New! Vivid Vintage: Jack Delano's '40s Puerto Rico
Street in San Juan, Puerto Rico by Jack Delano
8"x10" ($24) | 11"x14" ($60) | 16"x20" ($240) | 20"x24" ($600) | 30"x40" ($1,800)
It is a strange thing, growing up in Puerto Rico. You straddle two identities: you are an American citizen, but a Puerto Rican first. And being Puerto Rican is different somehow from the way people are Californian, Philadelphian or even Texan. You grow up rooting for your own beauty queens at the Miss Universe pageants. You believe you would be “Boricua” even if you had been born on the moon (Boricua, modeled after “Borikén,” the name the Taíno Indians gave the island as its first inhabitants). You live in a place where other people vacation. The island they travel miles to see is just your everyday, but there’s history there if you know where to look. Your single-star flag flies high next to the American flag at government buildings, yet your insides only swell when you see your own flag at sporting events, or on your daily commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan, if you’re one of the many Puerto Ricans that have made a home in New York.
Many of Jack Delano’s photographs stir a certain sadness in me. I was born in Puerto Rico in the 1980s, 40 years after Delano shot his acclaimed series. When I first saw his work, his pictures inspired a melancholy feeling deep inside my heart, my soul, the pit of my stomach, unlike anything else had before. His images show an island that I somehow barely knew, with men wearing straw hats cutting cane, and women in perfectly coiffed 1940's styles riding the train. I imagined my grandmother growing up in a place at once so poor and beautiful, changing more and more every day. I think they called it progress.
I'm sure that's why Delano's images have proven indelible. They captured the reality of Puerto Rico in these transition years—when we became a colony, when we became citizens, and the effects of American influence—but he did not forget to imbue them with an emotional reality. They became a picture of humanity. Since Delano truly captured the island in all its glory, visiting (and becoming enamored with) every single town, not all his images evoke feelings of gloom. He loved Puerto Rico so much he lived there from the 1950s until his death in 1997.
Delano’s Street in San Juan, Puerto Rico, taken in Old San Juan in 1941, makes me feel closer to my island than ever. The street in the photograph is bustling with daytime activity, men and women likely walking to or from work, but it makes me think of my nights as a teenager spent running around these very same streets: walking uphill to San Sebastian Street, my heart pumping with excitement at the thought of maybe seeing a crush that night, drinking beer even though we were too young, smoking cigarettes squatting in a doorway, walking downhill at the end of the night, careful not to trip on the cobblestones, laughing way too hard with my girlfriends. These streets have heard so many stories since the days of the Spaniards, have held so many secrets, and now they hold mine too.
With art for everyone,