A few months ago a poetry series at El Museo del Barrio (peripherally located on 5th Avenue in El Barrio/Spanish Harlem) called “Spic Up/Speak Out” got so many folks riled up that El Museo caved just a week later and changed the name of the series. Apparently, the s-word has not lost its temporary currency as a revived slur, since last night, Taller Boricua, which might now be considered the “authentic” museo del barrio, held a panel discussion called “(Dis)empowerment: Addressing Controversial Subjects in Contemporary Latino Art,” to address a controversial work (“Round the Way Girl: Cultural Osmosis for a Native Gringa”) that foregrounds the word “spic” in what some considered offensive fashion.
The artist, Melissa Calderón, was present, and explained that the work was about her “disconnection with being Puerto Rican.” She had grown up in Throg’s Neck, a member of the “first” Puerto Rican family on the block of what is often considered an intolerant bastion of the “white” Bronx, and her only experience with being Puerto Rican was going to La Marqueta (in El Barrio/Spanish Harlem), eating alcapurrias, and going back home. By the time she got to high school, she was so “disconnected” that when she was finally “faced with Latino girls” she felt rejected.
“…I was sort of trying to find these moments of being able to connect with them and seeing this sort of icon of the earring and the closeness that they had, I wanted that, I wanted to feel a part of that and here I am, sort of crazy young stupid high school girl thinking that this was the way I was going to get to be Puerto Rican.”
The panelists were respectful but at times skeptical. La Bruja felt the sting of the word, but didn’t want to be part of censoring it, expressing ambivalence about taking part in the Spic Up, Speak Out series at El Museo del Barrio. Marcos Dimas and Nitza Tufiño outlined the experience of the original “Nuyorican”artist and the sense of social responsibility. Miguel Luciano cautioned artists about how discussions that Puerto Ricans/Latinos have “in house” should be distinguished from what is presented to the mainstream.
Things got heated when the sculpture was defended by Wanda Ortiz and Calderón. Ortiz, who called herself an “Alterna-Rican,” said of “Round the Way Girl,”
“I saw this as high brow/low brow, in an educated formal art discourse. It’s the elevation of a difficult word and elevating what would be considered low brow jewelry, underclass, very negative and put this other thing, which is pain on top of this symbol of upper echelon Latino iconography… To me as purely conceptual, dealing with identity politics as a conflicting discourse I found it succinct and effective.”
Papoleto Meléndez, with poetic frankness said that embracing the word spic was like “embracing buckshot that’s been shot at you with a shotgun.”
Arcadio Díaz-Quiñones, who had to leave early, reminded us that Puerto Rican author Pedro Juan Soto published a colleciton of short stories called “Spiks” with illustrations by the great Lorenzo Homar. But, for him, “the old question ‘What’s in a name’ comes back. And what’s in a name has to do with history, prejudices, stereotyping, social consequences. Not just a question of labeling something post-spic. The prefix post is very tempting and seductive. I understand the irony behind this and I like irony but I don’t know if the majority of the audience seeing this will see it ironically.”
I felt disconnected from Calderón’s disconnection. If a connection existed, I muttered aloud, there is no issue with the use of the word. It was the message conveyed by the disconnection that disconnected me. “This was my disconnection from my own culture,” said Calderón. “It was me feeling from other Latinos that I was not good enough. This was being brought on to me from other Latinos. This is the internal racism that goes on from other Latinos, the internal classism that goes on, because I did grow up in a middle class neighborhood.” So then, it was a “classist” attitude from the girls that didn’t accept her that provoked this?
My bad. I should have asked–before my mutterings set off a roar all around me–who was speaking the word spic in this sculpture? And who was the recipient of the slur? Is “spic” what she thought of the girls that didn’t accept her, and was that what she wanted to embrace? Or was it the girls who were calling her a spic (metaphorically of course), because she was the (middle-class) other? If so, it’s hard to imagine that they were guilty of being”internal classists,” for the same reason that I find the concept of “reverse racism” incomprehensible.
As for the controversial goal of re-appropriating slur words, it’s hard to make sense of “re-appropriating” spic, because the word is dead. It died when Piri Thomas, re-channeled years later by Willie Perdomo, announced, “spic, spic, spic, you ain’t nothin’ but a nigga.” Just when Puerto Ricans were about to be racialized as a “third race,” we opted to be black, and many of us, rightly or wrongly, continue to address each other as [n-word]s. As far as I know, we have not as a people shared that embrace at the apex or our imaginary stoop, sighing at the top of our lungs, “What up, my spic!”
Even Calderón, in a strange attempt to defend her piece as rescuing an iconic symbol that could unite similarly disconnected Latino youth, lamented that the word was being “phased out,” as the audience roared with uncomfortable laughter.
It was not out of fear but curiosity and some disgust for the word that much of the audience had gathered. If the earring had spoken some important truth about the word spic, the hard work of re-appropriation, intriguing but hardly necessary for the survival or our culture or identity, may have begun. But emblazoned as it was with an absence of meaning, it hung over the panel like a logo for a press release, a sensationalist ploy to draw a crowd.
[Post-script: We have to assume it's unrelated to the "spic" controversy, but at the same time this panel was going on, El Museo del Barrio's board was announcing that director Julián Zugazagoitia has resigned to take a new job as director of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.]