“Who are you?” This question always stirs deep emotions within me, for finding an answer is never easy. The context in which it is asked will result in a different response every time. Our identity is shaped by the groups with which we have become affiliated or with whom we share a common thread. This is problematic as group identities like race and gender roles are socially constructed, forcing individuals who are part of a particular group to take on an identity with which they may or may not identify. The “who are you” question sheds light into the issue of diversity and the cultural nuances that are proving to be a challenge for preservation. The January/February issue of Preservation magazine comes to mind as it is indicative of a much larger cultural issue that must be addressed in the field if it is to become inclusive in preserving everyone’s history.
The magazine highlights the superb preservation work currently underway in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico and showcases the Latino preservation movement in the United States. The message communicated through the use of the word Preservación, however, was ambiguous and did not reflect the positive outlook that the story transmitted. When speaking of preservation in a Latin American context, the word that immediately invokes the ideas of the American preservation movement is conservación. The Puerto Rico State Historic Preservation Office translated into Spanish would read “Oficina Estatal de Conservación Histórica (OECH).” The choice of words as a native Spanish speaker do not convey a desire to be more inclusive in preservation, but instead it assumed that those who speak Spanish and English will understand the message behind it. The word Conservación would have taught readers a profound lesson in language and culture, a message that could have broken language barriers.
Cultural diversity is proving to be preservation’s greatest challenge. The preservation field must acknowledge that within the Spanish-speaking community there are a countless of differences in language and cultures.
Historically, preservation has done an outstanding job of preserving those places that matter to people with economic power. Its successes have been driven by those who possess a higher education and are politically savvy, calling attention to a particular resource and garnering the support from the community to save historically significant places from demolition. Unfortunately, not everyone is this privileged. The successes of preservation have also exposed its failures, in that marginalized people who live in the periphery of major urban centers or in cities where industry once employed hundreds of immigrants have now become dilapidated battlegrounds for preservationists.
Have we preservationists done enough in asking what is it that really matters to these communities? Have we inquired about their identity and listened carefully as to what the answers may be? I believe that the first step in working with marginalized communities in this country is to create an enriching dialogue in which questions of cultural identity are explored. My hope is that the responses will facilitate in breaking the boundaries and closing the preservation gap that has many communities in a state of deterioration.
In Boston, small non-profit organizations like Discover Roxbury and others are working diligently to break the boundaries, and in the process empowering community members and visitors to take pride in their neighborhood. Having lived in and explored culturally diverse neighborhoods in Boston including Roxbury, I witnessed on a daily basis the challenges that the preservation community faces. Investing in education and engaging in dialogues involving identity and history is key to halting the further decay of urban neighborhoods.
After a college semester studying abroad in Valparaiso, Chile, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I journeyed along with my sister to the Dominican Republic in search of the beauty and history I left behind as a child. Wandering among the stately colonial churches and palaces of Old Santo Domingo, I realized why many of us Latinos living in the United States feel emotionally disconnected with the architecture and surroundings. I sensed the pride and ownership people have in the history that is associated with these architectural treasures. We, as preservationists, must work towards emotionally reconnecting the Latino Community with the architectural resources that surround them, which also reflect their history in the United States.
Who am I? The question still remains a difficult one, but I am a Dominican who was born in the Dominican Republic, raised in Boston with American citizenship. I also consider myself an American, not because of my citizenship, but because I was partially raised here and have developed a love for this country and its architectural history. Who am I in the Dominican Republic? I am a Banilejo (from the province of Bani), but also a Boca Canastero, from the town of Boca Canasta. I identify myself as Latino when referring to the political power that we as a community possess in this country. A power that is gradually being acknowledged by society and those working in historic preservation.
To join in the discussion, visit the Latino Heritage Month Landing Page of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.