At Hampshire College, A Mock Museum Of Appropriated Puerto Rican Identity

Oct 11, 2018

Many of the photos in Pablo Delano's exhibit at Hampshire College are more than 100 years old. 

They depict the island's lush flora and fauna, and its people -- as farmers, beauty queens, jail inmates -- and in most cases, there's some connection to the U.S. government.

Delano, a Hartford visual artist who teaches at Trinity College, has collected these photos for years. One of them, taken in the year 1900, shows four naked children standing on a beach in Puerto Rico, staring at the ocean.

The captions on display are original. For this photo, the caption begins, "Waiting for Uncle Sam -- on the Beach at Puerto Rico."

"The texts are a very important part of the exhibit," Delano said on a recent tour of it.

This caption also includes this line:

"[O]ne of the first duties of the United States will be to establish some sort of a system of compulsory education that shall raise the people from their present state of woeful ignorance and provide better things for the coming generation."

"It [also] talks about these children living a free, 'Topsy'-like life," Delano said.

He characterized the comparison to Topsy, a character in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," as sarcastic.

It's racist.

Topsy was a young black slave, described by author Harriet Beecher Stowe as wicked and disobedient, until a white family shows her kindness and love and she becomes a girl who "strives" to be good.

Delano brought this and other images together into what he calls "The Museum of the Old Colony," referencing how long Puerto Rico has been under someone else's rule. He wants visitors to the mock-museum to look closely at the photos and question everything, including the captions, which were written mostly by non-Puerto Ricans.

Pablo Delano is the curator behind "The Museum of the Old Colony," which he says invokes the traditional anthropological museums built to celebrate the so-called achievements of empires and the superiority of some people over others.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR

Delano's determined pursuit of truth may echo his father, who also took photos for the U.S. government, but not like the ones in this exhibit. The captions or narratives that accompanied Jack Delano's photos were from interviews with the people he photographed.

Before his son was born, Jack Delano moved with his wife to Puerto Rico and became a filmmaker, among other things. Pablo Delano said his father made the first feature-length film ever shot in Puerto Rico using all local actors.

Over time, the younger Delano became fascinated by the way the island was depicted by those who came in 1898.

"[Their arrival was] a result of a military invasion, and [they] felt the need to create pictures of this place, in order to justify their colonial occupation," Delano said.

For the exhibit, Delano has hung enlarged reproductions of stereo-cards, postcards and photos from published books and newspapers.

Museum-goers are also never out of earshot of a video excerpt that Delano put on a repeating loop. It's from a 1965 Encyclopedia Britannica documentary, and the audio details the island's connection with the U.S. government.

That includes -- as the narrator says -- how in 1917, Puerto Ricans were made citizens of the United States, and in 1952, Puerto Rico became "a self-governing island, voluntarily associated with the United States."

The narrator points out that Puerto Rico is not a colonial dependency, nor is it a state.

"You see the influence of the United States everywhere, and why not? We are citizens of the United States in almost every way," he says.

The video's message disgusts Delano -- and that's why he included it.

"You walk through the gallery, and you see all these pictures, and you're hearing this voice, over and over and over again," Delano said.

He then mimicked the narrator, including his slight accent.

"We are not a colony. We are just like the United States!" Delano said.

The exhibit is a parody of every museum that's ever been accused of cultural appropriation.

One of the most blatant examples Delano mentioned was in the late 1890s at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. It had a live "exhibit" of four Inuit adults from Greenland, plus a little boy. Not long after they arrived, the adults died. Their remains were not returned to Greenland until 100 years later.

Another photo in Delano's exhibit comes from a 1948 newspaper clipping of young Puerto Rican women wearing maid uniforms. They were attending class at a school for domestic science in Caguas, Puerto Rico.

"The U.S. talked about building schools? Here they built schools for domestics, to train maids for U.S. jobs," Delano said. "And as the caption says, 'The first graduates of the training program were sent to homes in New York City's suburban Westchester County.'"

Visiting the exhibit, Delano paused in front of a black-and-white image taken before he was born. It was a 1940 newspaper photo of an enormous U.S. Army cannon on a road, passing a farmer. Delano's childhood, he said, was dominated by the presence of American military. The photo really gripped him.

A 1940 photo originally captioned "Tropical Contrast, Punta Salinas, Puerto Rico," enlarged for Pablo Delano's exhibit.
Credit ACME Photo / Courtesy Pablo Delano

"[It's] passing a typical Puerto Rican farmer called a jibaro, and he's got a team of oxen, which was what was used to haul the sugar cane," he said. "And there's an incredible moment of mutual acknowledgement of one to the other."

Delano is one of few islanders who would call themselves Russian Puerto Rican. He was born and raised on the island -- but his father was born in Ukraine, and his mother was from Canada. The island's heritage is hugely diverse, he said, after more than 500 years of European rule and its connection to the African slave trade.

Since Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans will continue to talk about their identity, and the U.S. government's role on the island. It's a different but not such a new conversation.

Original Old Colony bottles and cans, 1940s to 2017, on display at Pablo Delano's exhibit.
Credit Jill Kaufman / NEPR

At the exit to "The Museum of the Old Colony," there's a display of soda bottles and cans. Delano named his mock-museum, in part, after a hugely popular soda called Old Colony. It comes in grape and pineapple, and the name refers to the original 13 U.S. colonies.

The design consistently sports the image of an American Revolution-era patriot. For decades Old Colony was manufactured on the U.S. mainland. Now, it's only made in Puerto Rico.