Excerpt from EN FOCO’S JOURNEY By Susana Torruella Leval

If you say the words “dos mundos” to Puerto Ricans, they will know exactly what you mean. A population that constantly travels back and forth between the islands of Manhattan and Puerto Rico, Puerto Ricans know the psychic wear and tear of living between worlds, dos mundos: endless longing, separation anxiety, mind and heart in constant split-screen mode, the fragmented self. Puerto Ricans have themselves created many terms to describe the condition of living in or between two worlds:  dos mundos (two worlds), entre mundos (between worlds); aquí y allá (here and there), dos islas (two islands). They describe themselves as “de aquí y de allá,” (from here and from there), no matter what island they start from.  

Because of their intimate familiarity with divided worlds, Puerto Rican audiences thronged to see the exhibition, Dos Mundos: Worlds of the Puerto Rican, a travelling exhibition by Puerto Rican photographers. It opened on December 13,1973 at the New York Cultural Center on Columbus Circle in New York City, a maverick art gallery then directed by Mario Amaya, and considered one of the liveliest of New York’s museums at the time. Until then, Puerto Ricans had never before seen such images of themselves on the walls of a museum. The ground-breaking exhibition was organized by photographer Geno Rodríguez who gathered and selected the works. The Institute of Contemporary Hispanic Art, chaired by co-founder Marifé Hernandez, produced the exhibition; it was funded by The New York State Council on the Arts and IBM. The stellar advisory committee was composed of distinguished personages from the worlds of art, politics and photography.  But the stars and key protagonists were the twelve photographers featured in the show: Charles Biasiny, Roger Cabán, Gustavo Candelas, Máximo Colón, Phil Dante, Angel Franco, Benedict Fernández, Martín González, George Malavé, Adal Maldonado, Geno Rodríguez, and Denis Vélez.

With grit, intimacy, and dignity, their excellent photographs captured inhabitants of the dos mundos of Puerto Rico and New York, contrasting their living conditions and lifestyles. The “presumption of veracity” that Susan Sonntag believed was unique to photography gave the exhibition tremendous emotional impact. Beyond that, a new kind of beauty was on view — one related to the power of owning self-identification. Congressman Herman Badillo, in his introductory letter to the exhibition, understood this well: “Their pictures and images are saying ‘this is what we are about!’ John J. McKendry, Curator at the Metropolitan Museum and member of the advisory committee, saw the exhibition as revealing “how Puerto Ricans see themselves, New York and the Island with a camera, an instrument as modern as the jet in which they travel.” 

Exhibition Director Geno Rodríguez expressed Dos Mundos’ objective as “giving voice to a disenfranchised community.” His statement in the exhibition’s portfolio of photographs, which served as exhibition catalogue, expanded on that thought:

The Puerto Rican in New York, the Chicano in Los Angeles — no matter who he is, the Hispanic artist living in the United States is virtually unrepresented in this country’s major museums and galleries. This not only stunts the growth of the individual artist, but also deprives the United States of this rich and important cultural heritage.

Charles Biasiny-Rivera, a fellow photographer and cultural leader, shared this sentiment and stressed the centrality of dispelling stereotypes as part of the exhibition’s mission and importance. In his words: “It was important because…in the 1970s, Puerto Ricans were portrayed as impoverished people through the lens of non-Puerto Ricans, providing a distorted view of Puerto Rican culture.”