New York stories: The immigrants' tale

Simone Kane goes off the main museum trail to visit two new spaces celebrating the city's diverse community

A head appears in a gap in the shop's glass-screened counter as I offer up my water bottle to pay. "Quiere el agua?" asks the shopkeeper. I've just surfaced from the subway into the steamy streets of the southern side of New York City's "El Barrio" or Spanish Harlem.

Water bought, I cross a housing project that echoes to Latin beats and, moments later, reach the northern end of Museum Mile. The eastern edge of Central Park hosts some of the city's cultural must-sees. But I'm skipping the Guggenheim and the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the relaunched El Museo del Barrio, where extensive remodelling has created a smart new home for New York's leading Latino cultural institution.

A modern, glass façade, a redesigned courtyard and a new café have given the museum a welcoming facelift. Inside, renovation has created the Carmen Ana Unanue Galleries, named after one of El Museo's long-standing patrons. They will house rotating exhibitions from the 6,500-strong permanent collection, and there's space for temporary shows, too.

Voces y Visiones: Four Decades through El Museo del Barrio's Permanent Collection relates the history of the museum, formed in 1969 by a coalition of Puerto Rican parents, educators, activists and artists. In the context of the civil rights movement, El Museo was created to record the Nuyorican community's struggle to find an identity and voice – expressed through art – as well as to promote Latino artists.

Monochrome photographs, video and memorabilia provide snapshots of the New York Puerto Rican community, which grew out of a huge migration of workers in the 1930s and 1940s. I'm captivated by the soft rhythmic sound of the poet Pedro Pietri's "Puerto Rican Obituary" – reminiscent of Gil Scott-Heron's poetic rapping style. Caught on video at a political meeting in 1969, it was Pietri's first recital of the poem in English.

It's on a loop, a soundtrack for my examination of the artefacts of the Taino, the dominant culture of the pre-Columbian Caribbean. In contrast, the bright Pop Art prints by Chicano and Nuyorican artists appropriate images and symbols from their history, as well as the media. Sun Mad is a deathly play on a Sun Maid Raisins packet – a protest against pesticides.

"Sorry, ma'am. No photos," says the guard. I pull out my notepad and pen. "Sorry, ma'am. No pens, either." Perhaps this stiffness is a symptom of El Museo's place on this strip of high-culture spots. I put them away and explore the rest of the collection, including works from other Caribbean and Latin American countries, too.

I leave El Museo uplifted by the politics, the optimism, the vibrancy. But I can't shake off Pietri's poem. Voices from the past had spoken to me the previous day, too, at another revamped venue, the Museum of Chinese in America (Moca), which has been relocated from Mulberry Street to new premises in Centre Street, Chinatown.

Architect Maya Lin has worked her magic on a building on the edge of the neighbourhood. A simple, elegant façade of wood, concrete and bronze conceals a serene space. Since its inception in 1980, the museum has become a focal point for the Chinese population in Manhattan and across the US.

Inside, clever curation and thoughtful design preserve the memories of older generations. A bronze-tiled "Journey Wall" reveals the extent of the Chinese diaspora. The core exhibition, With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America, is wrapped around a central, full-height courtyard, bestowing shafts of light on the galleries, evoking a Chinese courtyard house. Lin left this raw and untouched – a reminder of the past.

The early galleries are cool and dark – a pleasantly enveloping space – using a tactile mixture of wood on walls and floors and exposed brick, broken up by frosted windows and displays. Hanging glass cylinders hold artefacts from the homeland. Part of the floor is an illuminated map of early trade routes – the beginnings of migration. Duotone portraits of the first immigrants dangle from the ceiling, overseeing the charting of their history.

Projected on to the courtyard windows are short biographical films of Chinese-Americans from 1850 to the present. Approach to hear their stories. Move on and they fade to a soft cacophony of ghostly voices competing to be heard – a poignant metaphor.

Small, backlit glass panels subtly present the Chinese contribution to the building of America: discoveries and inventions, railroad construction, development of fishing industries and farming, work in the woollen mills, cigar-making and footwear factories.

Look the other way and you're assaulted by crowded anti-Chinese posters; artwork featuring demonised Chinese, extracts detailing the effects of the 1882 Exclusion Act, the barring of Chinese from skilled trades and unions that forced them into strike-breaking, domestic work and service industries – a sad, shameful story.

Colourful fashion and artefacts from traditional celebrations lift the spirits and there's a re-created Chinatown store. Positive stories emerge, including the signing of the 1965 Immigration Act. Where acceptance into the US had previously depended on country of birth, it now depended on skill.

A displayed extract of President Lyndon B Johnson's positive remarks about that act strikes an ironic chord: I am visiting on May Day 2010 and there are more than 70 demonstrations taking place around the US against the controversial Arizona immigration bill.

These museums, with their focus on some of the immigrants who helped to build this powerful nation, seem to reveal why Americans should kick that legislation into touch.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Simone Kane travelled to New York with Virgin Atlantic (08448 747747; virginatlantic.com), which flies daily from London Heathrow with fares from £392. She stayed at Andaz Wall Street (00 1 212 590 1234; wall street.andaz.com), which offers double rooms from £190 per night.

Further Information

El Museo del Barrio (00 1 212 831 7272; elmuseo.org) is at 1230 Fifth Avenue. The Museum of Chinese in America (00 1 212 619 4785; mocanyc.org) is at 215 Centre Street. For more information on what's new in New York City, visit nycgo.com.

Voices
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sport
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy as ECB finally wield the axe
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
a clockwork orange, stanley kubrick
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas