HARLEM — East Harlem is known for its murals and mosaics documenting the aspirations, trials and history of a generation of Latinos and Puerto Ricans acclimating to life in New York City.
Now a collaboration by the Puerto Rican art collective La Respueta and El Museo del Barrio is looking to extend that legacy by bringing together an international cast of artists to create eight new murals in East Harlem and the South Bronx over the next week.
"This is a cultural bridge," said Jose Morales Perez, founder of La Respueta. "This is part of a great history. If we don't know history we don't know anything."
The theme of the project, titled Los Muros Hablan NYC, will be "Diaspora."
"Diaspora is a feeling where you leave your country and go to another country to establish yourself. Here in El Barrio there's a big diaspora from not only Puerto Rico but all over the world," said Perez. "The artists involved in this will explore what diaspora means to them."
East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose office is also sponsoring the event, said the new murals only help to validate the artistic legacy of the neighborhood.
"The changes being brought by gentrification are enormous," she said. "An event like this cements the contributions of the people of this neighborhood."
Gonzalo Casals, deputy director of El Museo del Barrio, agreed.
"The murals are a great anchor for culture as we see the neighborhood changing and people displaced," he said.
The murals will sprout on empty walls in East Harlem from 100 to 116th streets and on Third Avenue and underneath a bridge on the Grand Concourse in the South Bronx.
Perez said his group has long-wanted to come to East Harlem. It was important that they had the blessing of artists including Manny Vega Jr., who helped to paint the well known "Spirit of East Harlem," a giant mural located at 104th Street and Lexington Avenue with Hank Prussin in the 1970s.
Vega, who will launch a mosaic on the side of a stair at 105th Street and Lexington Avenue as part of the event, said he's excited by the activity.
Standing in front of his colorful "Espiritu" mosaic on Lexington Avenue and 105th Street, Vega said the artists' work would bring new life to the art form.
"That's better than what's going on now which is a lot of nothing," he said about the state of mural and mosaic creation in East Harlem.
"It's about the art on the wall. It's provocative and forward-thinking," he said of the soon-to-be created works.
And as the neighborhood welcomes immigrants from varying parts of the world such as Latin America and Africa, Vega hopes the murals will change as well.
"I hope the next group of artists comes from Ethiopia," he said.