Honoring Villa Victoria

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There I was, walking through the South End of Boston. It was a sunny summer day and my spirit was filled with a triumphant joy. It was the joy of a homecoming. As I neared my destination, the street sign announced the entrance into territorio Boricua. Pass the crossing of Tremont and West Dedham streets, and you find yourself in Paseo Borinquen. As I walked closer to Plaza Betances, I looked at the sign that welcomes you to this Puerto Rican barrio. Its engraved greeting claims the space with the war cry that guided the founding of this neighborhood in the late ‘60s: “no nos mudaremos de la parcela 19.” My spirit lifted with pride and great memories. Humbling memories of love for a community who bid me farewell almost a year to the day with a joyful pari of music (combito and all) and food planned and prepared by its residents on my last day working in the community before moving to New York. This was my second home for three years, its triumphant name says it all, Villa Victoria.

Plaza Betances, Villa Victoria. Image: flickr user Gig Harmon

In the 1960s what is today a beautiful community, a familiar place for me and many other Boricuas, whether transient or not, was then known as the thirteen acre block of run down tenements and empty houses denominated Parcel 19. The spaces were anything but empty, though. In fact, over 1,500 residents, many Puerto Ricans, lived in the blighted area of this Boston’s South End neighborhood. Increasingly, Puerto Ricans moved to the neighborhood, forging a barrio away from the island. During this time, the Boston Redevelopment Authority sought to tear down their homes and replace them with luxury housing. Parcel 19 was, thus, destined to disappear under urban renewal plans.

Determined to stay put, a group of predominantly Puerto Rican residents, led by Israel Feliciano and Reverend William Dwyer (amongst others), came together to launch a campaign to prevent the residents’ displacement. The grassroots movement then (and today) known as Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción incorporated under a new organization—the Emergency Tenants Council—intent on having a say in the community’s redevelopment. Their commitment was best summarized in a letter by Israel Feliciano in which he wrote, “It is our desire to work with the Boston Development Authority and the city of Boston….Your action will determine whether we will be able to do this or not. The responsibility is on you. If we are designated ‘Sponsor Redeveloper’ the responsibility will be ours.  We have acquired competent technical and ample financial sources to guarantee success. We want responsibility to determine our destiny. We are tired of other people making our decisions.” Building coalitions with other community activists, groups and churches, these Puerto Rican leaders stared down Boston's urban renewal bulldozers as they rallied to the cry, “No nos mudaremos de la Parcela 19!” With the support of architect John Sharatt, the group crafted a proposal and plans that became Villa Victoria. In an effort to capture the Puerto Rican voice of the area’s residents, Sharatt traveled to Puerto Rico. “The architecture of the resulting Villa Victoria achieved the goal, with its plaza and parks and casitas facing one another.” 

The unselfish acts of the early residents of Villa Victoria forged the future of the home of all Puerto Ricans living in Boston and remain a source of pride and inspiration to the community. Where the late 60s and 70s saw the development of the Villa itself, the community came together in the 80s to usher programming and initiatives like the “Keylatch Program of the Phillips Brooks House Association, offering free tutoring, big brother/big sister and summer programs for neighborhood children.”  Today, 435 units of affordable housing form a community that is diverse and proud of its history.  Over 1,000 residents call this 4 block oasis of culture and Puerto Rican identity their home. Almost half a century later, Villa Victoria bears witness to the history of our people that remains largely untold.

 

This reenactment of what took place filmed years after the founding of Villa Victoria, featuring the activists themselves, was produced for the programming of a close circuit TV channel housed in the community.

 

I returned to Villa Victoria on a mission. I was back on that day representing the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at an event to honor local leaders as part of its 100 Puerto Ricans Preserving our History Campaign. During the three years I worked in this community, I was fortunate to know and learn from the stories and examples set by these honorees. Many of them were involved in shaping la villa into what it is today. There couldn’t have been a better location for this event than Villa Victoria Center for the Arts. This magnificent cultural center is the base for Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción's (IBA) community arts program. Through the years, IBA has served as model for community development taught to urban planners nationwide and recognized internationally.

Visiting La Galeria, at the Villa Victoria Center for the Arts, was always a great experience, specially on opening nights. I saw many great works of art from Puerto Rican, Latino, and other members of the community. One of the shows that I enjoyed the most, was the one by Rafael Carrasco, a community artist whose prolific work never ceased to amaze anyone who meets him. On his opening, the community attended in support, and as customary in Puerto Rican gatherings, they danced and sang providing a sonic complement to a visual feast of both traditional and abstract visual representations painted and built by Rafa.  It's been a few years since his show, but it remains to me a great example of the ways Villa Victoria builds bridges between the community, the program, and outside visitors whose only point of reference to the Villa and its history is a beautiful gallery space.

The cultural center in itself is an inspiring space. Formerly a Lutheran Church, it still features the stained glass art depicting anchors and nordic looking symbols that point to the church’s origins. The center provides the community with a stage for plays, music, cultural, and community activities. It housed cultural projects and initiatives that are well known in Boston such as Cafe Teatro, Cultura Viva, Soul Revival; its stage has been graced by legendary performers like Eddie Palmieri, Willie Colon, Esperanza Spalding, and bassist Eddie Gomez, among many others. It was also the space for the traditional 3 Kings Day Celebration, of which I am a proud alumni of the Wise Men impersonators. Every year around January 6th, families from the area will come with their children to receive donated gifts and take pictures with the Kings. For me that celebration was not only about the toys; it was also an expression of the ultimate goal that IBA and Villa Victoria represent, which is uniting community of all backgrounds through a Puerto Rican tradition of selfless giving for the common good, and solidarity.
 
One of the things that I enjoyed and admired the most about Villa Victoria was how the arts permeate every day life, inspires the sense of community pride and activism, and serves as a historical reminder of the community’s roots. Murals that decorate the Villa, like the center piece of Plaza Betances, featuring a tile and ceramic collage of images that depict “el Padre de la Patria” Ramón Emeterio Betances and his words, combined with a tile collage of images designed by children and adults in the community. This and other murals in the neighborhood were constructed to show visitors and younger generations the revolutionary aspirations of the Villa’s founders combined with a vision of community from those growing up in this new community.

Las Pleneras de la Villa. Image flickr user  inquiboric

Residents on their own live the arts. Take for example, Don Paco, whom since the day I started at IBA always greeted me with a Decima. His melodies and improvisational abilities, still sharp at his advanced age, made days better for everyone, and the tradition he carries in song and lyrical memory are a living treasure. Doña Maria Flores, a lady who speaks with a dramatic tone has a quick wit, and is a greatly talented artist. On her own, she ran a community sewing workshop, and created a group of elderly ladies from the community who sang and danced in beautiful costumes, that she also created, called Las Pleneras de la Villa. These ladies were a huge hit on the Villa and city wide. I became a fan of theirs as their shows were fun to watch and a truly inspirational project. Of course, these are all but a few examples of the many talented people whom either with song, instrument playing, craft making, and bicycling fixing make the lives of all around them a more pleasant and lively one.

As a student of history, I felt privileged to know and befriend many of these extraordinary residents, some which we honored that night for their unselfish deeds towards the benefit of all in the community. Don Jaime Rodriguez, Jovita Fontanez, Tony Molina, Maria Sanchez, José Massó, Reinelda Chiqui Rivera (a leader on her own whom that night was representing her late mother Felita Oyola), Dr. Ernesto Gonzalez-Martinez, Felix Arroyo and Miguel Fuentes are just a few of our outstanding community builders in Boston. But equally important are the residents of Villa Victoria who care for their elderly neighbors, who cook lunches for the community room on Fridays, or sing a decima, a guaracha or a plena, comfort their young when tragedy strikes, make limbers for the children during the summer and beautify the community with their gardens. All of them keep this great barrio vivito y coleando. Villa Victoria was my home away from mi bella isla.

Centro's Affinity Event, Puerto Rican Community Leaders of Boston

The night of my recent visit, I crossed Aguadilla Street to the venue for the celebration. I stared at the Center's entrance mural depicting the history of the community, as I used to do each time I passed by during my stint at IBA. As on every occasion, looking at the faces of the Villa Victoria founders and activists immortalized in this glorious piece fills anyone with inspiration of what we can accomplish as a people. Their faces are next to the drawing of the Palo Enceba’o that symbolizes the heights that an organized empowered community can reach. Their biggest accomplishment was making this community the property of its residents and with that ensuring its future and legacy.

 

Betances mural. Image flickr use, Angel Flores de Santiago


© Omar Dauhajre. Published by permission in Centro Voices on 25 February 2015.

Centro Voices (ISSN: 2379-3864).
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Centro Voices, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies or Hunter College, CUNY.