Situated between the Democratic Club of El Barrio and the 125-year-old Church now called Santa Cecilia, with De La Vega murals in either direction, the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center is in the midst of what it aims to celebrate. Its community is Spanish Harlem. Once an overwhelmingly Italian neighborhood, the area remains in flux, with the UES’s gourmet influences displayed in the new restaurants mixing with numerous tiendas offering the stuff of Latin American cuisine. Showcased in the cultural center, however, is a deeper look at life in some troubled American Hispanic communities. Its location is fitting: East Harlem has the highest violent crime rate in New York, and the school overlooking the gallery is in the bottom 10% of the city’s system.
Inside the cultural center is the Taller Boricua Gallery, where Joseph Rodriguez unveils Portraits from Another America, a reminder of what lies outside much of mainstream society’s reality: a world of gangs, violence, drugs, and poverty. Rodriguez’s black-and-white portraiture of East L.A. (and to a lesser extent San Francisco and Mexico City) residents turns social ills into emotional realities. He photographs prostitutes, suffering drug addicts, struggling single mothers, and gun-toting gang members in their homes, with their families, and in the trying, terrorizing moments of their lives; the exhibition shows the victim of a drive-by shooting bleeding while being carried to safety.
Rodriguez photographs those who remain camouflaged from and wary of the public eye, bringing the margins of society into focus. By seizing poignant moments (the careful joy of a two-striker leaving prison or the trepidation of a Mexico City prostitute as a client climbs the stairs), Rodriguez captures these covert communities in all their depth. From his photographs a fear of instability, violence, and addiction emerges, along with a sense of confusion from living between community traditions, gang practices, and the dictates of necessity. The exhibition has just been extended until mid-August. The artist plans to revisit these deprived areas for another photo series.