Harlem Renaissance Artist Elizabeth Catlett Dies at 96

Power exudes from the raised fists in the sculptures “Homage to My Young Black Sisters.” Endurance and dignity from the stark simplicity of the portrait, “Sharecropper.” In all her work, African-American sculptor and graphic artist Elizabeth Catlett celebrated the heroic strength and endurance of African-American and Mexican working-class women, elevating them in societies that often overlooked or ostracized them.

“You can really see life and history unfold in her work,” Isolde Brielmaier, who

Catlett's sculpture honoring acclaimed author Ralph Ellison was erected opposite his longtime home in West Harlem. The family of Catlett announced on Tuesday April 3, 2012 that she has died at her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico at age 96. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

curated an exhibition of Catlett’s work last year at the Bronx Museum of the Arts, told National Public Radio.

Catlett, a Washington, D.C.-born Harlem Renaissance artist whose politically charged expressionist sculptures and prints and her activism put her at odds with the U.S. government, died April 2 at her home in Cuernavaca, Mexico. She was 96.

“I am saddened by news that Elizabeth Catlett has passed away. Ms. Catlett was cultural pillar in America, and her artwork tackled complex issues like family dynamics, racial identity, and social and political struggle,” Washington D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown said in a statement. “Her artwork will continue to inspire Americans for years to come. May we all strive to live up to the standard of fortitude, creativity, and originality Ms. Catlett set with her life.”

Born in the District in 1919, Catlett attended Howard University, where she studied design, printmaking and drawing. She later became the first person to obtain a master’s degree in sculpting from the University of Iowa. According to a PBS profile, in 1946 she received a fellowship to travel to Mexico, where she furthered her studies in painting, sculpture and lithography.

Catlett’s work gained in popularity during the turbulent times of the 1960s and ‘70s. Her work, which often captured the Black experience or sought to advance social causes, spoke to a people in search of a racial identity, racial unity, social parity and justice.

“The art form makes you feel something,” Catlett’s oldest son, Franciso Mora Catlett, said in the NPR broadcast. “It alerts or awakens something in you, that’s the important thing about it.”

The African-American artist also agitated in the streets, picketing, protesting and even being arrested in her quest to advance the causes of her people. Eventually, according to her official website, the U.S. State Department identified her as an “undesirable alien,” barring her from visiting the United States for a decade.

East Harlem – Harlem Travel Guide – iPhone, iPad, iPod

Sizzling hot Latino people, music, culture and cuisine

The East Harlem community stretches for 2.2 square miles from FDR Drive to Fifth Avenue between East 96th to East 142nd Streets. Also included in East Harlem are Randall’s and Ward’s Islands in the East River, opposite the stretch from 103rd to 125th Streets that is accessible by the RFK Bridge (Triborough Bridge) and a foot bridge at 103rd Street. Known as El Barrio (“the neighborhood”) or Spanish Harlem, this historically working-class area is home to one of the largest predominantly Latino communities in New York City. The area was formerly known as Italian Harlem and still harbors a small Italian American population along Pleasant Avenue. However, since the 1950s it has been dominated by residents of Puerto Rican descent, sometimes called Nuyoricans. Puerto Rican immigration after the First World War established an enclave at the western portion of Italian Harlem (around 110th Street and Lexington Avenue). The area slowly grew to encompass all of Italian Harlem as they moved out and Hispanics moved in during another wave of immigration after the Second World War. Many more African Americans also moved to East Harlem after World War II, and have remained. Other area residents are made up of a diverse tapestry of ethnic groups including Latinos from Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Central and South America, Blacks and Africans from the Caribbean and West Africa, Turks from Eastern Europe, and Chinese.

As early as 1938 and then after World War II, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) razed buildings in neighborhoods, block by block, to make way for twenty-four high-rise public housing projects. The neighborhood contains the highest geographical concentration of low-income public housing projects in the United States, approximately 1.5 square miles. Many residents felt that whatever the inadequacy of their housing, they could not stand by and watch the wholesale demolition of homes and neighborhoods. They were joined by others who, ineligible for public housing, were faced with the threat of homelessness. Together, they organized protests and blocked additional destruction of property. The last large-scale housing project in East Harlem was completed in 1965. Such activism gave rise to political groups like the Young Lords, which came to prominence in 1969 when they used confrontational tactics to bring services and attention to the residents of East Harlem. Some of the Young Lords alumni include journalists Juan Gonzalez, Felipe Luciano, Geraldo Rivera, and Pablo Guzmán.

Historically, 116th Street (Luis Muñoz Marín Blvd., named for the first elected governor of Puerto Rico, who lived in East Harlem before returning to Puerto Rico in 1940 and ushered in Commonwealth status to the island) has been the primary business hub of Spanish Harlem. From Lexington to First Avenues the street is lined with businesses selling food, clothing, and other specialty and ethnically specific goods. East 116th Street terminates at FDR Drive, East River Plaza, a retail mall that opened in 2009 with large commercial tenants—Costco, Target, Best Buy, and Marshalls. Along Park Avenue between East 111th and 116th Streets is the famous La Marqueta, an enclosed market that once housed 500 mostly Puerto Rican merchants who presided over stalls in five buildings under the elevated Metro-North tracks selling fresh tropical produce, meats, fish, and dairy products. Once the spiritual heart of East Harlem, La Marqueta was a vibrant regional center for Spanish food and groceries during the 1950s and 1960s. But a long decline began in the 1970s, and today, despite repeated efforts at revitalization, the old atmosphere has all but disappeared. East Harlem’s commercial and business district has expanded to encompass Third Avenue between 112th and 124th Streets.

The cultural crossroads of East Harlem is located from 104th to 108th Streets between Fifth and Madison Avenues. In addition to El Museo del Barrio and the Museum of the City of New York, other organizations that strengthen East Harlem’s cultural identity include the artist collective Taller Boricua, the Afro-Dominican folklore group Palo Monte, Los Pleneros de la 21 (a performing ensemble which preserves the Afro-Puerto Rican traditions of the Bomba and Plena), and the Puerto Rican Traveling Theater (which presents and produces bilingual professional theater and offers artistic development through its Raúl Juliá Training Unit to emerging and established artists). The Harbor Conservatory for the Performing Arts, home to the Raices Latin Music Museum, a Smithsonian Affiliate, serves as a focus for theatre, dance, and musical performance in the neighborhood; it also hosts the annual competition to award the Charlie Palmieri Memorial Piano Scholarship, which was established in Palmieri’s memory by Tito Puente for the benefit of intermediate and advanced young (aged twelve to twenty-five) pianists’ study of Latin-style piano.

Of the three Harlem areas, Spanish Harlem is recognized most in popular songs, including Ben E. King’s R&B song “Spanish Harlem,” The Mamas & the Papas’ song “Spanish Harlem,” Louie Ramirez’s Latin soul song “Lucy’s Spanish Harlem,” and Bob Dylan’s song “Spanish Harlem Incident.” It was also mentioned in Elton John’s song “Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters” and Carlos Santana’s song “Maria Maria.” Spanish Harlem has given birth to everything from sixties-era boogaloo to mind-bending salsa and many grooves in between. It inspired the formation of Oscar Hernandez’s Grammy Award–winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra. The feature film Vote For Me! takes place in current-day Spanish Harlem, and was written and directed by former New York State Assemblyman Nelson Antonio Denis. The area is also the setting for the J. D. Robb book Salvation in Death, the twenty-seventh book in the popular “in Death” crime series.

East Harlem is also home to one of the few major television studios north of midtown, Metropolis (106th St. and Park Ave.), where shows like BET’s 106 & Park and Chappelle’s Show have been produced. Many famous artists have lived and worked in Spanish Harlem, including the renowned timbalero Tito Puente (110th Street was renamed “Tito Puente Way”), musicians Charlie and Eddie Palmieri, Ray Barretto, Mario Bauza, Johnny Colon, Machito, and Father of Boogaloo Joe Cuba, among others. Actors who at one time called East Harlem home include Al Pacino, Rita Moreno, Burt Lancaster, and Esther Rolle. Miguel Algarin, co-founder of the Lower East Side Nuyorican Poets Café, also was raised in East Harlem. Probably the most famous author from East Harlem was Henry Roth, whose family moved uptown from the Lower East Side. Piri Thomas wrote a bestselling autobiography titled Down These Mean Streets in 1967. Also, the contemporary artist Soraida Martinez, the painter and creator of “Verdadism,” was born in Spanish Harlem. Baseball Hall of Famer Lou Gerhig was raised in East Harlem.

Transportation: Bus—M1, M2, M3, M4, M15, M35, M96, M101, M102, M103, M106. Subway—4, 5, 6 and Metro North to 125th St.

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Latinos keep Three Kings Day traditions alive in New York

The Three Kings Day Parade makes its way through the streets of East Harlem last year.

On Friday, most in the Spanish speaking world marks Three Kings Day, an ancient celebration that commemorates the visit of Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem.

Each country in Latin America has its particular customs, many of which have been transported — and somewhat adapted — to Latino homes across New York. Dominican and Puerto Rican children leave dry grass for the camels under their beds; in Argentina and Mexico, they leave their shoes — with grass or a letter — outside their rooms or under the tree. But everywhere, the kids — at least the well-behaved ones — wake up to gifts from the Magi.

A tradition that is common in many countries is eating La Rosca de Reyes, a round sweet bread baked with dried or candied fruits and a little figurine of a baby Jesus inside. The rosca is available in many Latino bakeries in the city during this time of the year.

Viva asked some Latinos their thoughts on the holiday and how they mark it:

MEXICO
María Diaz, 38, who has a 13 year-old son and a 19 year-old daughter, works cleaning a store.
“We meet at a house in the Bronx with my brother and my sister-in-law, who have four young children, and we eat tamales or posole. We also eat taquitos with cheese. We buy the Rosca de Reyes in the Mexican bakery.”

PUERTO RICO
Janette Colón, 48, born in the South Bronx
“My parents are from Puerto Rico. My mom told me that she celebrated the day when she lived there as a child. She lived in the countryside, and they were very poor but they put hay and water for the camels and they left a hand-knitted dollas a gift. As we are very Americanized, we don’t celebrate here, but I would like to go to the Three Kings Day Parade at
El Museo del Barrio.”

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
Milagros Morisette, 50, grew up in La Vega
“On the fifth day, they left us gifts under the pillow or on the bed when we slept. Depending on what they could afford to give us. … We are 10 siblings. When we woke up in the morning, we believed the Wise Men had come and left us presents, and when there weren’t our parents would say that the camels couldn’t cross the river near the house and couldn’t go uphill. But we were happier than if we had had all the gifts in the world.”

ECUADOR
Fátima Zea, 55, works in a retail store
“Here in the Bronx, I meet with my close relatives and we drink chocolate with the Rosca de Reyes.”

ARGENTINA
Rita Lombardi, psychologist, has two grownup daughters and two grandchildren.
“We put the grass and the water for the camels near a door or a window left open so the Three Kings can enter. We all leave our shoes, the adults and the children. I put my shoes just in case. It’s a great celebration. I remember that when I was a child in Buenos Aires, one of the Kings wrote me a letter apologizing that he couldn’t get the doll I wanted and left me a different present instead. I must have been 5 years old.”

MEXICO
Alma López, 37, from Puebla, mother of a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old
“We eat la Rosca and drink atole, a hot beverage made out of milk, flavors, sugar and cornflour. On the night of Jan. 5, we put a letter [that the children write] to the Three Kings inside a shoe under the Christmas tree. The Magi leave them gifts in the shoe. The next day, the letter isn’t there anymore, and instead there is a reply praising the kids if they were good or scolding them if they need to improve their behavior.”

Three Kings Parade rules on Friday

Various events on Friday celebrate the arrival of the Wise Men, but the main one is the 35th annual Three Kings Day Parade along the streets of East Harlem. The procession starts at 10:30 a.m. at 106th St. and Madison Ave. and features community leaders dressed as kings. The parade also includes live camels and sheep. Musician Johnny Colón and authors Nicholasa Mohr and Esmeralda Santiago will don the Magi costumes this year.

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