After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the official death count was reported as 64 people. But last week, The New England Journal of Medicine published a study with a conservative estimate of 4,645 dead in what was the second most devastating tropical cyclone in U.S. history since 1900.
The new report underscores the government’s failure to help its citizens when they needed it most. The response to Maria dishearteningly echoes a past disaster—how Nixon's White House policies of “benign neglect” leveled the streets of Puerto Rican neighborhoods in New York City, reducing them to rubble and dirt.
At that time, photographer Ricky Flores lived in the Longwood section of the South Bronx, an area infamously known as “Fort Apache” after the 1981 film of that name. A first generation Puerto Rican-American, Flores came of age as his once-thriving community was being systematically decimated by the government, and as Puerto Ricans began organizing to fight for what was rightfully theirs.
Puerto Rican pride is an integral part of New York’s diverse populace. Every year on the second Sunday in June, the community comes together on Fifth Avenue to celebrate with the Puerto Rican Day Parade. In advance of the 60th annual parade on June 10, Flores spoke with VICE about how Puerto Ricans have the power to change the course of history.
VICE: What was life like in New York City when you began making these pictures?
Ricky Flores: New York was turbulent, crazy, chaotic, and wild. When I was a kid, the South Bronx was a vibrant community, but during the late 60s and 70s, it disappeared almost overnight. Buildings were razed, burned down, or abandoned. Landlords were walking away from their property after having someone torch it for insurance fraud. The people who remained were mostly Puerto Rican and Black.
Growing up, I had lots of issues going on at home. My mom was schizophrenic. She and my stepdad had very little control over me. I became the master of my own fate. On the inside, I wonder how I survived at all. I can say that teachers saved me. They threw challenges in front of me and I rose to them.
In 1981, I began to study photography under Mel Rosenthal at Empire State College. I had the camera, which I received with a small inheritance from my father, and I began to shoot my friends, neighbors, family, and my block. Then I realized I needed to start photographing my community to understand what was happening.
What was this stereotypical shit people would talk about Puerto Ricans and foist upon us, as though what was taking place in the South Bronx was our fault? We didn’t own the buildings. We weren’t in charge of the firefighters or the police force. It was the responsibly of those who were in charge, and they watched it burn—and in some cases they had a direct hand in helping to facilitate that by cutting services the community needed to survive and thrive. It was like a perfect storm taking place.
Can you describe the Puerto Rican community during this era and the significance of the Parade?
There were several large enclaves of Puerto Ricans in New York in Williamsburg, Bushwick, the Lower East Side, El Barrio, and the South Bronx. Many were people who had come over from the island during Operation Bootstrap in the 1940s and 50s, who were trying to make a better life for themselves and for us, their children.
We who were born here were immersed in the traditions of a land we had never visited. Most of us were poor or working class, so as kids we never got to see [Puerto Rico.] All we heard was word of mouth from members of the family or people who had just moved into our communities. That continuous infusion of culture refreshed it over and over again.
The Puerto Rican Day Parade was an expression of pride in what it means to be Puerto Rican in the United States, in what we called “the belly of the beast.” We knew what it felt like to watch our communities be destroyed and experience racism, but goddamn it, on this day we are going to celebrate our culture, who we are, and our history as fighters during period of time when we were under attack.
A lot of my photographs are about that exuberance and pride, to be able to show it to people and say, “We are not the guys with the bandanas around our head and the jackknife in our back pocket—the bullshit stereotypes you use to sell your fucking movies. We are far richer and more complete. We have family values, community pride, and cultural identity.”
My family was dysfunctional but those lessons didn’t escape me. I saw it in other people, and I gravitated to that. It fed me and kept me grounded so that I was not just this cat running around on the street. I had a role in the community and a responsibility to the people around me. That was part and parcel of what it meant to be Puerto Rican.
How did this series of work come into being?
I was taking a summer photojournalism workshop with Mel Rosenthal, Will Fowler, and Ken Wittenberg. Ken presented himself as a very upper class guy, and from what I have learned about him, he was anything but that [laughs]. But he played that role, and for a kid from the South Bronx, there was no context. He would be puffing his pipe saying, “It’s impossible to go out and get more than two or three photographs at any one shoot. I don’t think it can be done.”
I took the perspective of, “Alright, I’ll show you!” His challenge caught me at the right time. Many of these photographs are from the same shoot in 1983. I got there in the morning and my first photograph was of the man with the Puerto Rican flag in front of the cops before they were deployed. The rest were made during the parade and in Central Park.
The park was the place where the hottest shit was happening. There would be hundreds, if not thousands, of people circled around men playing music, and everyone was singing, doing callbacks like, “Aqua que va caer”—“The water is about to fall”—meaning a change is coming. It was spontaneous; People just turned up and turned loose.
Can you talk about the energy of the parade that year?
The cops were not as aggressive as they are now. They mostly kept to the periphery, so Bethesda Fountain was ours. While guys were playing congas, others were climbing the fountain and throwing up the flag, which is typical of Puerto Ricans ‘cause we like slapping the flag on everything. We did it on the Statue of Liberty, on the fountain—we will slap it on your mother if she isn’t moving fast enough [laughs]. We don’t care. Somebody is going to wear a flag.
That parade had everything: the timbaus, breakdancing—we had a riot! During the evening, I was taking a picture of my boy Joey. He was standing on the stairs in between huge columns, and then he turned around, looked at me, and yelled, “DUCK!”
I looked straight up and three or four bottles were arcing in my direction. We didn’t know what happened or how it started, but the cops rolled in. One of them drew a gun and started pointing it at people, but it was more to scare people than to shoot them. Most people didn’t run. They were like, “What the fuck are you doing?”
I called it a day and walked out of there with all these images. That’s what I showed Ken the following week and he begrudgingly admitted that I did it [laughs].
Could you speak about the significance of the political power of Puerto Ricans on the mainland, then and now?
Puerto Ricans in New York are the voice of the people on the island. When Hurricane Maria hit, the people who did all the yelling and screaming were here on the mainland. While the people on the island were holding their government accountable, the people here were telling our government, “You have to do something!” That’s why we had an unprecedented response from [New York Governor Andrew] Cuomo, who sent utility workers down to Puerto Rico.
In Florida, they are being open minded about the quasi-welcoming of Puerto Ricans who were flooded out, recognizing the fact that the minute they hit U.S. soil, they can finally vote and everything is fair game. That’s a unique characteristic of what it means to be Puerto Rican in the U.S. We are a wild card. We who live on the mainland have a powerful role to play in what happens to the future of Puerto Rico, particularly the new generation of activists coming up. They are not going to let this shit slide. Things are going to change.
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