In late March, over 200 Latinx artists, activists, and scholars signed an open letter to El Museo del Barrio that questions the museum’s direction as it veers away from its original mission. El Museo del Barrio is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. It was started by a group of Puerto Rican artists, activists, and educators in the neighborhood of East Harlem, also referred to as “El Barrio” (“the neighborhood”). The intention was to foster an appreciation and value for Puerto Rican culture, history, and legacy among the community’s children. The museum’s focus expanded beyond Puerto Rican artists to more broadly include Latinx and Latin American artists. The letter, referred to as Mirror Manifesto, asserts that El Museo del Barrio has lost its way. Critics have noted the museum’s shift in celebration of Latinx to mostly Latin American artists, recently amplified by two major appointments, that of Patrick Charpenel from Mexico as Executive Director and Rodrigo Muro from Brazil as Chief Curator. The signatories of the letter say that the institution is morphing, “from a museum reflective of the community who founded it, to an elitist institution for Latin American art. A market driven endeavor.”
The Mirror Manifesto begins with clarifying who the museum was intended for, particularly in light of El Barrio’s new direction being framed as a way to celebrate the shared aspects of Latinx and Latin American cultures. The letter states,
“It requires us to first contend with ‘El Barrio’s’ identity. While Puerto Ricans were instrumental in the foundation of the museum, it is not strictly a Puerto Rican museum. It is a museo ‘del Barrio.’ Further, demographic changes in East Harlem and the overall growth of the Latinx diaspora in the last 50 years render the nationalist led push to make El Barrio mean “Puerto Rican” null. If El Museo is to be resuscitated, we must lay these claims to rest and set about addressing who we mean when we say El Barrio.
If El Barrio means neighborhood, or enclave, and we are defining the institution as encompassing a diasporic latinidad, then what we are contending with is what is now being called ‘Latinx.’ Loosely defined, this is the Nuyorican, the Dominiyorker, the first, second, and third generations of Mexicans, Colombians, Ecuadorians, and Hondurans that make up a barrio in the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and New Jersey. It is the El Salvadorian and Guatemalteco kids in Silver Springs, Maryland, the Cubans in New Jersey, the Tejanos, the Chicanos. It is the dreamers and the migrants who identify with a U.S. lived experience. It is the children of immigrants at the border and the children of recently arrived Puerto Ricans in Orlando and Pennsylvania Post- Maria, that have and will grow up here.
This is distinct from Latin America and should not be confused. For too long, this ambiguity has rendered Latinx artists invisible. Latinx artists continue to be marginalized, underrepresented, and erased. El Museo has shamelessly latched on to this ambiguity and forfeited its original mission. It has done very little as an institution to foster and cultivate Latinx Art.”
The letter goes on to explain the ways the museum has failed to serve its community, which include lack of community-focused programming and lack of representation on the board of trustees. The signatories call for a total transformation of the institution declaring,
“EL MUSEO DEL BARRIO MUST BE EL MUSEO DE LOS BARRIOS. It must fulfill its original mission or relinquish control to the community of Latinx scholars and artists to steer it back on course. It must DECOLONIZE.”
Demands for change include a board and staff that represent the diversity of Latinx communities. The letter emphasizes the importance of representation saying,
“The Board of Trustees’ willful disregard of the mission of El Museo del Barrio is self-evident by their decision to hire a Director and a Chief Curator from Latin America who have no experience living in the United States and little knowledge of the art and social struggles of Puerto Ricans and Latin Americans in the United States.”
The signatories of the letter are asking for El Museo del Barrio to fulfill its original mission: to serve as a resource to the Latinx community (providing community-focused programming and opportunities for young Latinx artists and curators to grow their careers), to represent and celebrate Latinx culture and art, and to be an accessible, community-centered space, not another elitist art institution.
Marabou thinks it is important to highlight that community members, artists, activists, and scholars are usually the ones who speak up and demand for a museum to change its unjust ways, or to readjust if it’s going off-course. Change can and has happened when the people challenge museums. For example, look at the success of the Sackler Pain campaign, led by artist Nan Goldin, resulting in a number of major institutions announcing they will not accept Sackler family money moving forward. Pressure on the American Museum of Natural History by Decolonize This Place and their collaborators over three years has prompted the museum to respond by explaining the cultural inaccuracies in one of its dioramas. Holding museums accountable is possible, we just need to continue advocating until we are heard and see the changes we want. Marabou supports the signers of the Mirror Manifesto and the work they are doing to return El Museo del Barrio to its mission in service of its community.