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Chicago Tribune

Puerto Rican Arts Faces Stable Future

By Lucinda Hahn, Tribune staff reporter

22 November 2004
Copyright © 2004 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved. 

"I like to portray [Puerto Rico] with my heart," said artist Luis Gonzalez, standing before his vibrant, abstract paintings of the island's lush landscapes. Here was the blue-green El Yungue, the rain forest; there was the phosphorescent bay, La Parguera ... all evoking the essence of Puerto Rico -- a home away still calling to so many who came to see his work on Wednesday night at the Chicago Historical Society.

The reception turned out 150 movers and shakers from the city's Puerto Rican community, raising $11,700. The money goes straight to the new Institute of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, scheduled to open in 2006 in the historic Humboldt Park Stables.

It's a project very much alive: The state has donated $3.2 million to help restore the Queen Anne-style stable building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and where a certain former Park District employee named Jens Jensen (the great landscape architect) once had an office.

"I think it's one of the most significant things that has happened in the Puerto Rican community," said Norma Reyes, the city's commissioner of consumer services, whose mother came to the States in the 1950s.

Reyes stood entranced by one painting, of green palm leaves shooting forth against a blazing-red sky. "I grew up hearing my mother tell these stories about the palm trees, about climbing them to get coconuts and bananas, about going to the creek and washing clothes on the stones," Reyes said. "The island seemed so magical, this place she really longed for and missed. For me, these paintings bring alive a lot of her stories."

Gonzalez, 52, works from his home studio in Guaynabo, a suburb of San Juan. His impressionistic oil paintings are popular in private collections of North American corporations such as Johnson & Johnson and PriceWaterhouseCoopers; his work also adorns the walls of Rockefeller Center.

Among those strolling through the exhibition at the Historical Society - "Atmosfera de la Flora: Landscapes of Puerto Rico" on display until Jan. 9 - were: Ald. Billy Ocasio (26th), representing the Humboldt Park area; Paul Roldan, president of Hispanic Housing Development Corp., and his wife, Ida, an Oak Park-based psychotherapist; Maribel Hopgood Bracho, former director of community affairs for Gov. Rod Blagojevich and anchor of Telemundo; and Lourdes Lugo, director of Dr. Pedro Albizu Campos High School in Humboldt Park.

"So often, all you hear in the news about Humboldt Park" - the heart of the city's 150,000-strong Puerto Rican community - "is dropout rates and criminal activity," Lugo said. "The museum [will give] the youth the vision, the possibility of seeing what Puerto Ricans can accomplish against the traditional biases we have learned to believe."

Other partiers, who sipped wine and bought raffle tickets for a Gonzalez painting (won by University of Illinois at Chicago biology professor Aixa Alfonso): Nilda Flores, president of the museum's board of directors; and Roberto Herencia, North American president of Banco Popular, which has donated $150,000 to the effort.

Gonzalez, silver-haired and smiling broadly, delighted admirers with chat about his other passion. "Every day I play the drums for an hour - it's a great stress reliever," he said. "I love Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin."

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