Legend says that on December 12th, 1531, the Virgin Mary appeared to an Indian boy, Juan Diego, on Tepeyac Hill in a suburb of what is now northern Mexico City. She instructed him to tell Spanish missionaries that they should build a church that would bridge the worlds of the Aztecs and their Spanish conquerors, one that would be more compassionate to Mexico’s indigenous people. The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe was built on the site, and the Virgin soon became the patron and symbol of Mexico, a country born of a fusion of cultures. In Mexico today, La Virgen is a daily part of many people’s lives. She adorns candles, decorates restaurants, sits on church altars and dangles from rearview mirrors. The Virgen de Guadalupe has been consulted, sung to, danced for, prayed to, and worshipped by thousands of immigrants who carried her flame. They carry her soul in their hands and her strength in their hearts.
Many murals in East Harlem have nationalistic themes. A good example is the Puerto Rican flag mural which pays homage to a local campaign to pressure officials to get the US Navy out of Vieques, a small island off the coast of the Puerto Rican mainland.Here a portrait is embedded in the mural. It honors Lolita Lebron who was arrested twice for participating in Vieques protests, serving 60 days in federal prison. There are portraits of other community personalities too, like Pedro Pietri who founded the Nuyorican Poets’ Cafe in 1973, and the Cuban born Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa. One of the newer murals celebrates a Puerto Rican rapper.
In Puerto Rican Obituary, a key text for Nuyorican poets, Pedro Pietri creates a mock epic of the Puerto Rican community in the United States. Through humor, sarcasm, and an irreverent irony, the poet presents the American dream — which motivated many Puerto Ricans to emigrate to this country — not as a dream, but as a nightmare and, ultimately, as death. The puertorriquenos find themselves shut out of America’s economic opportunities and lifestyle, and realize that they are unemployed, living on welfare, bitter, degraded. Pietri’s image of a collective death is symbolic, denouncing the death of the Puerto Ricans’ dignity as a people and as individuals. Yet Pietri is not altogether pessimistic, for his poem proposes a utopian symbolic space of Puerto Rican identity.
A wall on 103rd Street near Lexington Avenue plays homage to Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa. Although Celia was born in Havana, Cuba, she spent most of her career living and working in the United States. She combined forces with Tito Puente in 1966, and by the mid 1970s was riding the crest of commercial success. Widely admired in the Latino community, she earned 22 gold albums, a Grammy, and a National Medal of Arts, presented by President Bill Clinton in 1994. Billboard Magazine called her the “indisputably best-known and most influential female figure in the history of Afro-Cuban music.”
You can learn a lot about a place from its walls. Take East Harlem, for example. Most visitors start at the south end of the community where early murals like Hank Prussing’s The Spirit of East Harlem celebrate the cultural heritage of Puerto Rican immigrants. In 1978 when the mural was dedicated, few could foresee the role that painted walls would play in the economic development of East Harlem. The area around 106th Street, the heart of old Spanish Harlem, is now called mural row and is the lynchpin of public efforts to attract cultural tourists. Many murals have nationalistic themes. Others focus more explicitly on the social and economic problems of the community. Over the years, the murals have become more cosmopolitan and often more controversial. Many in the community now promote the mural culture as a way of improving the quality of life of residents and mural projects involving young people are popular. Nevertheless, the role of murals as a tourist attraction that will spur economic development and benefit the community is not convincing to all.
Christopher Lee Rios (November 9, 1971-February 7, 2000), better known as Big Punisher or Big Pun, was a New York rapper of Puerto Rican descent originally known as Big Moon Dawg. He emerged from the underground rap scene in the Bronx — the birthplace of Hip Hop music — in the late 1990s. Big Pun appeared on albums from Raekwon, The Beatnuts, and Fat Joe before eventually signing to Loud Records. His debut album, Capital Punishment, and the single “Still Not a Player” were big hits in 1998 making him the first solo rapper to ever go platinum. He joined other Latin rappers in the group Terror Squad, releasing a self-titled album in 1999. Big Pun — named after the Marvel comic book hero The Punisher — was a huge man with weight reportedly varying between 450 and 700 pounds. His career was cut short in 2000 by a fatal heart attack. He was survived by a wife and three children.
Since the late 1980s, artists have been commissioned by family and friends to create murals that commemorate the lives of loved ones, especially those dying violent deaths. In East Harlem, the memorials are usually created by professional and semi-professional Puerto Rican artists. The stylistically authentic and individualistic street art is most often painted by permission on the walls of apartment buildings or playgrounds. Each wall transforms personal grief into public remembrance. This memorial was photographed on the southwest side of 117th Street at Second Avenue in March 2005.