Mambo Montage


Mambo Montage: The Latinization of New York

Edited by Augustin Lao-Montes & Arlene M. Davila (2001)

Columbia University Press

Split into four sections, each of 4 or 5 chapters in length, this 448 page book examines Latin identity in NYC through selected chapters from over a dozen different writers. Subjects examined include uses of space within the city, social movements, leisure pursuits and political issues and perspectives. Essentially written for an academic readership, both Agustín Laó-Montes (info here) and Arlene Dávila (info here) are working academics in the fields of anthropology/sociology.

Why you might buy it:
You want to know more about some of the historical, cultural and political issues that have impacted upon Latin identity in New York. There is a good variety of topic areas including chapters with a focus upon baseball, Cuban restaurants, murals, immigration and marketing. Helping you gain a better understanding of such issues may add greatly to your appreciation of what has been, and is, going on with and around the people involved in the development of Latin music in NYC – Part II of the book in particular.

Why you might leave it:
Music is not the primary focus and only features overtly in chapter 7, about the death of Hector Lavoe and it’s impact upon identities. As is common with this type of edited book if you read it as a whole (rather than dipping in and out of it) moving from chapter to chapter means that, at times, you have to adapt the each writers particular style, which doesn’t always make for a smooth reading experience. It is not a book most casual readers will enjoy, but then it is not aimed at the general market.


Introduction: Mambo Montage: The Latinization of New York City by Agustín Laó-Montes

Part I
The Production of Latinidad: Histories, Social Movements, Cultural Struggles

Chapter 1: No Country But the One We Must Fight For”: The Emergence
of an Antillean Nation and Community in New York City, 1860–1901 by Nancy Raquel Mirabal
Chapter 2: The Latins From Manhattan: Confronting Race and Building Community in Jim Crow Baseball, 1906- 1950 by Adrian Burgos, Jr
Chapter 3: Latino Caribbean Diasporas in New York by Ramon Grosfoguel and Chloe S. Georas
Chapter 4: Niuyol: Urban Regime, Latino Social Movements, Ideologies of
Latinidad by Agustín Laó-Montes
Chapter 5: Culture in the Battlefront: From Nationalist to Pan-Latino Projects by Arlene Davila

Part II
Expressive Cultures: Narrating, Imaging, and Performing Latinidad
Chapter 6: Life Off the Hyphen: Latino Literature and Nuyorican Tradition by Juan Flores
Chapter 7: Nothing Connects Us All But Imagined Sounds: Performing Trans-Boricua Memories, Identities, and Nationalisms Through the Death of Hector Lavoe by Wilson Valentin-Escobar
Chapter 8: Hip-Hop, Puerto Rican, and Ethnoracial Identities in New York by Raquel Z. Rivera
Chapter 9: Ambiguous Identities! The Affirmation of Puertorriquenidad in the Community Murals of New York City by Elsa B. Cardalda Sanchez and Amilcar Tirado Aviles

Part III
Latino/a Identities and the Politics of Space and Place

Chapter 10: Making Loisaida: Placing Puertorriquenidad in Lower Manhattan by Liz Sevcenko
Chapter 11:The Manifold Character of Panethnicity: Latino Identities and Practices Among Domincans in New York City by Jose Itzigsohn and Carlos Dore-Cabral
Chapter 12: Immigration Status and Identity: Undocumented Mexicans in New York by Jocelyn Solis
Chapter 13: Outside/In: Crossing Queer and Latino Boundaries by Luis Aponte-Pares
Chapter 14: Engendering and Coloring Labor Unions: Transcultural Readings of Latin American Women’s Ways by Mary Garcia Castro

Part IV
Latinizing Cityscapes

Chapter 15: The Latin Side of Madison Avenue: Marketing and the Language That Makes Us ‘Hispanics’ by Arlene Davila
Chapter 16: Eating in Cuban by Lisa Maya Knauer
Chapter 17: Taking Class Into Account: Dance, the Studio, and Latino Culture by Karen Beckstein
Chapter 18: Deceptive Solidity: Public Signs, Civic Inclusion, and Language Rights in New York City (and Beyond) by Vilma Santiago-Irizarry

Selected extracts (from):

(Chapter 7: Nothing Connects Us All But Imagined Sounds: Performing Trans-Boricua Memories, Identities, and Nationalisms Through the Death of Hector Lavoe by Wilson Valentin-Escobar):

Se te olvidó decir que yo soy el hombre que respira debajo del agua.
Si yo me muero mañana / mañana por la mañana / no quiero que
nadie llore / no quiero que digan nada.
—Héctor “Lavoe” Pérez

On Tuesday afternoon, June 29, 1993, one of Salsa music’s greatest soneros (improvisational singers), Héctor Juan Pérez, commonly known as Héctor Lavoe, passed away at St. Claire’s hospital in New York City. Lavoe died of a heart attack, bringing to an end his struggle with HIV. Héctor Lavoe’s passing marked a turning point in the world of Salsa music as well as in the transnational Puerto Rican and Latina/o communities in the United States, Puerto Rico, and Latin America. Thousands of Lavoe’s admirers in Puerto Rico, la República Dominicana, Venezuela, Colombia, Perú, Pan¬ama, New York City, Chicago, and other urban and national hubs conducted vigils in his name. Throughout New York City, the songs and sounds of Héctor Lavoe’s music emanated from people’s homes, car stereos, and boom boxes, blurring the boundaries between public and private cultures. The popular La Mega FM radio station in New York City played Lavoe’s music all week long, motivating his followers and admirers to sing and dance, almost in unison, in the streets of la Gran Manzana (the Big Apple).


The bad boy album covers cannot simply be dismissed simply as examples of youthful indiscretions; rather, they are heavily laden with class and gender symbolism. The album covers signify other masculine driven representations of national mythologies and identities such as the wild west (Guisando/Doing a Job and The Good The Bad And The Ugly), urban street gangs (Asalto Navideno, volumes 1 & 2; La Gran Fuga), organized crime (Crime Pays) and ethnic rivalry (Cosa Nuestra). In the course of these self representations, Lavoe and Colon draw on these mythical constructions to recast the personal and the collective. Album covers become more than textual self-representations but are also self reflective metaperformances of diasporic identities and musical style. Lavoe and Colon actively refashion what it means “to be a Puerto Rican”, complicating the culture of poverty and criminal depictions of Puerto Rican culture (while carefully playing with and exaggerating them) and consequently subverting traditional discourses surrounding urban life in the diaspora.


In Puerto Rico it is customary for deceased salsa and plena musicians to receive very large funeral processions and celebrations at the Plaza de Salsa, also referred to as La Plaza de los Salseros (The Plaza of Salsa Musicians). In Hector Lavoe’s funeral celebration, El Barrio in New York City and St. Raymonds Cemetery in the Bronx become the surrogate embodiments mimetically representing la Plaza de los Salseros. Close resemblance of the Lavoe funeral to those celebrated at the Plaza informs us of the flexibility of a cultural repertoire to create an impression of revision linked to a lineage of homeland practices.

(Chapter 10: Making Loisaida: Placing Puertorriquenidad in Lower Manhattan by Liz Sevcenko):

In 1976, real estate developers described the area just north of Houston Street as a “vast wasteland.” One out of every five lots was either empty or contained the remains of crumbling, abandoned buildings. From this rub¬ble a handful of Puerto Rican community organizers built Loisaida: a ter¬ritory, a movement, and an identity constructed to claim resources for the working-class residents of the area. The making of Loisaida – officially the area between Houston and 14th streets and between Avenue A and the East River- stamped a new Puerto Rican territory on the map of Manhattan and marked a significant step in the latinization of New York City. But from its birth in the mind of a poet in 1974 to its officialization in a street sign in 1987, Loisaida was about more than claiming space as Puerto Rican. The Loisaida movement, as it came to be called, constructed a neighborhood¬ specific discourse of puertorriqueñidad born from its political relationship to urban space. The movement organizers’ goals were to mobilize the neighborhood’s majority Spanish-speaking but multi-ethnic residents to claim their rights to city land and resources. They therefore needed to develop a discourse of puertorriqueñidad that could build a multicultural coalition – among Puerto Ricans, Argentineans, Cubans, Eastern European Jews, and others – and establish a historical claim to land.

[end of extracts]

Other reviews:

H-Urban by Evelyn Gonzalez (July, 2002) (extract):
In the last ten years or so, there has been a veritable explosion of research and writing by Latinos and about Latinos in New York and the United States. A new crop of Latino scholars has resurrected the history of early Latino migrants to New York City, focused on the Latino condition in general, and created new forums for their findings.


What is apparent in Mambo Montage is that Latinos are still marginalized on all sides. Puerto Ricans in New York City (aka Nuyoricans or the more recently coined, DiaspoRicans) are particularly vulnerable here. There is no hyphenated Puerto Rican-American, relates Juan Flores, hence Puerto Ricans live off the hyphen, unrecognized by mainstream society on the mainland or the island.


On the whole, latinidad works well as a unifying theme in Mambo Montage, but there are difficulties with the concept in and of itself. For one, it glosses over the differences between Latino groups that despite the growing Latino indentification are real and concrete and are kept alive by continuing inflows of new migrants. Cubans are not Puerto Ricans and vice versa. For another, like the Hispanic marketing industry, latinidad assumes the existence of a static Latino community (always there, always Spanish-speaking, and always the “other”) and ignores a larger bilingual Latino community that has moved out of “El Barrio” but not away from its roots. This cohort of Latinos is socially aspiring, increasingly educated, and English-speaking, yet according to Vilma Santiago-Irizarry, insists on bilingualism in city signs, government forms, and education to counter negative images of Latinos, in effect using the Spanish language as a form of empowerment instead of marginalization.

In the final analysis, Mambo Montage is an important book. Its articles convey much new information about the Latino/Hispanic community in New York and explore important but long-ignored issues. The inclusion of music, literature, and the arts fills in the Latino/Hispanic experience even more, while the footnotes and bibliographical references alone are invaluable for the latest works in the field. That said, however, some of the entries are not as well researched or as clearly written as they should be. There are too many asides just accepted as given without explanation or footnote references. The otherwise fine article by Grosfoguel and Georas, for example, mentions that white America associates Puerto Rican identity with “laziness, criminality, stupidity, and a tendency toward uncivilized behavior” (p. 98), without showing how such an association came about. Crying racism is not enough. One must have evidence, or at the very least the scholarship on which the assertion is based. Such tidbits are sprinkled throughout the book and point out the need for further research in the field. Similarly, much of the writing is numbingly abstract. The reader has to plow through sections of hermetic prose and theoretical constructs with little factual grounding. This limits the potential audience of Mambo Montage. And this is unfortunate because this book is worthwhile and should be read by many.


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