Armed With A Simple Camera, Bolivar Arellano Captured The Grit And Glory Of Latinos In 1970s New York City

Forty years ago, New York was a city on the brink.

The global capital of finance was struggling on the verge of bankruptcy. Crime was rampant with Times Square playing host to pimps and prostitutes and nighttime Central Park the scene of muggings and rapes. Junkies and shell-shocked Vietnam vets helped the heroin trade flourish and put drug kingpins like Nicky Barnes on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. A wounded NYPD struggled to recover in the wake of a widespread corruption scandal and massive layoffs.

Amid the degradation and decay, however, there were signs of new life. In 1973, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were completed, Reggie Jackson and the Yankees brought home two World Series trophies, Lower East Side bands the Ramones and Talking Heads gave birth to the punk and new wave movements. Further north in the South Bronx, B-Boys, graffiti artists and DJs helped shape what would become hip hop.

And in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods like Spanish Harlem, Loisaida and Washington Heights, the city’s Latino community was helping shape the social, political, and cultural climate that endures in the city to this day.

Armed with a 35mm camera, photographer Bolívar Arellano was there to capture the tragedy and triumph of New York’s Latino community during that turbulent decade.

“His work really takes you to the streets, the good, the bad and the ugly,”  Frances Negrón-Muntaner, the director of Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race, told Fox News Latino. “Most photos of Latinos viewed them at arm’s length. But with Bolivar’s work and the topics he chose to focus on, it put you there and told a certain kind of story.”

Arellano’s enduring photos are the subject of an exhibit at the center, entitled "The Raging 70s: Latino New York." Running through May of 2014, the exhibit expressly focuses on Arellano’s work during that decade – one that had an enormous influence both on the photographer and the city he saw through his lens.

“New York was like its own country, it was like the United Nations with all the different cultures,” Arellano said, adding his version of the famed maxim. “I figured if I don’t anything here, I can’t do anything anywhere.”

Arellano's photos depict the icons of this movement as both epic and accessible; his work shows us the energy, grit, optimism and poignancy of a pivotal chapter in the evolution of Nuyorican identity.

— Daniel Gallant, the current executive director of the Nuyorican Poets Café

Born in Ecuador, Arellano arrived in New York City on May 12, 1971, after fleeing the Andean nation in the wake of a military assassination of a friend whose crucified body washed ashore on the country’s Pacific coast. Upon arriving in the U.S., he found a gig accompanying staff photographers for the Associated Press, where he learned English and the ropes of how to cover the news in New York City.

The experience working for the wire service paid off when the Spanish-language newspaper El Diario hired him as a freelancer and Arellano realized that the paper’s chief of photography didn’t have a police scanner.

“I bought myself a police scanner and found out about stories before they did,” he said. “New York at that time was a calamity…I was on the scene of protests, fires, murders before any reporters got there.”

Arellano’s initiative, willingness to go beyond the police the tape for a photo and ability to infiltrate communities like very few other photographers at that time would help plant the seed for many of his iconic images.

In the 1970s – after decades of marginalization and racism – New York’s Puerto Rican community emerged as a cultural, social and political force, and Arellano was one of the first photographers to take notice. Ingratiating himself into the community, Arellano shot photos of political rallies, the birth of Latin jazz and Nuyorican poetry movements and the emergence of the Nuyorican Poets Café and its co-founder Miguel Piñero as a force in the city’s arts scene.

“Arellano's work captures a period in New York City history when Puerto Rican activism and artistry coalesced into a cultural movement that impacted the political sphere and the popular imagination,” Daniel Gallant, the current executive director of the Nuyorican Poets Café, told Fox News Latino via email. “Arellano's photos depict the icons of this movement as both epic and accessible; his work shows us the energy, grit, optimism and poignancy of a pivotal chapter in the evolution of Nuyorican identity.”

One of the photos at the exhibit shows a candid shot of a smiling Piñero riding the number 3 train of the New York City subway, his arm draped over fellow poet Sandra María Esteves as other passengers look on in a mix of bemusement and confusion.

“You feel like you’re in a New York subway in the 1970s; the big lapels, the graffiti-covered subway cars,” Negró-Muntaner said. “It also shows a side of Piñero that people don’t normally associate with him. He’s always viewed as a very dark character, but that was not the case and this photo shows that.”

While Piñero and poet Miguel Algarín were shaping a bohemian community in lower Manhattan, political activist groups like the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, ASPIRA and the Black Panther-modeled Young Lords pushed for neighborhood empowerment, Puerto Rican unifications and drew thousands of people to marches and takeovers.

“They were fighting for not only their community, but the whole Latino community in the city,” Arellano said.

While Arellano’s career trajectory continued to rise – becoming a staff photographer for the New York Post and being one of the first photographers on the scene following the 9/11 terrorist attacks – he is still humbled by what he saw during the 1970s.

“I’m happy to say that I was part of the beginning of the empowerment of the Latino community,” he said.

His work as a photographer has influenced a generation of aspiring Latino shutterbugs, including, most importantly, members of his own family. His brother, Humberto, still works as a photographer and his son, Juan, is a photo editor at the New York Post.

Now retired and with a collection of thousands of negatives to sift through, Arellano seems shocked by the attention that someone like him from such humble beginnings is receiving.

“Can you imagine,” he said. “A poor guy who comes from a small town in my country and didn’t even finish elementary school and now my work is in Columbia University.”