Documenting the Puerto Rican Experience in the 20th and 21st centuries
Imagine if you will conceiving of a project that would document the Puerto Rican experience across the United States… Imagine further that this project would be undertaken by someone who is widely respected as an advocate for these people, and that this person, in addition, is a first-rate photographer…
Now let’s say that this project, by some extraordinary miracle, were to get funded, that all the doors open, and that across the continental United States, in Hawaii and in Puerto Rico, over 140 oral histories were recorded, beautiful and moving images were captured, and that a traveling exhibition as well as a book were to result from this project; that in the end a comprehensive and moving portrait of a people was produced.
Such a project, you’d be right to think, is rare in its conception, and the likelihood of accomplishing such a vast and complex undertaking would seem to be very small indeed. And yet, this is exactly what has happened. For those of you who do not know, The Puerto Rican Diaspora Documentary Project was conceived of by my father, Frank Espada. His proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities was funded, the photographs were taken, the oral histories recorded between 1979 and 1981; this exhibition then traveled for fifteen years throughout the United States and Hawaii, as well as to Puerto Rico; and, in 2007 an award winning book of photographs and narratives was published with the title, The Puerto Rican Diaspora: Themes in the Survival of a People. This last stroke of good fortune only happened as a result of a generous gift from a lifelong friend and ally of my father’s.
Scholars and students both of the modern Latino and Puerto Rican experience are basing their deep research in every case on the labors of those who have come before them and done the work, with vision, with passion and with skill. No one would deny that the finished work of those who have come before us is the cornerstone of any comprehensive scholarship we would do today.
In the interviews, Frank would almost always begin by asking people to tell how they got here, and in turn, more often than not, they would start by telling their family’s stories. In that way, from multiple angles, the entire 20th century’s history was covered. Modern scholars could do no better than to base their efforts on achievements such as this.
From Jack Agüeros, Executive Director of El Museo del Barrio, in 1983:
Preface to the exhibition catalogue – The Puerto Rican Diaspora
One million, two million perhaps, uprooted people, Puerto Rican people from the monte adentro, the inner mountain, migrating to the airport, flying to the “North”; earlier, on the Marine tiger, for a week of seasickness, shipping to Brooklyn, recruited in the slums, railroaded across America to sail across the Pacific to cut sugar cane in Hawaii. Migrating from Brooklyn to Manhattan to the Bronx, to Chicago to Philadelphia – migrating, migrating.
Never in the history of man has there been a migration like the Puerto Rican migration. Never have so many exited their country of origin, not the Irish, not the Jews, not the Germans, no, not anybody, in such numbers, for so many decades.
What a project – to document this unprecedented migration with a camera, a tape recorder. Two of the toys of modern technology, two of the tools of modern scientists, two of the instruments of modern artists.
What a project! To document these dispersed persons in their quest simply to find what we thought they had by law – life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness.
Whom shall we send to document them? Please, not the Social Scientists, not a Presidential Commission – they “see” the Puerto Rican all too often like the blind men saw the elephant.
No – send a fine photographer and advocate who was born in Utuado, saw the coffee harvested, was forced to migrate north, has dedicated his life to the struggle against injustice, cried in the night when he couldn’t do more.
Send Frank Espada – send him, because he is one of them, the chronology of this massive misadventure written in the lines of his face.
Send Frank Espada, because this is his story as well. He is one of them – through suffocation sees hope, through oppression sees humor, through dislocation and disorientation sees culture.
This catalog can only present a small sample of the 150 photographs in the exhibition it accompanies. As if in an ever growing geometric progression, the photographs exhibited are only a fraction of those of value, and they in turn are only a small part of those which were possible. Yet, what we publish here, and what we exhibit on this occasion represent the most ambitious photographic documentary project in the history of the Puerto Rican odyssey.
Frank Espada has produced a masterful portfolio.
We at El Museo del Barrio are proud to have joined with him in this great undertaking to preserve the history of the Puerto Rican experience in this century.
Jack Agüeros, Executive Director, El Museo del Barrio, October, 1983
In his own words: a concise history from the introduction to The Puerto Rican Diaspora, by Frank Espada
For more on the background of this work, see also A Sketch of Frank Espada’s Life