A Puerto Rican experience: An artist transforms her home in Baltimore into a museum

Published on: November 02, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: November 02, 2022 10:03 AM EDT

Christina Delgado brewed coffee in a large Italian press that is a household staple in Puerto Rico. Music plays in the background as Delgado poured the drink into a mug, her hoop earrings dangling.

She then sat in front of a wall of family photos of her younger self, many taken in New York City, where she was born and raised. Her three-floor rowhome in Belair-Edison was the first house she bought in Baltimore, where she raised her 10-year-old daughter Omotola Dawodu, who Delgado called “Tola” for short.

Delgado is “Nuyorican,” or a New York Puerto Rican, and her first home now pays homage to that cultural experience. She recently opened the Puerto Rican Home Museum, a mixed-media collective exhibit that celebrates Puerto Rican families and culture, in her home.

The museum, also dubbed “Tola’s Room,” started as a one-floor exhibit in Delgado’s basement, which she created as a way to cope with her grief after her father’s death. The concept blossomed to other floors as she was inspired to dig deeper into learning about the Puerto Rican communities in the city.

Among the ideas Delgado wants to further explore is how Puerto Ricans were the largest reported Latino population in Baltimore in the 1960s and 1970s. Where are they now?

A subtle neighborhood change

Some of the earliest records of Puerto Ricans in Baltimore date to the 1960s, counting both first- and second-generation residents. At the time, the U.S. Census tracked people of Latin American descent as either “Puerto Rican” or “Mexican,” adding “Central or South American,” “Cuban” and “Other Spanish” as other race and ethnic categories in the 1970s. Those who were counting the census respondents were also the ones who usually determined someone’s race.

Neighborhoods near the harbor had historically attracted immigrants because of the maritime industry, with many newcomers to Baltimore working on the docks. Maria Francesca Bisin Stein, one of the first people Delgado talked to about the diaspora in Baltimore, said that included many Puerto Ricans she knew. Her story is included in the museum.

Stein’s family had first immigrated from the island to New York City and moved south after her uncle got a job at Sparrows Point as a boilermaker. Stein was born on East Montgomery Street in Baltimore in 1948, and for the first six years of her life, she only heard English on the radio. A daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and a Filipino father, Spanish was her mother’s native language.

While Puerto Ricans were the largest Spanish-speaking group, theirs was still a small, tight-knit community compared to other immigrants.

On Saturdays, Stein went market-hopping with her grandmother, stopping at Lexington and Cross Street markets first, then at Broadway Market for fresh fish. They headed to La Bodega Latina next, owned by a Puerto Rican woman she only knew as Doña Carmen, for ingredients used in Puerto Rican cuisine, like bacalao for a fish dish the family often had on Fridays.

She moved out of the city in 1968 after graduating from high school. Each time she went back to visit her mother and family, she noticed the neighborhood changing. She has memories of a Puerto Rican festival in the city, where she often caught up with her community until it wasn’t held anymore.

“Eventually, you don’t know who’s left anymore,” she said. “You lose connection, right?”

Delgado dreamed while growing up of purchasing a brownstone, a chocolate-colored townhouse with sandstone facades like those in Brooklyn and Manhattan. The rowhomes of Baltimore felt pretty close when she moved to the city in the early 2000s, she said. Back then, she remembers seeing Puerto Rico flags in a festival in Patterson Park, taking her back to memories of home.

She has a love-hate relationship with Baltimore, Delgado said. The city has enabled her to play with her creativity and gave her a community of friends, mentors and artists that have also helped her establish her career.

It has also been the stage for key moments in her life, including her daughter’s birth and her father’s death. Her father had traveled to Baltimore to celebrate his granddaughter’s first birthday in 2013, Delgado said. He died the day before.

Even before creating the museum, Delgado knew she wanted to do some kind of art that would honor her father. She used relics that reminded her of the man who raised her and paid homage to their lineage and Puerto Rican experience to put together one of her first exhibits in her basement in the summer of 2021. She created an experience called “Puerto Rican Passion, where visitors went into the house through the back alley and ate in the casita, a small room in the backyard with twinkle lights and a large Puerto Rican flag.

Much of that exhibit, which was called “Relics of my Father,” is still part of the cultural museum she has since created.

On the second floor, Delgado reimagined her daughter’s room as her father’s office. She kept the painted door, artwork by her daughter that featured black spots and patterns on the white wood. On the floor near a fuzzy carpet sat an unfinished Bacardi White Rum bottle, the last one he drank, and Listerine mouthwash, which her father swore could cure and fix most ills.

Some relics of her father in the room tell a broader story about the Puerto Rican experience, like her father’s military jacket from the time he served. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have served in the military since 1899, when the U.S. created the Battalion of Porto Rican volunteers, according to the Center for Puerto Rican studies. The center ties the draw of Puerto Ricans to military service to various reasons, including the island’s history as a military colony and the perception of the military as a pathway to socioeconomic mobility.

Another room on the second floor is dedicated to community organizing, connecting social movements in Baltimore with Puerto Rican independence activism and history about the Young Lords organization, which advocated for self-determination for Puerto Ricans.

Growing up, Delgado sometimes felt like she wasn’t “Puerto Rican enough” because she didn’t speak Spanish fluently, even if she could largely understand what was spoken. But as she curated her home into a museum, Delgado realized how much she and her father were connected outside of speaking Spanish.

Her “Nuyorican” experience was living with her aunt Evelyn, who hosted parties in her tiny apartment, squeezing a bunch of people in the living room and kitchen, and who taught her how to dance salsa. It was watching her aunt Mirta cook, her hands precise and careful when chopping the ingredients. It was her mother, too, to whom Delgado dedicated a purple wall in the living room.

Delgado wants to learn more about Puerto Ricans in Baltimore, and has been asking what brought them to the city, what they miss from their roots and what community they could foster. One of them was Jonathan Montalvo, who moved to the continental U.S. when he was 16. The 34-year-old moved to the city about two years ago, finding some community here and there. He thinks the cultural museum could change that.

“That could be a good way of connecting all the Puerto Ricans in the area,” Montalvo said.

Delgado wished her parents had talked more about her culture with her. She is intentional on doing that with 10-year-old Tola, who is of Puerto Rican and Nigerian descent.

“To the point where she’s like, ‘I don’t want to hear it,’” Delgado said. “But I know that in time, it will resonate with her differently.”

This story was updated to say Delgado calls her daughter Tola for short.