New York stories: The immigrants' tale

Simone Kane goes off the main museum trail to visit two new spaces celebrating the city's diverse community

Sunday, 27 June 2010

A head appears in a gap in the shop's glass-screened counter as I offer up my water bottle to pay. "Quiere el agua?" asks the shopkeeper. I've just surfaced from the subway into the steamy streets of the southern side of New York City's "El Barrio" or Spanish Harlem.
Water bought, I cross a housing project that echoes to Latin beats and, moments later, reach the northern end of Museum Mile. The eastern edge of Central Park hosts some of the city's cultural must-sees. But I'm skipping the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the relaunched El Museo del Barrio, where extensive remodelling has created a smart new home for New York's leading Latino cultural institution.
A modern, glass façade, a redesigned courtyard and a new café have given the museum a welcoming facelift. Inside, renovation has created the Carmen Ana Unanue Galleries, named after one of El Museo's long-standing patrons. They will house rotating exhibitions from the 6,500-strong permanent collection, and there's space for temporary shows, too.
Voces y Visiones: Four Decades through El Museo del Barrio's Permanent Collection relates the history of the museum, formed in 1969 by a coalition of Puerto Rican parents, educators, activists and artists. In the context of the civil rights movement, El Museo was created to record the Nuyorican community's struggle to find an identity and voice – expressed through art – as well as to promote Latino artists.
Monochrome photographs, video and memorabilia provide snapshots of the New York Puerto Rican community, which grew out of a huge migration of workers in the 1930s and 1940s. I'm captivated by the soft rhythmic sound of the poet Pedro Pietri's "Puerto Rican Obituary" – reminiscent of Gil Scott-Heron's poetic rapping style. Caught on video at a political meeting in 1969, it was Pietri's first recital of the poem in English.
It's on a loop, a soundtrack for my examination of the artefacts of the Taino, the dominant culture of the pre-Columbian Caribbean. In contrast, the bright Pop Art prints by Chicano and Nuyorican artists appropriate images and symbols from their history, as well as the media. Sun Mad is a deathly play on a Sun Maid Raisins packet – a protest against pesticides.
"Sorry, ma'am. No photos," says the guard. I pull out my notepad and pen. "Sorry, ma'am. No pens, either." Perhaps this stiffness is a symptom of El Museo's place on this strip of high-culture spots. I put them away and explore the rest of the collection, including works from other Caribbean and Latin American countries, too.
I leave El Museo uplifted by the politics, the optimism, the vibrancy. But I can't shake off Pietri's poem. Voices from the past had spoken to me the previous day, too, at another revamped venue, the Museum of Chinese in America (Moca), which has been relocated from Mulberry Street to new premises in Centre Street, Chinatown.
Architect Maya Lin has worked her magic on a building on the edge of the neighbourhood. A simple, elegant façade of wood, concrete and bronze conceals a serene space. Since its inception in 1980, the museum has become a focal point for the Chinese population in Manhattan and across the US.
Inside, clever curation and thoughtful design preserve the memories of older generations. A bronze-tiled "Journey Wall" reveals the extent of the Chinese diaspora. The core exhibition, With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America, is wrapped around a central, full-height courtyard, bestowing shafts of light on the galleries, evoking a Chinese courtyard house. Lin left this raw and untouched – a reminder of the past.
The early galleries are cool and dark – a pleasantly enveloping space – using a tactile mixture of wood on walls and floors and exposed brick, broken up by frosted windows and displays. Hanging glass cylinders hold artefacts from the homeland. Part of the floor is an illuminated map of early trade routes – the beginnings of migration. Duotone portraits of the first immigrants dangle from the ceiling, overseeing the charting of their history.
Projected on to the courtyard windows are short biographical films of Chinese-Americans from 1850 to the present. Approach to hear their stories. Move on and they fade to a soft cacophony of ghostly voices competing to be heard – a poignant metaphor.
Small, backlit glass panels subtly present the Chinese contribution to the building of America: discoveries and inventions, railroad construction, development of fishing industries and farming, work in the woollen mills, cigar-making and footwear factories.
Look the other way and you're assaulted by crowded anti-Chinese posters; artwork featuring demonised Chinese, extracts detailing the effects of the 1882 Exclusion Act, the barring of Chinese from skilled trades and unions that forced them into strike-breaking, domestic work and service industries – a sad, shameful story.
Colourful fashion and artefacts from traditional celebrations lift the spirits and there's a re-created Chinatown store. Positive stories emerge, including the signing of the 1965 Immigration Act. Where acceptance into the US had previously depended on country of birth, it now depended on skill.
A displayed extract of President Lyndon B Johnson's positive remarks about that act strikes an ironic chord: I am visiting on May Day 2010 and there are more than 70 demonstrations taking place around the US against the controversial Arizona immigration bill.
These museums, with their focus on some of the immigrants who helped to build this powerful nation, seem to reveal why Americans should kick that legislation into touch.