On November 7, 2015, The Lower East Side Girls Club presented “New Rican Spirit,” a reunion, discussion, and celebration of Eddie Figueroa’s New Rican Village Arts and Cultural Center, which stood on Avenue A between 6th and 7th Streets in the East Village from 1976 to 1979.
Founded by the former Young Lord, activist, and actor Eddie Figueroa, it was a sanctuary for artists of all stripes. Also, the space sowed the seeds for the creation of the Fort Apache Band, Mario Rivera, the Salsa Refugees, and Manny Oquendo & Libre, among others.
I never set foot in the New Rican Village; however, I learned about it during an interview with Soundscape’s Founder and Director, Verna Gillis. According to her, NRV’s founder, Eddie Figueroa, approached her when the cultural center closed its doors, seeking a haven for artists affiliated with the NRV. “I can’t take all the credit for bringing them to Soundscape,” she said, “many of them came from Eddie Figueroa’s New Rican Village. He lost the space and asked if he could use my space. It was the greatest gift that anyone could have given me. It was this ready-made music scene, and I had the place.”
Also, the research led to Dr. Marina Rosman’s thesis: “The New Rican Village, Artists in Control of the Image-Making Machinery” (1983), which tells the story of the NRV from her perspective.
Fast forward to the present day and the Lower East Side Girls Club, where the historic reunion occurred.
Entering the space, I was drawn to an altar honoring Tito Puente and Celia Cruz. Directly above it was a TV monitor displaying historical artwork, posters, photos, photography, and videos featuring artists associated with NRV, including Hilton Ruiz, Pedro Pietri, Manny Oquendo, Eddie Figueroa, Nestor Torres, Felipe Luciano, Mario Rivera, Rafael Cortijo, Jorge Dalto, Jerry Gonzalez, Andy Gonzalez, Dave Valentin, Mario Rivera and Gene Golden among others.
The event began with a prayer session led by the Master of Ceremony, Pepe Flores, who read the names of deceased NRV alums and colleagues. After each name, the audience chanted, “Ibaye!” Short for “Ibaye, bayen bayen tonu,” a Lucumi prayer for the ancestors, loosely translated as “Rest in Peace.”
Wilson Valentin-Escobar, Ph.D., Associate Professor at Hampshire College and Co-Curator. I bit, “Presente! The Young Lords of the photo exh” moderated the discussion. Also, he began the session with an excerpt from an interview with trumpeter and percussionist Jerry Gonzalez, who spoke about the NRV and how music played a vital role in the venue’s success.
The panel consisted of NRV alumni Sandra Maria Estevez; soprano Brenda Feliciano; actress and activist Ana Ramos; master percussionist and educator Gene Golden; poet and writer Jesus Papoleto Melendez, visual artist Nestor Otero and researcher and collector Henry Medina, who shared their personal stories and the lasting impact of the NRV.
SANDRA MARIA ESTEVES: “We were of a mind to create our venues and institutions, to play music and our clubs, for and with each other, to exhibit our artwork in our galleries, to perform on our stages and publish our works. We were determined to survive and cultivate our creativity independent of those who never embraced or welcomed us. Our artistic creation was, and still is, a revolutionary act from the mainstream perspective that chooses to ignore us and prefer that we remain invisible.”
ANA RAMOS: “The New Rican is a vision, a way of life, a thought, a value system that would take you from where you were to take control of the image-making machinery. Eddie’s philosophy was, ‘If you wait, you spend your time waiting instead of doing something.’ What he meant was, ‘Just do it!’ That must be addressed, broadcasted, and shouted to today’s generation. It’s a constant flow of doing it; you don’t wait or have to figure it out, do it.”
GENE GOLDEN: “We came up the hard way as congueros in the streets and the parks in New York City. We didn’t look at the racial aspect; we looked at music, drumming, and culture. Like Puerto Rico, Africa, and Brazil, New York City has a culture. The New Rican Village was an institution, a place to stretch out. I’m very proud. I started there.”
HENRY MEDINA: “I used to bring my (reel to reel) tape deck to the New Rican Village in a shopping bag because the area at the time was bad. I got to see Mario Rivera and the Salsa Refugees. It was stunning. You have to understand that you are sitting there. Mario is on sax, Brenda Feliciano on vocals, Nestor Torres on the flute, Jerry Gonzalez on the trumpet and congas, and Andy Gonzalez on the bass for $3.00! It was such a wonderful experience.”
BRENDA FELICIANO: “We felt at home, and everybody was welcome. There were exhibits and dance music. I’m grateful to have been part of that and see how it developed. It was a place that nourished us spiritually and reinforced our community. I went there and sang and did crazy things; I had the complete freedom to do that, and that’s very important for an artist. We nourished each other and collaborated.”
JESUS PAPOLETO MELENDEZ: “Eddie was a monster operator. He saw things with grandeur, and all of it to validate, accept, and perpetuate our diaspora.”
There was a collective reading of Pedro Pietri’s poem “What Was the Dream About?”
“Your final performance is nowhere in sight There can be no victory if there isn’t a fight Dreams do not always occur late at night If you are never wrong, you can never be right Never again let the doctor’s get you uptight Prove to them you were never down and out Tell us, Eddie – What was the dream about?”
Followed by reading the poem “You Do Something to Me” (for Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band) by Sandra Maria Estevez.
“The bad Fort Apache tan, olive-brown and black, Bringing it all the way up fast black, Flying across Miles and Sonny, Across John, Rhassan ‘n Monk’s 81, across Dizzy blue conga Jerry horn, n’ basico Andy mo-jo black.”
New Rican Spirit evokes memories of a pre-gentrified New York, where art, activism, and music were accessible and affordable. It was also a historic opportunity to listen to stories and anecdotes from the artists who lived through it.
The celebration ended on a festive note, with food, libations, and live music provided by bassist Ray Martinez, pianist Marcus Persiani and Gene Golden. The story of the New Rican Village has yet to be told. Nevertheless, on the evening of November 7th, nostalgia and New Rican Spirit ruled the day!