Hola amigos: Classic Schwinn Piece is part of exhibit at new home of Center for Puerto Rican Studies
Classic Schwinn Bike Image
BY ED MORALES
Luciano’s work is part of “Labor,” the first exhibit at the gallery of the new home of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies in the recently inaugurated Hunter College School of Social Work in East Harlem (Third Ave. at 119th St.).
The centerpiece of Luciano’s installation is a painstakingly restored 1971 “Cotton Picker” Schwinn bicycle, as well as a photo of Felícita Méndez, a Puerto Rican migrant and the bike’s imaginary “rider.”
In his research, Luciano found a line of bikes Schwinn made in the 1970s called Krate Bikes – each one was named after an occupation, like the Pea Picker and the Cotton Picker.
“I decided to have the bike tell the story,” said Luciano, 39, whose work has drawn on popular culture to explore symbolic connections between Puerto Rico and its diaspora. “So I started researching Puerto Ricans who picked cotton.”
He found a 1926 issue of the Arizona Labor Journal with the headline, “Further Entry of Porto Ricans Protested.”
“The fact that Arizona was the site of such immigration and labor-related controversy in the 1920s seems all the more relevant today,” said Luciano, referring to the state’s notorious laws against the undocumented. “But as much as it was a story of exploitation, it was also a story of resistance.”
Among those cotton pickers, Luciano encountered Felícita Gómez, whose family was part of a group of Puerto Rican pickers who protested against poor working conditions. By 1927, most Puerto Ricans had left Arizona, and Gómez’s family moved to California, where she met and married Gonzalo Méndez, a Mexican immigrant who was a naturalized American citizen.
The Méndezes prospered, operating a successful cantina, the Arizona Café, in Santa Ana, Calif., the heart of Orange County. But when their children were not allowed to enroll in a segregated white school called Westminster Elementary, the Méndezes used their earnings to hire lawyers to sue the school system.
The case, known as Méndez vs. Westminster, went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1946, where the court found in favor of the Méndezes, predating the famous Brown vs. Board of Education ruling in 1954.
“The case is often framed through the story of Gonzalo, but Felícita’s role isn’t usually prominent,” said Luciano.
For Luciano, the revelation of Puerto Rican involvement in an iconic moment for Mexican-American civil rights echoed in the origins of the bike itself. “I bought it from a Mexican owner,” he said, “who had bought it from a Puerto Rican family.”
The “Labor” exhibition opens Friday, Oct. 21, at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, 2180 Third Ave. at 119th St., from 5 to 8 p.m. Sylvia Méndez will attend a screening of a documentary about the Westminster case followed by a panel discussion on Dec. 7, also at the Center.