Monday, December 23, 2013

Puerto Rico en Chicago

photo by Don Macica
Within hours of arriving home from a recent visit to New Orleans, a place I've described as having a Caribbean soul, I found more of the same as I entered the welcoming confines of the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center on Chicago's northwest side. A friend of mine who, remarkably, makes his living as a musician was debuting a new free jazz/Latin group dubbed Proyecto Libre, or Free Project. I reviewed the performance for Ag├║zate, an Afro-Latin cultural organization, and you can read that here.  The music was wonderful, and I'm truly impressed (and often amazed) by the adventurous spirit that guides my friend's artistic endeavors.

But that's not what this post is about.

photo by Silvia Gonzales
The concert was occasioned by the grand re-opening of Segundo Ruiz Belvis, which has been dedicated to preserving Puerto Rican culture outside of the island for over 42 years. Hermosa, the neighborhood in which the center is currently located, is, especially on a cold winter night, rather grim. It's poor, and there are problems with gangs and crime. The center, once located in Wicker Park (a neighborhood that I passingly referred to in a recent post about gentrification), occupies a large space in a former movie theater that it bought. It is quite beautiful in a loft apartment sort of way, with exposed brick walls, colorful artwork, and stylish seating areas. They can afford the large building because the smaller space that they previously owned in Wicker Park sold for millions in a newly desirable neighborhood that was no longer so desiring of having poor ethnic folks live there. The current building lies somewhere that nobody would live in if they could afford to live elsewhere.

photo by Silvia Gonzales
Except that is not necessarily true. Communities may be poor, but that is not to say they are without culture or resources, and Segundo Ruiz Belvis is a manifestation of this. Culture, family, community: These are indeed desirable things, and especially so when you are separated by many thousands of miles (and perhaps even generations) from your home. In this context, art and culture are not pastimes or luxuries, but necessities for keeping the spirit alive. Real lives are no doubt saved as well, when young people feel cultural pride and turn away from gangs and crime.

photo by Don Macica
I couldn't help thinking of Central City in New Orleans, a poor community by any economic measure, but one in which I had the good fortune of participating in a second line parade just a few days earlier. A second line, as I described in my last post, is a joyously exuberant cultural expression of traditions that go back generations and, here and now, a way for the community to take to the streets and take a stand against crime, violence and, as the event flyer put it, "foolishness".

Segundo Ruiz Belvis takes a stand against foolishness as well.

May it long continue to do so.

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