As some of you might know, I have a healthy interest in obituaries. The annual New York Times Magazine on the important deaths of the past year, “The Lives they Lived,” was published December 28, 2008. It naturally drew my attention. As always, Latinos and Puerto Ricans are noticeably forgotten and ignored. Out of the 21 dead people featured in the issue, one was, in fact, Puerto Rican. That is actually a radical improvement from previous years when no Puerto Ricans or Latinos were mentioned. That one Puerto Rican was Ron Rivera who did important work helping to eradicate poverty. Though he was of Puerto Rican origin, his work was not associated with Puerto Ricans. He spent most of his life in Central and South America as well as in Africa, where a mosquito ended his life. He did important work and deserved to be remembered. So did the four African Americans who were featured, from Mildred Loving to Stephanie Tubbs Jones to Dee Dee Warwick to Levi Stubbs. Jones was a Congresswoman. Warwick and Stubbs were Motown singers. Loving helped to overthrow laws against mixed race marriages. They did important work but they were not household names.
Were there no other Puerto Rican or Latino deaths last year deserving of public recognition? I can think of at least two. One was Rafael Tufiño. He was born in Brooklyn, lived in San Juan, was a founder of Taller Boricua and El Museo del Barrio. His paintings can be found in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Library of Congress and the Galería Nacional in Puerto Rico.
Another was Edgardo Vega Yunqué, who founded the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural Center in the lower East Side. In the daily newspaper, the New York Times had called his “novels and stories about life on the Lower East Side of Manhattan” as “picaresque, combustive and sometimes flamboyantly comic expressions of the Puerto Rican experience.” Yet Vega Yunque was later ignored in the magazine summary of the year’s death.
There are probably many more Puerto Ricans and Latinos who died last year and yet were not noticed by mainstream media like the New York Times. I will perhaps research and publish those results at some point.
Somehow, I can’t help but think that this systematic pattern of omission is an indication of larger issues. If Puerto Rican and Latino lives don’t often register with the larger society, it is perhaps because these communities seem too remote and segregated from the main currents. The music, art, and politics produced in Puerto Rican and Latino communities simply either don’t raise above the mainstream radar or are not given much importance when they do.
It may be a facile extrapolation but I believe that progress will not come for the Puerto Rican and Latino communities until they begin to occupy a position in the social consciousness of the larger society that is at least similar to that of African Americans. Death notices are a reminder of how small a place Puerto Ricans and Latinos occupy in the real life of the larger society.