For the last couple of weeks Holyoke, Massachusetts, has been at the center of a dispute over the place of Puerto Rican identity in its public art. The controversy started when Mimi Wielgosz objected to having David Flores’ mural, depicting a standard Puerto Rican license plate saying “Puerto Rico, Holyoke, Isla del Encanto” on her building. According to Mass Live, Wielgosz objected to the mural because the “the mural does not represent all the culture in the city, ‘it does not embrace diversity.’”
Even though Holyoke is the U.S. city with “the largest per capita settlement of Puerto Ricans in the United States outside the island of Puerto Rico” (around 45%), Wieglgosz complained about diversity on the mural. Holyoke has a huge St. Patrick’s Day parade and just celebrated Polish Heritage Month, raising the Polish Flag, to no objection. We do not object to these celebrations, but question why a Puerto Rican mural was questioned.
This afternoon, Holyoke mayor Alex Morse has taken a position, offering to display the painting on City Hall until it finds an alternative spot. We wish he had acted earlier, but celebrate the mural’s display and hope that the dialogue he calls for is productive.
Here is Morse’s statement on the matter (along with the image he posted on his Facebook):
I’m happy to announce that David Flores’ mural will be displayed outside City Hall. This mural is not only an impressive work of art; it is also a fitting symbol of the city’s values and commitments. The story of Holyoke has always been the story of people from varying backgrounds and different cultures making their homes here—a story of diverse people sharing a common dwelling and striving to forge a common purpose. At its best, that’s what the city of Holyoke stands for.
Today, nearly 45% of Holyoke residents claim Puerto Rican heritage—a higher percentage of Puerto Rican residents than any other community in the United States. And while our Puerto Rican residents have too often been marginalized, and have too often failed to enjoy the full benefits of membership in our community, they have nonetheless contributed to the life and vibrancy of our city in incalculable ways. Puerto Rican culture is just as much a part of Holyoke’s history as Irish, Polish, or French culture, or any of the other expressions of identity that enrich our civic life.
Our differences should not be denied or ignored, nor should an affirmation of one culture be considered threatening to any other. And if an artist wants to celebrate a marginalized group, that should be welcomed by all Holyokers as an invitation to appreciate difference, to question the assumptions we make about others, and to imagine a more just community for us all to share.
Over the past two weeks, I have closely followed the debate surrounding HARP and David Flores’ mural. I was saddened and disappointed by what happened to Mr. Flores, and believed—and still believe—that he deserved better. But I also think this controversy and the debate that ensued may provide a valuable opportunity for our community to grow. Very important issues have been raised—issues such as the systemic nature of racism, the problem of assimilation, and the value of celebrating cultural difference—and I would hate for our city to miss a chance to discuss them.
These issues are complicated and not always easy to grasp. People of goodwill—people who would never intentionally harm anyone else—can sometimes send a message that they didn’t intend. Simple misunderstandings can reinforce harmful ideas about other people. For people who have spent their lives feeling left out of and put down by our community, these misunderstandings can understandably become tiresome, even infuriating.
Naturally, wringing bias out of ourselves and our city will require open hearts and minds, and a willingness to listen, to admit fault when necessary, and to grow together. In other words, we must be willing to change.
In the coming weeks, I will be announcing a series of steps to address, and to facilitate dialogue about, issues of race, class, and culture in Holyoke. For now, I am happy that this mural has found a home, and grateful to Mr. Flores for agreeing to display his art at City Hall.
And this is what David Flores, the artist who created the mural, had to say:
I have called Holyoke home since 2011. During this time, the Puerto Rican/Latin@ community has welcomed me with open arms and pan sobao. Despite their constant struggle to be recognized as more than second-class citizens, there is tremendous pride in Puerto Rican/Latin@ culture and identity. As an artist coming from Chicago, I was immediately shocked at the void of visual affirmations of identity in a community with the largest concentration of Puerto Ricans anywhere outside of Puerto Rico. I created a mural for this community. This mural is more than a piece of public art. It is more than a Puerto Rican license plate that reads Holyoke. It is a visual claim to a space that is already claimed in so many other ways. It not only represents that Puerto Ricans exist in Holyoke; it symbolizes a longstanding struggle to be heard and seen, and the acknowledgment that Puerto Ricans/Latin@s in Holyoke are not going anywhere.
I would like to thank Mayor Alex Morse for agreeing to temporarily take responsibility for and display the mural at City Hall while he assists in finding it a permanent home. This action speaks louder than any words. It is emblematic of the direction the city is taking to combat a systemically unequal distribution of resources and public space. Securing a home for the mural is only the first step. Through an initiative called Más Color, Más Poder, I will seek to work with existing local youth and artists to build a more visually inclusive Holyoke by creating public art that affirms the identity of almost half of the city’s population. Furthermore, with the help of community members and leaders, I hope to create a Puerto Rican/Latin@ Arts and Cultural Center in Holyoke. Cultural diversity should be celebrated as a valuable community resource rather than stigmatized and/or suppressed. Holyoke’s diverse communities should be able to represent themselves on their own terms. The creation of a Puerto Rican/Latin@ Arts and Cultural center would contribute greatly to efforts toward institutionalizing this celebration of diversity. ¡Que Viva Holyoke!