Thursday, October 7, 2010

Council member Melissa Meets the Community on the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center’s future.

By William Gerena Rochet

Council woman Melissa Mark Viverito laid out the parameters of the meeting within the framework of people knowing the significance and vital importance of the Julia de Burgos Latinos Cultural Center, by saying: “We want to insure there is a level of active engagement, consistent cultural programming and a comprehensive cultural vision for that center and those two spaces will allow that to happen.”

And thus to a packed community Room of possibly 150 people at the La Guardia House Senior Center in Spanish Harlem on Monday, October 4th 2010, Council member Melissa Mark Viverito’s call for a “Visioning Discussion” on the future of the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center got started – an event that film maker Ed Morales would later describe as “very emotional” – given that Taller Boricua (TB), in an effort to keep control of that space, had rallied numerous supporters to attend the meeting (the space is the large event room on the ground floor and the Theatre on the second floor above it ‘y nada más’).

The Council woman explained the process for selecting a new entity to manage the center: one that would give greater access to it and in contrast to what has taken place under the hand of TB, she said, “People that have tried, I know I as a community resident, and prior to my capacity as a Council member, the theater is a place that unfortunately is a very bureaucratized space to get access to.”

For soprano and Música de Camara Director Eva de la O, her attempt to bring classical music to the Center got derailed by the obstacle the TB bureaucracy has in place.

Playwright Gene Rodriguez said the theatre was not ‘Theatre worthy,’ lacking basic upgrades in seating, light and sound. He felt that eventually a theatre hub could be established in the community. On that note, sort of speak, Musician Johnny Colón said that it was not just lack of utilizing the existing space for culture and the arts, but the need to expand it even more. The fact that the public high school (it is not a Charter School) was embedded in the building robbed the community of needed space. All concurred on this point.

A young woman offered her vision of having a center for expression and creativity for young people. A community Youth theatre would be welcomed much more so now at a time so many young people have been lost to street gun violence.

Los Pleneros de la 21, disavowed any short comings with the Center, possibly focusing on the substantial work they do in the building as tenants with their Bomba and Plena workshops and presentations, or perhaps they buy into the same position the does not separate the community room/theatre space with the rest of the building.

Edwin Marcial when prodded to do so, made the assertion that there was poor management by the head of TB, Fernando Salicrup, so curiously enough this was followed up with a recommendation to give Mr. Salicrup training in management (as a solution to the problem). In the absence of a conspiracy theory, it was somewhat comical.

While the Council woman knew that her meeting’s aim to establish community involvement for the future of the Center would be met with the opposition organized by TB, an observer gave her kudos for her courage, or in plain talk: that the Council woman had “cojones,” (think unisex , think unisex!).
Maritza Villegas, a student counselor at Manhattan Center for Science and Math in the community said, “I think Melissa is a masterful mediator and her courage and principles go unmatched as an elected official.”

With the Council woman having substantial support of her own, her commanding presence and with moderator Carlos Vargas steering the meeting to meet its purpose as well as he could, things remained pretty much under control – considering a repetitive chorus of the pro-TB points already made that revolved around stopping the process as laid out by the Council woman. Later it was recommended to create a task force – something that given the irrevocable time line in place – if anything, a task force may a good idea for helping evaluate those who apply to be at the helm of the Center.

Melissa, as she is popularly known, intermittently got up to clarify issues, or challenge false allegations and innuendos from the floor.

For one, that the space does not include Taller Boricua’s offices, the gallery and two other rooms in the northern side of the Building and for another, that the Salsa Wednesdays cancellation was not the doing of the Council woman, but that of TB itself (Taller Boricua’s current lease of the multicultural space where Salsa Wednesdays is held will be renewed month to month until the new manager is identified). Furthermore, in her years in office TB or Mr. Salicrup has not attempted to meet with her. This is consistent with his decision not to ever endorse or support her candidacy for City Council in the past.

To wit, TB insists on putting forth the position that they and the other tenants’ future at the Center are in immediate jeopardy due to the process of changing the management of the community room/theatre space. In other words, TB is using the tactic of misinformation coupled with fear to continue to do what they were doing, or lack thereof. And while the work of Taller Boricua over a 40 year span is a separate untouchable legacy, their intent of collapsing it with the management of the community room/theatre space appears to be disingenuous.

This type of fear/misinformation is different than the concern other may have, namely that another Puerto Rican Institution would not only be lost to the community, but to the greater Puerto Rican population at large, “The Puerto Rican Diaspora,” as Artist-activist and entrepreneur Franklyn Flores made note of. “The Julia de Burgos Center has to be seen as a Cultural space for Puerto Ricans from any part of the country, not just El Barrio,” he said.

And thus these individuals listened to sort out of what was being said from the voices for a “Vision” to voices affirming the role of two individuals: namely the progressive track record of Council member Melissa and Fernando Salicrup's legacy behind 40 years of work with Taller Boricua in Spanish Harlem – and the voices he rallied to reverse the process under way.

That process mainly involves the following: The City Government with its administrative office of the Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC or EDC for short) issued on September 30, 2010, in governmental jargon, a “Request for Expression of Interest (RFEI).

What this means is that interested parties: qualified individuals, companies, or organizations, would position themselves to be the future guardians of the Center, the community room/theatre space – effectively taking it out of the control of Taller Boricua.

The council woman Melissa Mark Viverito stated that she is fully supportive of the RFEI and at the end of the meeting made it clear that she would continue with the process, notwithstanding the request made by TB supporters to rescind it.

The process is a product of her taking action in support of community voices ’s ongoing concern about the lack of access to the community space and thus the EDC’s issuing the RFEI (like ah, do you follow?). On the other hand TB claimed that this RFEI was issued only because, to their understanding, of “the lack of improved sound proofing of the Theatre space.”

But as stated in the Council member’s communication for the visioning meeting, it reads:

‘As you may know, Julia de Burgos was approved for disposition for non-profit cultural and educational uses in 1992. It was envisioned that the building would serve the surrounding community by providing classes, workshops, studio and performance space to neighborhood artists and residents and would be available for use by theater, music and art cultural groups. Unfortunately, this has not been the case and (the) building has been underutilized for many years.’

The meeting ended and if one could say there was any unity, there was to the extent as Maritza Villegas concluded by saying: “I thought the meeting was a huge success giving the community an opportunity to voice their concerns and positions in a safe environment.”

A Spirit of Unity or Unity of Spirit and not of mind is the question: la lucha continuará.

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