispanic community at large. The non-Hispanic community could not be expected to know better; all their information came from stereotypes reinforced by television and the media.
FINDING A THEME
I am a firm believer that the cultural diversity enriches and strengthens the fabric of a community. Not only does it make the world a more interesting place to live, it also makes the living more tolerant of others. But to define individual identity it is important to preserve cultural heritage. Individual identity and cultural heritage go hand in hand. Look for a person with a strong sense of self and you'll find an individual with strong cultural roots.
During our initial discussions, Ana and I had decided to take advantage of an empty wall at the Spanish American Committee building. The brick surface was not perfect, but it was available, it faced the street, and it could be made suitable for a mural painting. So we settled on turning this opportunity into our project. However, the subject matter for the mural was left to my discretion and, up to a couple of weeks into the program, I had no idea what to do about it.
I began the program by teaching basic theory, doing demonstrations, and running the students through hand-training exercises. As I got to know the students, a common thread kept repeating in our conversations. Many of them (myself included) had been asked at one time or another about our 'green cards' (immigration permits). The fact that Puerto Ricans are the only Hispanic group "forced" to become citizens of the United States is not known by most Americans (or younger Puerto Ricans). Therefore, I decided to turn the issue of "how Puerto Ricans became United State citizens"
into the central theme of our mural.
Researching the history for the mural was quite a revelation for the students. Living in a society that defines individuals in terms of black and white has been a troubling concept for Puerto Ricans. Puerto Ricans come in every colour of the spectrum since we are descendants of three very distinct groups: the European, the Native American, and the African. Centuries of living in the confines of a secluded tropical island have distilled the best qualities of each group into what we are today, namely, the people of Puerto Rico. But when the ties to this cultural heritage become vague, individual identity also begins to fade.
Naturally, each person has a yearning to belong to a group, but, as in the case of the Puerto Rican people, we do not fit either the white or the black model. We fit only our own. This was precisely one of the key statements the mural was to communicate to the students creating the work, to the Hispanic community of Cleveland, to the general community at large, and to anyone who happens to see this painting in any form or shape, just as you are now seeing it through this page.
Murals are indeed the kings of visual arts. This is so because, like music, the language of images is universal. For example, regardless of ones language or culture an image of the moon will always remain the moon. It's that simple. Therefore, a group of images organized in a certain order, consequently, can communicate a message that can be read by anyone. Interpretations of the visual message may vary from culture to culture or even within sub-cultures, but people within a specific society will basically "read" AND understand "the message" because they share a common background and points of reference.
Organizing visual images into a clear and effective message is "the art" of a good narrative mural. This is the key to being a good muralist. Being a natural storyteller also helps. And, since public murals are accessible to the masses, murals have been throughout history a powerful tool of mass communication. This is why murals are the kings of visual arts.
During the summer months my group of dedicated young artists worked diligently on the project. I created the original 'cartoon' (working drawing) which they proceeded to transfer and fix to the wall. Our colour palette was limited to exterior grade water-base household paints with colour accents added in artist's acrylics. All the colours had been pre-mixed and canned by the students and the work progressed in an orderly and highly structured routine.
Paints, supplies and equipment were transported each morning to the site and stored again during the evening after the days' work was completed. Each student was responsible for a specific task and worked in groups of five. The wall was about fifteen feet high by fifty feet wide so each group could comfortably work on an assigned section, though not always painting at the same time. Still, thirty painters is a lot of artists for one mural so Ana and I assigned some of the groups to other chores, like, painting posters and signs for an upcoming community festival (I had taught sign-painting to the students at the beginning of the program). But all the students worked on the mural at one time or another and were extremely proud of each individual contribution.
Cleveland weather can be highly unpredictable and rain was a big problem that year. As a result the mural project was not completed by the time the Youth Summer Job Program ended. The painting was about 90 percent completed (notice the mural above as shown in an article from The Plain Press, a very popular community newspaper. Still, it was impressive and the story received a lot of coverage in the local press. But I was dissatisfied with the unfinished work so the following spring I went on to complete it. My friend, artist Gabriel Cespedez came along to help with the finishing touches.
The mural became a focal point of the Cleveland Hispanic community and was well received by the non-Hispanic community as well where it developed some of its most devoted fans. For over a decade there was not one single incident of graffiti. But as was to be expected, the mural began to deteriorate to the ravishes of time. By the late 1990's I had approached several administrations of the Spanish American Committee to restore the work. Funds from the Ohio Arts Council
were available to cover the cost but no one took the initiative (I'm sorry, but I just don't get it).
In anticipation I had done new research for the project and prepared colour sketches. Since I intended to redo the work along professional lines, I would use sophisticated painting techniques, which are hallmarks of my work. When the mural was originally painted I had designed it to take into account the artistic level of the students. It was basically a paint-by-numbers affair. For its second incarnation I would maintain the exact composition but upgrade the painting style (as shown below). Unfortunately, this was not to be.
Mural History of the Puerto Rican People - Historia Mural del Pueblo de Puerto Rico
©COPYRIGHT RESERVED REPRODUCTION INTERDITE SE PROHIBE LA REPRODUCCIÓN
In 2004 I received an email letter from Ian Randle Publishers. They had come upon the Muralmaster website where their artistic director took notice of an old picture of the original mural (displayed in the 'murals' section of this website). The photograph had been taken years after the mural's completion but it was enough to impress them. They wanted to use it for the cover of Gordon K. Lewis' classic -Puerto Rico: Freedom and Power in the Caribbean. The book had been out of print for some years and they were going to publish a limited edition.
To me, this was no small honour. The Gordon K. Lewis estate approved the project and I produced a new painting of the mural to be used on its front and back cover. Now, along with the book and this website, the Mural History of the Puerto Rican People can be seen and appreciated by a world wide audience.
I have included some close-up images from the mural in this update. To understand the imagery I strongly urge you to read my essay -American Propaganda: Controlling Public Opinion in Puerto Rico (click on the link below), which is posted in the 'writings' section of this website. I welcome your questions and comments. It is my intention to reproduce the mural, and its interpretation, in a small limited edition print for those interested in owning it. See the store page for details.
A print of the 'Mural History of the Puerto Rican People' -with an extensive and detailed description of every single visual, artistic and symbolic element in the artwork on CD, is available. Please send us an email to inquire.
Comentario para mis amigos en Puerto Rico:
Quiero agradecer a todos los amigos y compatriotas en Puerto Rico por su interés en esta obra de arte. Muchos han escrito su deseo de ver realizada una versión de la Historia Mural del Pueblo de Puerto Rico en nuestra bella isla. Igualmente, ese ha sido mi deseo por años. Pero para lograr tal realización son necesarios dos factores muy importantes: primeramente, una pared apropiada para un mural de gran dimensión, y consecuentemente, un patrocinador para cubrir el costo del proyecto.
Esta pintura mural, hecha pública en las páginas digitales de Muralmaster, ha sido objeto de inspiración en el mundo entero. He recibido e-mails y comentarios de países tales como España, Argentina, Francia, Indonesia, Egipto, México, India, Italia, Rumania, Irlanda, Los Emiratos Árabes Unidos, Israel, Chile, Nicaragua, Polonia, Canadá, Filipinas, y el Reino Unido, además de personas en varios estados Estadounidenses, declarando su deleite en esta obra. Para la gran mayoría, este mural ha sido su introducción a Puerto Rico.
Lamentablemente, hasta este momento Marzo del 2011, la ambición de recrear el mural en Puerto Rico no se ha podido realizar. Les confieso que no es fácil promover un proyecto debido a la distancia. No obstante he intentando allegarme a personas en la isla para discutir la idea. Por ejemplo: En Noviembre del 2010 escribí una carta al Sr. Héctor Cruz Figueroa, Director del Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, para inicial un dialogo y buscar ideas para lograr un patrocinador para el mural en Puerto Rico, pero hasta ahora no he recibido contesta. Otras iniciativas también han sido ignoradas o no han logrado fruto.
Aun más desconcertante para mi es que el muralismo en Puerto Rico, un poderoso
movimiento artístico urbano que disfruto gran resurgimiento durante la década del 70, casi ha desaparecido como expresión artística y cultural de nuestro pueblo.
Con una historia capaz de inspirar miles de murales público, en una isla con un clima ideal para ser lienzo a innumerables obras; con una juventud deseosa de la
oportunidad para desarrollar y cultivar su talento en formas asombrosas, en un pueblo que disfruta de los bellos colores, el arte y el estimulo intelectual, esto es
una desgracia nacional.
Quizás las voces que piden un renacimiento de la instrucción académica de la
pintura tradicional y su uso en la propagación de nuestra cultura e historia nacional, llegue a los oídos de los empresarios privados, servidores públicos, e intelectuales
en todos los ámbitos para inicial el necesario dialogo que nos mueva en el camino de la acción. Si alguno desea compartir sus ideas o escuchar las mías, mi
dirección y teléfono están en la página de contacto. Mientras tanto, por favor compartan esta página con sus amigos. -JRR