Last Wednesday, two pillars of the local arts scene teamed up to brighten a Longwood street and call attention to the neighborhood’s Puerto Rican culture and history.
A new mural by Hunts Point-based artist collective Tats Cru was unveiled over the Simpson Street entrance of Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education, depicting a Puerto Rican comic book superheroine known as La Borinqueña. The mural, which spans about 40 feet in length, is based on a character that was created by Puerto Rican illustrator Edgardo Mirana-Rodriguez.
“Traditionally, this neighborhood was 80 percent Puerto Rican,” said Casita Maria’s associate director of creative arts programs Gail Heidel said. “So we felt that it would be fitting for this community.”
Today, the Puerto Rican population in Hunts Point makes up just over 30 percent of the community, according to 2010 Census data.
Yet, the strong female superhuman with her long, wavy black hair and dark brown skin continues to reflect the community’s past and its present.
“What gives me power?” La Borinqueña asks within the comic strip-style panels depicting her in action, moving from scene to scene. “When I study my history! When I embrace my heritage! When I celebrate my culture!” La Borinqueña is depicted as saying. A crowd of about 20 people gathered along the sidewalk, reading La Borinqueña’s proud declaration, while others stopped to snap photos.
For community members, the mural represented more than simple spray painting on a wall. Rosa Elena Burgos, 26, saw the mural as a form of resistance to the policies and sentiments of the Trump administration. She said it represented “a way of rebelling and saying, ‘We’re here and we’re not leaving.’”
Amy Ponce, 46, who identifies as a Boricua, said, “As a person a color, what I teach my kid—my community—is to take charge of your own story and I think this is us taking charge of our own story.”
The project grew, in part, from Casita Maria’s relationships with Miranda-Rodriguez and Tats Cru.
Sotero “BG 183” Ortiz, a founding member of Tats Cru and one of the artists that painted the mural, grew up right on Simpson Street. He doesn’t see his work as activism. Painting is just something that he loves to do, he said, though he stressed the importance of the history that had gone into the mural, which spans collaboration between artists of different methodologies and generations.
“It’s very important to learn a bit of history and that’s what this particular mural has. It has an up-and-coming artist doing comic books and us, Tats Cru,” said Ortiz, 53.
For Miranda-Rodriguez, his work addresses the issues that many Puerto Ricans are encountering. With the 100th anniversary of the Jones-Shaforth Act, which granted U.S. citizenship to Puerto Rican residents, the current debt crisis, student marches, the release from house arrest of separatist Oscar López Rivera, and the more recent vote for Puerto Rican statehood, Miranda-Rodriguez described La Borinqueña as “part of this perfect storm.”
“What’s happening in Puerto Rico is a human rights issue. It’s a humanitarian issue,” said Miranda-Rodriguez, 46. “What I’m trying to do with my comic is say ‘Yes, [La Borinqueña] is a Puerto Rican hero, but these issues affecting Puerto Rico are human and universal.”
“I want everybody in the South Bronx and everyone who sees this mural to see themselves because we’re no longer invisible,” he continued. “We’re here. We can create our own heroes, and our heroes can actually be us, you, abuela, la vecina, the man pushing the piragua cart. We all have the potential to be heroes.”
The project was made possible by a grant from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in collaboration with District 17 Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr.