Like so many old, industrial cities of the Northeast that have seen better economic times, Holyoke, Massachusetts, is desperate for change. Almost a third of its residents now live below the poverty line, and the more run-down areas of town bear the unmistakable look of decay.
The Holyoke Alleyway Revitalization Project (HARP), curated by University of Massachusetts administrator Carol Soules, is an effort to help that. By reclaiming the exterior walls of vacant properties and treating them as a canvas for local artists, HARP hoped, as stated on its Facebook page, “to bring people together from all wards of the city.”
However, a last minute decision by a Holyoke building owner has succeeded in doing the exact opposite.
David Flores, 31, a Mexican-American artist from Chicago who lives in Holyoke was asked to design a piece for HARP.
His mural depicts a decorative license plate that's common in the Puerto Rican community. It usually says the name of a town on the island, but in Flores' version it reads, "Holyoke." According to Flores the piece was meant to pay homage to the city and its' strong Puerto Rican presence
Beginning in the 1960s, migrants from Puerto Rico began settling in the area – joining the Irish, Jewish, Polish and Italian enclaves already there. They now make up 44.7 percent of Holyoke's 40,000 or so residents, the highest percentage of any town in the country.
Soules decided to put Flores’ mural on one of the walls displaying art at the old Yeorgs Garage. While building owner Mimi Wielgosz initially gave her blessing, Flores says, on the day of installation she pulled the plug on the mural, saying the piece would do more harm than good for the Hispanic community.
“I was literally going up the ladder to start hanging the piece when Carol told me I could no longer do it,” Flores told Fox News Latino. “She said that the [Ivory Billiards] owners across the street did not want it up.”
The artist said he was never given a reason why he had to take it down.
“Mimi told me that I could not have my mural on any of the walls," said Flores. "They never went over to speak to Ivory Billiards."
Carol Soules, Mimi Wielgosz and the owners or management of Ivory Billiards did not respond to requests for comment.
In a statement on HARP’s Facebook page, Wielgosz maintained that she did not know what the mural was going to look like before she agreed to the installation. “I did not see the mural until it was completed.... in my opinion, it is time to end the we vs. them. I believed that this piece would offend non-Hispanics because it was inclusive to one fraction of this city.”
Flores disputes that statement. “I met Mimi about three days before the installation, in front of my mural as I was finishing it," he said. "She kept telling me how awesome it was.”
The argument escalated over social media with HARP's Facebook page being the principal stage for the controversy, with angry comments both pro- and anti- Flores' mural. As a result, a planned October 4 party celebrating HARP's achievements – three installations to date – has been cancelled. Ironically, the event was listed as one celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month on the city's official website.
The exclusion of Flores' mural is especially upsetting to members of Holyoke who note that there are numerous symbols of other ethnic groups displayed around the city.
"Why is it a big deal for Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, to have visual representation of their ethnicity," Flores asked, "yet all over downtown Holyoke – where basically all of the Puerto Ricans live – the pavement is covered in shamrocks?"
During St. Patrick’s Day, the city of Holyoke paints green shamrocks on the streets, and they remain visible year-round.
“My Puerto Rican diaspora-themed piece was commissioned and then excluded from being displayed as part of a public art initiative specifically because of its affirmation of Puerto Rican identity," Flores maintains. "It is striking that affirmations of Puerto Rican identity would be censored in the U.S. community with the highest percentage of Puerto Ricans.”
HARP is partially funded by a grant from the Holyoke Local Cultural Council and the grant's guidelines explicitly prohibit discriminatory practices. Flores is now consulting with representatives of the Holyoke Organizing Latino Action advocacy group on whether or not to pursue a claim of discrimination.
Erica Y. Lopez is a writer based in New York City. She can be reached at email@example.com, or follow her on Twitter: @LaloSays