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Resistance and collaboration: The path to remember Clemente Soto Vélez

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In November 2012 (post Hurricane Sandy cleanup permitting), a ceremony will mark the completion of exterior renovations on the former Public School 160 built in 1897 in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, that since 1993, has housed a cultural center named in honor of the Puerto Rican poet, journalist, activist and political exile: Clemente Soto Vélez (1905-1993).

The 115-year old building, designed by C.B.J. Snyder, has had its exterior restored to its original beauty, but oscillating waves of conflict, resistance and eventual collaboration with the New York City’s Administration has marked the path to the building’s survival. Many of the more recent local residents may correctly ask, “Who was Clemente Soto Vélez?”

Clemente Soto Velaz Soto Vélez was born and raised in Lares, Puerto Rico, a hotbed for Puerto Rican Independence since the Spanish Colonial era. It should come as no surprise that the young poet’s life trajectory was linked with other leading figures of Puerto Rican Nationalism, using his intellect and literary skills to promote self-sufficiency and Puerto Rican pride.

In 1925 his journalistic career got a big boost when he was named Editor-In-Chief of the newspaper El Tiempo, giving the newspaper a strong literary profile and expanding its circulation in Puerto Rico. His resistance to the prevailing literary constraints led him to found a vanguard poetic movement known as “Atalaya de los Dioses,” with the aim of overturning, through poetic expression, the academism of Puerto Rican literature. This movement, initially resisted in academic circles, eventually gave way to praise and recognition for the poet’s work.

Soto Vélez became a vocal member of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party and, because of his political activities, he was imprisoned for several months in 1934 and again in 1936, the year he was arrested for seditious conspiracy along with fellow poet Juan Antonio Corretjer, party leader Pedro Albizu Campos, and five other nationalists. After two trials, he was sent to Atlanta, Georgia and Lewisville, Pennsylvania to serve out his sentence.

In 1942, as a condition for his release, prison authorities did not allow him to return to his native Puerto Rico. Soto Vélez then chose to reside in NYC, home to the largest concentration of Puerto Ricans outside of the island. Thus began his years of activism in his adopted city, joining forces with Congressman Vito Marcantonio, a defender of civil rights for immigrants, whose Congressional district included Harlem.

Soto Vélez was very active in Progressive movements championed by the American Labor Party and he was instrumental in founding the Puerto Rican Merchants Association in 1945, an organization he directed well into the late 1960s, which gave a measure of self-sufficiency and entrepreneurial pride to hundreds of Latinos and Puerto Ricans in the city.

After nearly two decades in which he published no poetry, he published Abrazo interno (1954), a work consisting of seven poems in which he defends the universal rights of human beings; árboles (1955), that explores nature and its intimate relationship with human life; Caballo de palo (1959) published in the magazine Metáfora, which is a self-reflection on the poet himself, and La tierra prometida (1979).

In addition to his own literary work, Soto Vélez helped to foment and support cultural organizations like the Institute of Puerto Rico in New York and the Ibero-American Writers and Poets Circle, among others. His belief in the importance of preserving Puerto Rican culture never wavered.

In a 1976 interview with Orlando José Hernández, Soto Vélez gives us an insight into the forging of his indomitable spirit:

“All imprisonment affects the incarcerated, the enemy managed to imprison the body that was Soto Vélez. But that inner strength, that only with an inner light can destroy ones’ enemy and see them defeated at your feet, that was the mental attitude I assumed in Atlanta. And 100 years could pass before me and I would remain resolute, despite seeing and living all of the tribulations that imprisonment brought, with 3,500 inmates of diverse crimes, in a prison like that.”

Around this time, NYC was reaching its nadir and teetered on the brink of insolvency. Loisaida, as the Latinos of the Lower East Side baptized the neighborhood, was flooded by hard drugs and abandoned properties, including the recently closed PS 160, which the City tried to auction off in 1971 for the price of $7,000 and nobody bought it. The 90,000 square foot building languished, a hulking, dark eyesore in a community that became a magnet for heroin addicts.

Thankfully in the mid -0s, the City leased the former school to the non-profit organization Solidaridad Humana, which brought in multiple educational and cultural tenants, including SUNY’s Empire State College and Teatro La Tea. Together, these organizations managed to keep the aging heating system and pipes functioning long enough to get through the winters.

Through a series of unforeseen calamities, Solidaridad Humana, the lease-holder, began to collapse in 1992 and a year later, the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center was founded by Puerto Rican writer, Edgardo Vega Yunque, activist Marta Garcia, and actors Nelson Landrieu and Mateo Gómez from Uruguay and the Dominican Republic, respectively. Vega and Garcia were instrumental in urging that the cultural center be named in honor of the poet who had passed away a few months earlier.

As the founding Executive Director Ed Vega moved quickly to populate the cavernous building, subletting former classrooms as studio spaces for artists and performing arts groups. Eventually, four theaters, two galleries and 50 studios were carved out and provided affordable spaces for artists to create their work.

However, the meager cash flow from the low rents meant that the facility did not have the funds for the extensive repairs the building required and this would lead to a prolonged conflict among the occupants. The City, as owners of the property, through their Department of Citywide Administrative Services and Department. of Cultural Affairs, began to lose hope that the protracted internal conflict would ever find resolution and was withholding any financial support for repairs to the facility.

In 2005, as the new Clemente Soto Vélez Executive Director, I was able to negotiate with Commissioners Martha Hirst and Kate Levin a path to resolve the nine-year conflict, and the City slowly shifted its position from a leery watchdog to a collaborative partner in the restoration of the facility. It can be stated without hesitation that the Bloomberg Administration, through the City’s over $14 million capital investment in the CSV Cultural Center, has given Loisaida and the entire city a cultural facility that properly honors a poet who believed in community first.

Congratulations to all who kept their faith and helped in keeping the creative flame alive during difficult times. The community support and the collaboration of all the artists has been an inspiration to all who, like me, had the honor of contributing towards this history.

Luis R. Cancel is an artist, arts administrator, and public servant with a distinguished 30-year career as the head of various not-for-profit and public agencies. Until recently, he served as the Director of Cultural Affairs for the City of San Francisco. From 2005 until December 2007 he was Executive Director of the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center in New York City. Formerly, he was Commissioner of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs under Mayor David Dinkins and in 1978 he was named Executive Director of the Bronx Museum of the Arts. He has also served as President and Chief Executive Officer of the American Council for the Arts (ACA is now known as the Americans for the Arts). Mr. Cancel established Esperanto Internet Services, LLC in the summer of 1995 in order to provide the Internet community with tools that would help facilitate communications across language barriers. He can be reached at luis@mindspring.com.

This article is a NiCLP Guest Commentary



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