José A. Alvarado Jr. (b.1989) is a Nuyorican photographer dedicated to documenting class inequality, civic engagement, and contemporary issues in Puerto Rico and New York City. He works primarily in long-form storytelling, using visual imagery as a bridge to help raise awareness of the struggles and hardships impacting individuals and communities immersed in positions where they feel trapped, violated, and unable to escape. Through his devotion to in-depth projects, his goal is to spread awareness, begin discussions between members of the communities affected and their audience, and to discover strategies to navigate these challenging elements in our societies.
In 2018, Alvarado Jr. began a long-form project embedding with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as she navigated her historic run for office. Spanning from her humble beginnings as a waitress and her Primary election victory, to becoming the USA’s youngest woman ever elected into Congress, from her native district of NY-14; A district home to a population of over 75% people of color and that had never elected a person of color to Congress before. In 2019, this story on Representative Ocasio-Cortez was published by Le Monde, M Le magazine du Monde. In 2018, his project documenting the physical damage to areas in his family’s villages in Puerto Rico post-Hurricane Maria, La Isla Del Encanto; Borikén, was published by The New York Times Lens. In 2019 his project, La Isla Del Encanto; Borikén, was included in a variety of exhibitions with For Freedoms’ traveling show, “It Is A Miracle We Are Standing Here” and was selected for Magenta Flash Forward and American Photography 35. Alvarado Jr. is currently based in New York City, USA, and is a frequent contributor to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. His work has appeared in The Intercept, Financial Times, Reuters, The Atlantic, TIME, The New Yorker, Courier International, Redux Pictures, NPR, VICE, Vanity Fair, STERN, CNN, NBC, and CBS. In 2019, he was part of a team of The New York Times photographers for their story “65 block parties, 5 boroughs, 20 photographers: See what they found” that received various awards and nominations in 41st News-Doc Emmy Awards, POY77, and NPPA Best of Photojournalism. He is a member of Diversify Photo and Visura.
Today I Come to Sing to You, and So to Remember You
The long estival rays of sun seeped over my edges on a brisk early morning in June. A mixture of morning dew and dust kicked up from the Harlem line, greeting my occupants as they stretched their tired limbs. The apartment was quiet then. The younger members of the family still hadn’t, to my knowledge, woken from their slumber and the bustling thoroughfare outside this concrete railroad apartment in El Barrio had yet to wake as well. The world around me for this brief moment was as still as the fabric sheets draping over me. An article of cloth with the lone purpose of keeping those who slumbered on me from dirtying my presence. My identity, my calling being a harbor for love and sex. The younger members of the family were likely created in a heat of passion as the trains overflowing with passengers looking for a taste of the “Big City” roared past our brick Harlem buildings, headed to Grand Central Station. The sun was high above the East Harlem skyline now. The sweltering heat made it a chore for my roommates to move about. Doors slammed and the children were now engaged in a full-fledged wrestling match in the living room next to me. Their parents are the same two who rested their tired heads onto me, who had purchased me with the first paycheck two months after moving into this space, who upgraded from the air mattress on the floor, and who owned their own individual set of silverware, cups, and plates.
They have begun to scamper more erratically than a Sunday morning before services. Today was a Tuesday in June, the fourth day of the month. The two children were truly getting into it. I began to hear their mother calling for them to end their play. Their father stayed diligent, rummaging in the cabinets and cupboards. The afternoon proceeded like this until they all fled the apartment in the same hurry as the trains that crossed outside my window. “Where had they left to in such a hurry?”, I began to think as the air conditioning unit from the studio upstairs trickled condensation down my view of Midtown. As abruptly as they had left, they returned. The children were in a spell of cheer as they barged through the door and resumed their wrestling quarrel as though never having ended. Mother vocalized directions for father as he navigated the narrow stairs to us. As the train roared by at seven o’clock on the dot, I caught a glimpse of the object requiring such precarious attention. The white fabric reflected the tungsten overhead as father pushed it through the doorway. A new chapter in their home began – just in time for garbage pickup on the evening of the fourth day in June.
As soon as the new mattress was brought, I was covered, taped, shoved out the door, and placed on the curb in East Harlem. My new roommates were six rodents that frolicked among the curbside garbage that occupied my sides. There I sat until first light when I was picked up by two men not donning the hunter green shirt typically worn by the New York City Department of Sanitation. The pair appeared before me twofold – twin brothers in eccentric attire with steady sights investigating materials to use. I was summoned away from the identity of garbage that I had so easily accepted, back to existence. I was lifted from the sidewalk of frolicking rats and half-eaten dinner to a stage of emotion and celebration. I would become a living breathing vessel. A mechanism to translate the imaginative minds of twin brothers Pablo and Efrain Del Hierro, an avant-garde duo from Puerto Rico that go by Poncili Creacion, a name they’ve defined as “chaotic tranquility”.
Efrain was a man of average height with a stocky build, soft eyes, who rarely spoke and proudly wore a haircut resembling an obscure mullet that he appeared to have given himself. His attire consisted of paint covered pants and jarring homemade t-shirts expressing his discontent with the current President of The United States. Pablo was of similar stature with hair that covered his eyes, and a deep voice. He championed an unkempt beard and the word “cabrón” exited his mouth when he spoke in excitement or discontent. These two emotions appeared regularly during the day as he engaged in a dance among the various materials he would later use to create his creatures. The two have used the arts to express themselves since adolescence. From a young age, they explored puppetry and later dabbled in music. Once, the two went as far as forming a rap group called Que si Que and performing in Santurce, Puerto Rico. Later, noise dance performances dominated the heart of their music phase.
The twins were raised by two artistically inclined parents who moonlighted in experimental dance and whose roof neither hindered nor stunted their children’s artistic growth. As Pablo and Efrain developed their connection to puppetry, the two would spend countless nights parading across venues in San Juan attending weekly collective theaters. This is where Poncili Creacíon would be conceived and in the time which spanned from 2012 to the present day, the brothers toured much of Europe and the United States sharing their creatures. The transient life isn’t an ideal life for many, the twins reveal to those they spoke with about the limits they’ve gone to share their craft around the world. Floors became the common handoff to achieve a sort of economic independence in the society we live in. Their lives had been shaped around their projects as a means to survive. Much of the profit that they’d incur from their performances were used to fund the next performance, and the next, and the next – like a metronome used by musicians to practice. The twins expressed all of this through their tired and traveled eyes as they gazed onto me, pondering their next creation.
Pablo picked me up with such ease. I wondered why I caused father to use such energy to throw me downstairs. It must have been a rush of adrenaline in Pablo enabling him to carry me so many blocks to the twin’s improv studio under the tracks of Park Avenue and East 128th Street. The sulfur escaped the sewers and filled my fabrics as I floated above the pavement amidst the chaos of East Harlem that housed their artist’s oasis which was acquired with the aid of the duo’s recognition in the Latino community. Their presence in New York City was to be performed on the most televised Latino parade of the eastern seaboard, the 62nd Puerto Rican Day Parade. It goes without saying any excuse for dance and debauchery was welcomed with open arms in New York. It could be that the ability to show our individuality amongst the ever gentrifying city was a refreshment to the psyche of their minds as water is to a runner after a race. As I was placed onto the cutting room floor of their studio, Efrain prepared the blade which wields the ability to bring life to objects seen by others of the outside world as junk.
I was to be made into a symbol. A symbol not entirely accepted to many, a symbol of the 524 years of colonialism entrapped in the identity of Borikén. His knife cut into my sides with ease. The chalky floor of the space and a mixture of my material innards filled the air around us. My fabric falling gently onto his face, his focus never faltered and I began to feel a sense of pride. This sense of authority was bestowed onto me, as though I was put in charge of seeking an answer to the violation of human rights that have entrapped the island of Puerto Rico. The nights were long as Pablo and Efrain methodically and uniquely formed myself and the others. We were to be part of their campaign spreading awareness of the crimes committed to an entire people. Every morning as the train roared across our oasis on Park Avenue, rust and fragments of track would fall gently onto me. The pattering vibrated off the shelter that housed the brothers and in time they would wake their tired heads and begin again as though they were in a fever. Other artists and supporters of the cause would make their way to the space from time to time, to help break the tense reality that was their creative process. I looked out from my perch on the side of the trailer as Pablo frantically placed blood-red paint across portions of engravings he had administered onto me just hours ago. Efrain bopped around frantically like a mad man, painting garb lime green while simultaneously carving a foam stockade with letters that read “colonia”. The item was to be donned by whoever felt the passion to volunteer for the performance. Soon Pablo would jump up from his stool in front of me and proceed to bop as Efrain had. The two continued like this for the next several days. I don’t remember them sleeping.
It was a hot morning on the eighth day of the month. The sun hadn’t fully risen above the city and the sweltering heat had stuck everything in its path to the asphalt. The studio flourished with energy. Painted clothing hung all over the space to dry. The last details of animals created from foam similar to my own were all moments from being completed. Other artists that have traveled to become part of the brother’s performance waited anxiously as the twins frantically finished the last of the finishing touches. Efrain sporadically broke free from his creative trance and gathered his “troops” around a makeshift table to go over the performance progression. He gave out the responsibilities and instructed the volunteers on how to act. It was curated as little as the duo’s other performances. Efrain expressed how much planning could be done, but to keep much of the performance to improvisation. The group before him nodded in agreement and dispersed until the following day when the annual parade was to begin on Fifth Avenue in Midtown. I had never even dreamt I’d be in Midtown. It was always just a view out of my window.
The anxiety rushed throughout my fabric at the sheer thought of being paraded up the typically southbound street. The words “Nada Que Celebrar”, why we don’t celebrate, in red paint for all the city to see would beam off of me as we would march forward. I would lead the army of awareness towards El Barrio, in Harlem, but not before we made our statement in front of the parade stage in front of the cameras and revelers.
The morning of this famous parade of red, blue, and white stars was as hot as the day before. The sidewalks filled with pedestrians eager to show their pride and catch a glimpse of a celebrity. Flags in hand and Puerto Rican outfits precisely selected for the day’s festivities lined the avenue in rows. We were met with hostility and later heckling, as we marched our way north on Fifth Avenue. Some were disgusted and shielded their children from the words we displayed, which were not vulgarities but truth. It’s possible the truth in our words were more harmful than the vulgar words spewed from the loudspeakers of the floats that preceded us. A few in the crowd stood by us in solidarity, cheering our march. Some stood in shock and awe, never before having considered the thought that they too were impacted. That as a people Puerto Ricans are impacted from the 524 years of colonialism even if you never stepped foot on the common-wealth. Puerto Rican political activist, Rafael Cancel Miranda once said, “Incluso si naces en el vientre de la bestia, todavía eres Puertorriqueño” – which means even if you are born in the belly of the beast, you are still Puerto Rican.
The reality of the march was one that might have been a great deal for many to swallow. Many lives were lost due to the ineptitudes of the United States government, a system that many Puerto Ricans have given their lives willingly to fight for abroad. As I towered over the body of Pablo Del Hierro looking as far as I could see, I couldn’t help but wonder if the message of awareness the twin’s were hoping to share with their countrymen and women would communicate a feeling of inspiration and pride. A pride that continues beyond that one day of the year in June. The one day in the year when the city allows Boricua’s to indulge in dancing on the street, debauchery on their blocks, and allows children the freedom to play as wild as children do. That this sense of pride grows beyond the ability to wave a flag like lunatics to each other on a block fortified by barriers and patrolled by men with guns. To help identify that these are a proud people who are also victims of continuous inhumane treatment, neglect, and greed. Puerto Ricans are Americans as much as they allow them to be. The land of the free can only be free if all its people have the ability to openly voice what freedom means to them.
A dove flew low above us as Pablo and Efrain led our march on that ninth day in June. It landed on the stone wall lining Central Park across the street from the stage where we were to make our statement. Such an elegant and clean bird. Showing no fear of the drums pounding up the avenue, it was safe to say our culture is as pleasant to its ears as it is to ours. The cameras were broadcasting live to Boricuas abroad as we entered their frame. As we all stood on the velvet carpet on Fifth Avenue, Efrain, his eyes covered in plastic with a can of goya hanging above him out of reach, dropped. At that moment all of the weight shared with me by the brothers, the volunteers, the revelers, the 4,000+ lives lost from Hurricane Maria, and years of suffering due to eugenics forced upon a people that were seen by many as roaches since its annexation in 1898, barreled onto me and forced Pablo to his knees. The other in our progression followed suit, and for a brief moment, the gaze of the camera bored an unimaginable heat through us all. Never had our ears sensed so much silence among so much noise. The dove was still there and so were we.
— Words by the foam mattress on the street
To view more of José Alvarado Jr.’s work please visit their website.