Dr. Marta Moreno Vega is the president of the Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, which she founded in 1976.
Her East Harlem institution features works reflecting the experience of African descendants in Puerto Rico, Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad and throughout the Caribbean and Latin America – while also offering educational programs and pursuing a broader mandate that spans community activism and social change.
City & State’s Jon Lentz recently spoke with Moreno Vega about the institute’s new home on 125th Street, the emergence of Latino artists in popular culture, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s push for affordable housing. The following is an edited transcript.
C&S: What’s the latest news at the institute?
MMV: We just are months away from moving into a renovated firehouse that we got from the city for a dollar. It was a $9.3 million renovation, so in the next couple of months the staff will be moving in and the facility will be available to the public with exhibitions and programming starting in the fall.
C&S: What kind of support do cultural institutions such as yours get from government?
MMV: I think it’s inadequate compared to the amount that historically recognized institutions get. Given the demographics, I don’t think it’s a conversation of us against them or them against us, but I think the government has to understand that there is a demographic change in the population and there’s also historic racism and discrimination in terms of cultures and racial groups. So the need for institutions that reflect the new demographics and the historic demographics that have been excluded – Native, Asian, and African-American – have to be part of what the cultural life of what the city and the state is. I don’t think government has caught up with that.
C&S: With award-winning plays like “Hamilton,” whose creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is of Puerto Rican descent, and popular authors like Junot Díaz, who is Dominican-American, have Latinos broken through in U.S. popular culture?
MMV: I think without question there’s room for progress. Probably the question you asked was there with Rita Moreno when she did “West Side Story.” I don’t think the question would have been very much different than the questions being asked of Lin-Manuel. The fact that these events happen 40 or 50 years apart and the conversation is a recurring conversation as to being the first, right, in 2016, speaks to the lack of parity, the lack of equity, the lack of access. Every time there is a small breakthrough, it’s seen as, that’s phenomenal, when it should be part of our lives to have equity, to have inclusion, to have diversity in the workplace – and maybe have equal access to resources.
C&S: You’ve raised concerns about gentrification in the past. What is your view on Mayor de Blasio’s efforts to build new affordable housing?
MMV: I don’t think you can talk about housing without talking about the issue of wealth and how the gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to increase, and how that then influences housing and the cost of housing. I mean, there is housing – the question is who can afford the housing and the rentals. Of course that’s going to change the complexion and the demographics of the community because these rents are astronomical and do not fit the average person – and I would say the middle class is being decimated because it can’t afford to stay in the city. One has to talk about the disparity of wealth and income possibilities and also the shifting reality in housing, where housing is not affordable. It’s not affordable for the middle class, and that’s the backbone of the society, and of the state and the nation. So when your middle class can’t afford housing, what is one saying?
C&S: The Obama administration has taken steps to improve relations with Cuba. What impact has that had on cultural interchange between the two countries?
MMV: The center has been having cultural exchanges with Cuba since my first trip in 1979. I went when the Russians were still there. (Laughs.) We’ve been having cultural exchanges, bringing musical groups, bringing scholars, writers, exhibitions, so it’s been an ongoing exchange with Cuba, because Cuba has been very influential in the Puerto Rican community, and the Puerto Rican community has been very influential in Cuba.
C&S: Puerto Rico has been in the news lately for its serious financial challenges.
MMV: I think you can’t talk about Puerto Rico without saying the colony of Puerto Rico and the colony of the United States. What is the purpose of having a colony? Historically, you own property or you own a colony because you exploit it. That’s not a benevolent relationship and it has not been a benevolent relationship historically, so that the United States still owning a colony in 2016 is horrific. The exploitation by the United States of Puerto Rico is horrific, and therefore the financial condition that Puerto Rico finds itself in is horrific. It’s a direct result of being a colony of the United States.