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Humboldt's Heroes

Six Friends of the Park Honored in a One-of-a-Kind Display



Carmen Valentine [sic] is an unrepentant terrorist! serving in federal prison. Shame on this fieldhouse for promoting communist terrorists.

—Humboldt Park Civic Committee

Carmen Valentin contributed greatly to this community--she was responsible for the creation of Clemente High School; many other organizations in Humboldt Park....Shame on you for being so myopic and ignorant.


Visitors to El gran salon de la fama, an art exhibit in the Humboldt Park field house, are invited to write comments in a black book; they provide some insight into why the art may work for some and not others.

Pepon Osorio, a Bronx artist of Puerto Rican descent, created installations to honor six current or former residents who have made important, and sometimes overlooked, contributions to the Humboldt Park community. Each installation forms a kind of shrine out of objects, memorabilia, and black-and-white photos. A video projected on the back wall shows a mosaic of faces and voices of the honorees--Emily Borges, John Colon, Pablo Fernandez, Lucy Gomez, Evaristo Rodriguez, and Carmen Valentin--and their friends, neighbors, and family.

"This installation transforms my view of my neighborhood. Thank you for your voice," writes a man with an Anglo surname. "I'm so proud of being part of this community. It's things like this that make it so great," writes a 13-year-old girl with a Spanish surname.

While at least some viewers thought that Osorio did a great job restoring a face and name to the honorees, others were left asking, Who are these people? Why were they chosen? What have they done?

Text at El gran salon de la fama's entrance explains that the honorees were chosen through a "community-designed selection process" sponsored by the public art group Sculpture Chicago as part of its "Re-inventing the Garden City" series. A project committee tallied votes by more than 30 neighborhood organizations and businesses and interviewed the finalists. Then an "anonymous committee of community members" made the final decisions. Osorio fashioned the artworks after meeting his subjects.

While some aspects of the subjects' lives can be inferred through the objects in each installation, people from outside the neighborhood would probably find a bio sheet helpful to create a fuller picture of the individuals and to clarify cryptic images. Some visitors complain that they've been intentionally left in the dark.

One can surmise from a collection of inflated plastic conga drums that Evaristo Rodriguez is a musician; what one may not know is that "Tito" is the coordinator of the group Bomba y Plena, which promotes Puerto Rican folklore and culture through dance, music, and performance. The piece honoring Lucy Gomez is made up mostly of plastic foliage. Is she a community gardener? In a way. Gomez organizes the Youth and Nature program at the park, which teaches neighborhood children to care for their environment. She also has organized Urban Rangers, a group that patrols the park and alerts police to suspicious activity.

Emily Borges's installation is composed almost exclusively of birdseed piled on the floor. She cofounded Las Semillitas (the Seeds), a 100-member youth dance group that meets weekly at the field house and has performed at schools and other public venues. Pablo Fernandez, represented by a restful living room scene, lives at Las Moradas senior complex; the work's many teacups allude to the friendship and comfort "Pablito" has provided to the center's residents.

Honoree John Colon is a part-time volunteer at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center. His installation is the most enigmatic; it's composed of a children's wading pool in which plastic foliage floats. Colon, 25, says that the pool represents the shape of a condom and is a reference to his work. As a volunteer for VIDA/SIDA, a grassroots organization that educates Latinos about HIV and AIDS, Colon has encouraged people in his community to practice safe sex, to care for others, and to be open about their sexuality. He has been HIV positive since he was 17.

Colon grew up near Armitage and Kedzie, attended Whitney Young High School, and taught art at Pedro Albizu Campos High School, an alternative school located in the Puerto Rican Cultural Center. He studied briefly at the School of the Art Institute and about four years ago became involved with VIDA/SIDA. He plans to take photography classes at Columbia College in the fall.

Colon's installation, like the others, explores only one facet of the honoree's life. "It's one-sided," he says. "It captures an aspect, not an entirety. Pepon wanted a general concept of the community's unsung heroes. He wanted to pull out the one thing that stood out. You're not going to learn everything about the person. His whole thing was honoring something we do in the community. People think of me in terms of HIV outreach because that's the work I've made a lot of impact in."

Colon says he felt particularly humbled to be honored in the same room as Carmen Valentin; her installation--a wire fence surrounding a few trophies and a pile of used paperback best-sellers--is situated across from his. "Being next to her really meant something to me," he says. "She's a woman who struggled for more than 20 years in this community, and it's nice that she was recognized."

As a young teacher and counselor at Tuley High School in the 1960s, Valentin taught Puerto Rican youths about their culture and history. But her educational methods were controversial, and she was forced to resign. She then worked at Central YMCA Community College and became active with several organizations: she was a founding member of the Jose de Diego Bilingual Center and the Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, and was on the board of directors of Aspira Incorporated of Illinois, a dropout prevention and youth education organization. On April 4, 1980, Valentin was arrested in Evanston along with ten other members of the Puerto Rican militant group FALN. She is currently serving a 98-year sentence in a federal prison in California for seditious conspiracy, illegal possession of firearms, and robbery.

Valentin's installation is the only one that includes text--and not just the millions of words in the pile of paperbacks. The books' covers are wrapped in Valentin's poetry and prose; a letter she wrote to the community is posted outside the fence. All of her words are in Spanish; no English translation is provided.

"This community chose these people for their diverse contributions," says Osorio. "I was more interested in looking at the everyday person. You could see the things that Don Pablo did on a small scale or the things that Carmen did on a larger scale. They all just did it differently."

Osorio explains that he decided not to include biographical material about the honorees because he wanted to use an interpretive rather than educational approach, hoping the visitors would view El gran salon de la fama as a work of "hands-on" contemporary art. "I'm not interested in having a conversation," says Osorio, "but in allowing people with preconceived notions about contemporary art to have a better and clearer idea of what contemporary art is--how it is created and how it can connect to the community." As a self-conscious outsider with no preconceptions about the park, Osorio says he hopes that the pieces will spur area residents into having an "internal exploration" about how their heroes could be commemorated in the future. The only statues in the Puerto Rican neighborhood's park honor Germans and a Scandinavian.

But Osorio's vision might seem a lofty ideal, judging by some comments in the black book. Says one, "Is this public art? Reinventing the Garden City? If its purpose is to act as a public work, then why does this seem to be another enigmatic gallery installation....The only connection I can see between this community and this work is an ethnic affiliation--however, the form of this work is exclusive and takes no part in the community."

Osorio's piece does raise questions about what constitutes a community: Who is its audience? Whose neighborhood is this anyway? "It has different layers of accessibility," says Joyce Fernandes, Sculpture Chicago's program director. "If you grew up in the neighborhood you'll have more information than if you come as someone from the art world interested in visiting the piece. It's trying to straddle that."

Osorio has created many installations exploring Latino popular expressions, cultural stereotypes, and issues of ethnic identity. In 1991 his work was the subject of a major retrospective at El Museo del Barrio in New York. While Osorio often shows his work in the community before it's exhibited in mainstream cultural institutions, El gran salon de la fama, when it closes September 7, won't travel elsewhere; instead, its pieces will be given to various Humboldt Park community centers, including the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and VIDA/SIDA. Osorio says, "It truly belongs to the people."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of John Colon, Installation, by Chip Williams; Installation by Pepon Osorio.

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