December 9th, 2009
El Museo Del Barrio has responded to the controversy surrounding their spoken word series, formerly titled "Spic Up/Speak Out." The full text of this response, entitled "You Spoke Out/We Listened," can be read at their website: http://www.elmuseo.org/en/explore-online.
A publicly-funded, community-founded arts institution should know better than to market to audiences, poets, or anyone else using the word "spic."
In the last two weeks, this simple principle has led several diverse communities of artists, writers, teachers, and community members to gather, discuss, organize, and express their disappointment toward this unfortunate word choice. In recognition of this fact, and in response to the community's postings, letters, and emails to museum staff (including its executive director), El Museo has chosen the correct path and changed the name of the show to "Speak Up/Speak Out."
Unfortunately, El Museo has also chosen to continue concealing its poor artistic custodianship and community engagement behind the false fig leaves of free artistic expression and an ex post facto linguistic "context" of reappropriation (i.e. the act of reclaiming the word "spic") for the original naming of the series.
Among the items unaddressed in El Museo's three-page statement is that from the spring of 2008 until the summer of 2009, El Museo never claimed this context in its advertising, mailings, show flyers, or show descriptions. In fact, the first noted dispute over the title came from some of the very artists they sought to showcase, who in the summer of 2009 engaged in an email debate about the word choice in question. Then, and only then, did El Museo and its defenders attempt to supply a context of reappropriation to the series title. And only until an article appeared in the New York Times did the institution seem interested in entertaining a change in the name.
This alleged context for the naming of their series perpetuates the false parallel between individual acts of expression and the programming choices of a community-founded, publicly-funded institution.
To be perfectly clear, we believe that no artist should be censored or ostracized for their word choices, even those deemed offensive. We have never called for this series' cancellation, nor have we pressured individual artists to back out of the series. We reject any such calls. Instead, we encourage all artists contracted to perform in this newly-renamed series to use their considerable artistic talents to voice their agreement or their displeasure with the Museo's word choice as part of their performances.
We agree that the use of the word "spic" has a history in Latino literature. However, contrary to El Museo's statement, the history is not an altogether positive one. Not every creative use of a slur implies a reclaiming or reappropriation of that slur.
We take particular issue with the interpretation of Pedro Pietri's poem "Puerto Rican Obituary." Neither of the two instances of the word's use within the poem can be construed as reappropriation. Ironically, the one true instance of reappropriation in the poem is found in the Spanish word "negrito," a word used by some Caribbean Latinos as an expression of love and a backhanded slap at the racist traditions our cultures have historically engendered. Notice, however, that Mr. Pietri's line reads, "Aquí to be called negrito means to be called LOVE." It does not read, "Aquí to be called spic means to be called LOVE."
Regardless of the poetic interpretations offered or refuted, we reject out of hand the notion that individual uses of an epithet by themselves constitute an excuse for an institution to use an epithet as a program name. Our intent here is to remind El Museo Del Barrio of the difference between artistic expression and curatorial responsibility, a responsibility that has clearly been abdicated by means of El Museo's latest statement. We read it as neither a true acknowledgment of the community's outrage, nor as an apology. The fact is, nowhere in its missive does El Museo accept responsibility or explicitly apologize for offending people to whom they refer as "those for whom this term is offensive." They have instead attempted to define a serious curatorial miscue, the use of an epithet by an arts institution, as an act of free speech and artistic license. To say El Museo misses the point is a gross understatement.
To date, we have yet to receive full disclosure as to how this series name was conceived in the first place. We still do not know which curator, intern, administrator, or committee was responsible to putting the title to paper. No staff member, senior manager, or board member of El Museo was willing to put his or her name on the statement. El Museo's executive director, Julian Zugazagoitia, has not responded to a single email sent to him.
We continue to be hopeful for a fruitful community dialogue with El Museo and its management, given the activist history and community roots of the institution itself. To that end, we would suggest a community roundtable, one attended by the public and the Museo's Board of Trustees and management, to give a public, face-to-face airing of all points of view on this particular matter.
We also renew our call for Mr. Zugazagoitia, in his capacity as executive director, to engage this community positively and take steps to ensure that this incident and incidents like it do not recur. And we call upon Mr. Zugazagoitia, the Board, and the public and private funders of El Museo to examine their own statement of purpose and ask themselves if the original choice of the word "spic" in its public programming truly serves "to enhance the sense of identity, self-esteem and self-knowledge of the Caribbean and Latin American peoples by educating them in their artistic heritage and bringing art and artists into their communities."
Sam Vargas Jr.
The Acentos Foundation
Jesus "Papoleto" Melendez
El Puerto Rican Embassy
Previous articles for context:
"Poetry Series Spurs Debate on the Use of an Old Slur Against Latinos," by David Gonzalez. New York Times, November 20, 2009.
"Leaping The Barricades," by Rich Villar. "El Literati Boricua" (weblog), November 25, 2009.
"El Museo Changes Word That Got in the Way of the Meaning," by David Gonzalez. New York Times, December 4, 2009.
"Museo Del Barrio Changes Spic Up/Speak Out Poetry Series," Village Voice New York News Blog. December 5, 2009.