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Heroes, Poets And Even A Dog, But No Puerto Ricans


June 1, 2004
Copyright © 2004 THE NEW YORK TIMES. All rights reserved.


Statues abound in Central Park - even Balto, a heroic sled dog has one.
Photo: Librado Romero/The New York Times

From leafy paths twisting through Central Park to the small triangles gracing neighborhood vest-pocket havens, most New Yorkers can find statues that speak to their heritage and history. There are liberators and doughboys aplenty, enough likenesses of Columbus to lead several small armadas and stern-faced statesmen and long-gone writers known only to graduate students.

Some aren't even for humans. Balto the sled dog is enshrined in Central Park for leading a pack that delivered desperately needed medicine to a snowbound Alaskan town. And some honored by statues aren't all that valiant: a confused coyote who wandered into Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx a few years ago is immortalized in bronze. (Never mind the curious case of "Civic Virtue" - a fountain in Queens featuring a man trampling two temptresses - which is best left alone for now.)

Despite this variety, Felix Matos Rodriquez says he hardly notices New York City's statues. It is not that he disdains history - on the contrary, he directs the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. He just wonders why in a city that has attracted generations of Puerto Ricans, there is not a single statue of a Puerto Rican.

When the Puerto Rican Day Parade rolls down Fifth Avenue on June 13, the dancers may be statuesque, but they will not strut past any monuments to their forebears. Not even Roberto Clemente State Park, the 25-acre park in the Bronx named after the Puerto Rican baseball star and humanitarian, has a statue of the Great One.

"In the city's historical narrative, we are invisible," Mr. Matos Rodriguez said. "A statue is a public symbol of what is valued. It's not the same as naming a street in El Barrio or a school in El Bronx, which is how the city deals with its ethnic groups. We need something on a larger scale than that."

He and a group of Puerto Rican civic leaders think they have found the perfect person for that large-scale tribute: Dr. Ramon Emeterio Betances, a physician, abolitionist and patriot who forged a Puerto Rican national identity in the nineteenth century in defiance of the island's Spanish rulers. They want to place a statue in Central Park, a formidable task since no historical sculptures have been erected there since 1959.

Dr. Betances spent most of his life in exile seeking freedom for Spain's colonies and the creation of a confederation of the islands in the Antilles. He spent part of his time in New York City and, though he died in Paris in 1898, he was considered enough of a luminary here that the urn with his ashes was accorded the rare honor of being lain in state at City Hall on its way back to Puerto Rico in 1920.

To the Cuban and Puerto Rican patriots of Dr. Betances' era, New York was full of intrigue and dreamers plotting the overthrow of their colonial overseers. Many lived in Chelsea and worked in pharmacies, stores and cigar factories; they printed newspapers that appealed to noble motives and sought to stir the passions of their countrymen. Some of the greatest of the era passed through New York and set up political parties, like José Martí, the poet and apostle of Cuban liberation who worked with many Puerto Ricans.

"Conspiring was easier in New York," said Felix Ojeda Reyes, a Betances scholar at the University of Puerto Rico. "You could organize expeditions and send them to Cuba. You could get funds. You could get weapons."

Their cause was once a big deal in this city, with debates and declarations at places like Cooper Union. And when the battleship Maine exploded in Havana Harbor in 1898, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer prodded their newspapers to take up the battle cry as the nation plunged into war with Spain.

Dr. Betances never saw the defeat of his colonial foe: he died on Sept. 16, 1898, days before the war against Spain formally ended. Within years, Cuba would be an independent nation while Puerto Rico would become a United States territory.

A huge monument to the Maine stands at the southwest corner of Central Park. A bit down Central Park South there are immense monuments not only to Martí, but also to Simón Bolívar, the liberator of Latin America, and Jose de San Martin, who fought for the independence of Argentina, Chile and Peru.

Those monuments tugged at Angel Collado-Schwarz for years when he lived in New York, working in advertising. Being an idea man, he got one.

"Why isn't a Puerto Rican hero represented among Latin American heroes?" asked Mr. Collado-Schwarz, who sits on the boards of several leading Puerto Rican and Latino cultural and educational organizations and came up with the notion of honoring Dr. Betances. "It's time we rescue Betances and dignify his legacy by incorporating him where he belongs: among the Latin American superheroes."

He enlisted friends to the cause last year, including Dennis Rivera, a labor leader, to begin raising the $250,000 needed to shape and erect the statue and to explore what city regulations needed to be addressed. Mr. Rivera, who still recalls the awe he felt when he saw the majestic statues to the three Latin American heroes on Central Park South after he arrived in New York in 1977, said the project could be linked to a broader educational effort.

"We have not done enough, those of us of Puerto Rican heritage, to explain who we are to New York City," Mr. Rivera said. "It is not incumbent on other nationalities to recognize us. It is incumbent on us to represent ourselves to them."

But perhaps not in Central Park. Adrian Benepe, the city's parks commissioner, said no new historical sculptures have gone up since 1959, making the park perhaps the most difficult venue of all in the city. Despite the hundreds of statues and markers in the park, Mr. Benepe said the park's designers were opposed to adding any more embellishments to nature.

Not that the city is opposed to new sculptures: one of Eleanor Roosevelt was placed in Riverside Park almost eight years ago, while a statue of the Mexican hero Benito Juárez is planned for Bryant Park.

Mr. Benepe said he would welcome hearing from Mr. Rivera and his colleagues."We have 29,000 acres of parkland and important civic spaces not graced with sculptures," he said.

But to many, Central Park remains the city's most prominent public space, even if they are not sure why some statues are there.

Dixie Gordon was enjoying a morning stroll with her grandson Ty and his mother, Gae when they stopped to ponder the Balto statue.

"We wanted to know why Balto was in Central Park," Ms. Gordon said.

Ty said he knew about the dog from an animated film made by Steven Spielberg.

"I think he was born in New York," Ty said. "He went to Alaska to become a sled dog."

Grandma was not buying it.

"We still don't know why Balto's here," she said. "But we know he must have been important to somebody."

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