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Critics Hit Sculptor's Depiction Of Puerto Rican Family

Helen Ubiñas

August 23, 2009

Jose Buscaglia was so excited about his Puerto Rican Family Monument finally going up that I almost didn't have the heart to tell him not everyone was as thrilled.

Last time the renowned artist and I spoke about his work, he was frustrated by the politics and pace surrounding it — and that was 10 years ago.

Since then, the group that commissioned the 8- by 10-foot bronze sculpture has disbanded, Buscaglia's collected only half his fee and the piece has been stored in the Armory, the police museum, where it was slightly damaged, and the Learning Corridor, where it now resides.

And yet here I was, a month from the artwork's long anticipated installation, telling him about yet another hurdle.

Turns out, a growing number of critics don't think the sculpture should go up at all.

It oversimplifies and generalizes Puerto Rican history, they say.

It demonstrates a lack of understanding of public art.

And perhaps worst of all, they insist, it's a conservative and stereotypical depiction of a Puerto Rican nuclear family. Why is the man the central figure in the piece? they argue. Why not the woman, who'd better represent the mothers and grandmothers who head so many Hartford families? And what about all the families led by gay and lesbian couples?

"After a huge expense of time and resources, we are stuck with a monument that is in its very nature exclusive and divisive," said Trinity College professor of fine arts Pablo Delano, who expressed concern over the monument from its inception.

Delano and Natalia Muñoz, a Massachusetts-based journalist and granddaughter of Puerto Rico's first elected governor, said they respect Buscaglia's numerous artistic contributions. But they can't support his latest piece.

"I think he missed the mark with this work," said Muñoz.

When I told Buscaglia about the complaints, he was stunned.

"I don't understand," he said, pausing for so long I thought our connection had been lost. "It's one example of a Puerto Rican family. But it's also about the journey from Puerto Rico to the mainland and all the symbolism around that. I can't understand why anyone would have a problem with that."

Working Families council member Luis Cotto, who adopted the project after discovering it in storage, admits he hadn't considered any of the concerns.

"I guess I'm a progressive in progress," he said, sheepishly.

Truth is, very few people who were involved in the project over the last decade took issue with the work's depiction of family. They still don't.

Former legislator Evelyn Mantilla and council member Pedro Segarra, both of whom are gay, agree that the monument doesn't depict their vision, or reality, of family. But, they said, that's no reason to oppose it.

"The fact is that a lot has changed in the gay and lesbian communities in the last 10 years," Segarra said. "Maybe this should be viewed as a period piece, a historical piece of art."

A suggestion that critics say shows how flawed the process for the public monument was.

"We Puerto Ricans in the United States are sometimes too quick to applaud anything that recognizes us without thinking it through," Muñoz said.

Meanwhile, Buscaglia — who joked that if they paid him a million dollars he'd include everyone's depiction of family — is still looking forward to the September installation outside the Learning Corridor.

"I'm 71," Buscaglia said. "I'd just like to see the thing go up before I die."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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