A Small Puerto Rican Gem Buried in the Lower East Side

Blanche Kruk and Paulita Rivas grew up together on the Lower East Side, attending third and fourth grade at a public school at 107 Suffolk Street in the 1960s. In their childhood era, the East Village was a vibrant, ethnically diverse working-class community with a strong Puerto Rican identity that is now largely buried under the neighborhoods’s trendy boutiques and bars.

Blanche Kruk (left) and Paulita Rivas view the Puerto Rican exhibit at the Clemente Solo Velez Center in lower Manhattan Thursday. (Photo: Justin Mitchell/Fi2W)

These days, their former school houses the Clemente Solo Velez Cultural Center, and on Thursday afternoon Kruk and Rivas came to the Abrazo Interno Gallery, located on the building’s second floor, to view a special exhibit on local Puerto Rican history and culture called, “I’d Still be Puerto Rican Even If Born On the Moon.”

Presented by CityLore, an organization dedicated to preserving the identity of New York’s cultures and communities, the exhibit provides a quick overview of the Puerto Rican story in New York City, and is a worthwhile stop for anyone exploring the East Village in the next week. The exhibit closes on Wednesday, July 25th.

For Kruk, stepping into the Abrazo Gallery exhibit was like entering a time warp. Decades ago, she attended kindergarten in this very room.

“We wanted to see the exhibit, but I’ve been dying to come into the building, just reminisce, and see what I can remember, and how it looks,” she told Fi2W.  “You know, the last time I think I was here, I was eleven.”

What the ladies found in their old stomping ground is a modest but informative and engaging historical exhibit, divided into wide-ranging sections including “Migration,” “Leadership,” and “Work.”

A mundillo loom. (Photo: Justin Mitchell/Fi2W)

Sprinkled throughout are examples of Puerto Rican folk art, such as mundillo, or bobbin lace, and santos, traditional woodcarvings of saints.  These traditions began back in Puerto Rico, and although modern practitioners of them are rare, they remain an important part of Puerto Rican culture in the city.

“Santos de Palo” by Marta Iris Rodriguez Olmeda. (Photo: Justin Mitchell/Fi2W)

Kruk hoped that the dignity and hard work of the Puerto Ricans she studied and played with in this very room would be recognized by visitors to this exhibit.

“This keeps more than just an idea of a memory of what used to be,” she said.  “It plays out that there were people who were hard working, just like you read in European stories.”

For Rivas, who is Puerto Rican herself, the exhibit was personal.  Her half-brother was Bimbo Rivas, an important cultural figure for Puerto Ricans in the Lower East Side, whose portrait was featured in the exhibit.  He was known as a community leader, someone who tried to help neighborhood kids avoid crime and drugs and live up to their potential.

“He was a carpenter, he was an electrician, he was a poet, he was a political advocate, he was a father,” she said.  “He was a great brother.”

“Bike” by George Zavala. (Photo: Justin Mitchell/Fi2W)

Among the more idiosyncratic features of the exhibition is “Bike,” a bicycle decorated in Puerto Rican and American flags, which was once a fixture in the city’s Puerto Rican parades.  On the first floor, several more contemporary works of art hang on the walls and lie on the floor, including “Two Minutes Palimpsest,” a massive wall-sized abstract piece by Ana Cristina Collazo, and Luis Carle’s “The Santos In a Bag,” a series of tiny photos of models dressed as saints and wrapped in plastic, which reference the traditional santos in the gallery upstairs.

But this is not just an art exhibit, it’s rather an overview of all aspects of Puerto Rican culture.  It is not a large or overwhelming show, but it is an engaging look into a different time and place in New York City’s history, and it is definitely worth a half hour of time for anyone planning to be in the area before July 25th.

As Rivas and Kruk shared stories of Bimbo Rivas and the plethora of other figures they recognized on the walls, Fi2W asked Rivas what she hoped people took away from this exhibit above all else.

“That they get how the Puerto Ricans migrated here, what they did in this community,” she answered.  “This community was very, very cultural.”

The gallery is open from 3:30 pm to 7:00 pm every day until Wednesday, July 25th.  Admission is free.

Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

AboutJustin Mitchell
Justin Mitchell was born and raised in Fairbanks, Alaska. He graduated from the University of Northern Colorado in 2002 with a degree in theater, and worked as an ESL teacher in the Czech Republic, Cambodia, and Korea. He is now a student at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism with a focus in international journalism. Follow him on Twitter @mittinjuschell.