American Boricua at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

BCRI Town Hall Panelists - Dr. Lynn Adrian, Wanda Benvenutti, and Dr. Carlos Aleman

BCRI Town Hall Panelists – Dr. Lynn Adrian, Wanda Benvenutti, and Dr. Carlos Aleman

In January, I attended a Town Hall meeting at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute called “Nuestra Cultura:  The Impact of Hispanic/Latino Cultures in the U.S.”  This event was in conjunction with the “American Boricua” exhibition being shown at the BCRI.  The panelist featured were Dr. Lynn Adrian, Department Chair, American Studies Scholars Program, University of Alabama; Dr. Carlos Aleman, Assistant Professor, Director, Latin American Studies, Samford University and Wanda Benvenutti, photographer of “American Boricua” exhibition.

The discussion began with a review of US immigration followed by the US census and how it has identified Hispanics/Latinos throughout the ages.  This then lead to a discussion of race – being white or black or brown and ultimately about language.  The biggest discussion centered about the topic of language and so many good points were brought out.  It has had me thinking for weeks now.  A future post will discuss Spanish language and my thoughts on this.

Besides the great discussion that night, another highlight for me was getting to meet exhibit photojournalist, Wanda Benvenutti.  She is a breath of fresh air…so full of life and energy and offered so much to the conversation about language, race, culture and identity.  Having lived in Puerto Rico for 6 years when I was growing up, she reminded me of one of my mother’s friends and I was always drawn to this woman.  Wanda clearly does not meet a stranger and I was definitely drawn to her!

Wanda Benvenutti's American Boricua - Puerto Rican Life in the  United States - at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in the Odessa Woolfolk Gallery.

Wanda Benvenutti’s American Boricua – Puerto Rican Life in the United States – at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in the Odessa Woolfolk Gallery.

Wanda’s exhibit – American Boricua, Puerto Rican Life in the United States – was extended through February 29th.  It is a visual history of Puerto Rican life in 50 states and examines how Puerto Ricans define home, family, culture, and identify.  Wanda hopes this exhibit will get people to think beyond race and focus on culture.  She states that to focus on culture is inclusive, genuine and real.  I tend to agree!

If you are wondering about the word Boricua, it is a term of endearment Puerto Rican’s use for one another.  It comes from the native Taino word for the island, “Borinken,” which means “Brave Noble Lord.”  I recall as a little girl singing the Puerto Rican national anthem – Borinquen – before classes when I attended Cupeyville Elementary, a private school in Rio Piedras.  Later I learned to play it on the piano.

I was able to see Wanda’s exhibit today and it was very moving.  Black and white photographs with simple titles.  Black and white photography is always so detailed and it draws you into the frame.  There was also a video looping which had Wanda speaking with a group of Puerto Ricans in a living room setting.  The biggest takeaway from that video was the woman who spoke about being Puerto Rican, being brown.  Her statement “we have come to the conclusion that we’re not white enough for the white people, and we’re not black enough for the black people.  So we’re caught in the middle.”  She went on to say that it didn’t bother her and she just goes about her business just fine.  All the people in the group discussion spoke about never having been invited to a white person’s house for dinner.  They talked about living in the south and how the image of friendliness and that your neighbor will bring over food to be hospitable is ever present…but they never had this experience.  I wanted to hear more but it was a short excerpt.  This is the kind of conversation we need to keep having though.  Hopefully, exhibits like this can bring that conversation about.

Wanda's photograph entitled - Abuelo (Grandfather)

Wanda’s photograph entitled – Abuelo (Grandfather)

Of all the photographs in the exhibit the one that is my favorite is called “Abuelo.”  This means “grandfather” and it was taken in the summer of 2002 in Philadelphia, PA.  I love it for the obvious reasons – the sweetness of the photograph – a granddaughter kissing her grandfather and the smile he has on his face.  But what draws me more to the photo is the image of their hands.  It’s the way her hands caress his face – cradles it – and the way he gently holds on to her hand as she shows her love for him.  It’s breathtaking…

I urge you to go by the BCRI and check it out before it is gone.  While you are there, take some time to also go through the BCRI’s permanent Civil Rights exhibit.  I see something different every time I go through…

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute - taken from the 2nd floor outside of the permanent exhibit.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute – taken from the 2nd floor outside of the permanent exhibit.

One of the iconic exhibits in the permanent Civil Rights collection at the BCRI in Birmingham, Alabama.

One of the iconic exhibits in the permanent Civil Rights collection at the BCRI in Birmingham, Alabama.

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One thought on “American Boricua at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

  1. Pingback: Speaking Spanish and Being Latino | Southern Señora

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