MoMA Trustee Dominican Republic Gold Mine Activists
On the hot Friday afternoon of June 4, the Astoria neighborhood in Queens, New York City was buzzing with life. Families were in the streets, the local fish market was packed with customers, and young people were sipping frozen drinks in trendy cafes. On a side street there is a small music store called Astoria Music. This is where we met Sandy Placido and Manny Rao, two activists from the Bronx who were preparing for a big event across the East River, the ninth and penultimate “Strike MoMA” action in front of the Museum. of Modern Art in Midtown. Manhattan.
Placido, historian at the City University of New York (CUNY), was to host the event at MoMA. Rao, drummer and community organizer, was to provide the rhythms. But for that, he needed new wands, hence the detour via Astoria.
In recent weeks, a coalition of activists and artists called the International Imagination of Anti-National and Anti-Imperialist Sentiments (IIAAF) has organized weekly protests and online discussions to highlight the damage done. to communities around the world by extractivist and predatory companies that belong to several members of the MoMA Board of Directors. But beyond that, the activists have for mission to shake up the discourse on the financing of museums and to imagine a future – in this case, a future “post-MoMA” – in which these institutions would take more care of their communities. local than their billionaire. donors. Hyperallergic accompanied Placido and Rao for an insider’s look at the grassroots organization behind the Strike MoMA initiative.
This week’s protest shone the spotlight on MoMA administrator Patricia Phelps de Cisneros. Together with her husband, Venezuelan media mogul Gustavo Cisneros, the couple donated more than 230 Latin American works of art at MoMA over the decades. In 2016, they created the Patricia Phelps de Cisneros Research Institute for the Study of Latin American Art at MoMA, which also offers scholarships to academics and artists. But, according to protesters, these generous donations to MoMA and several other museums around the world are marred by some blood.
Gustavo Cisneros sits on the board of directors of Barrel gold, a multinational mining company that operates 15 gold mines around the world. One of the company’s most prolific gold mines is located near the town of Cotuí in the Dominican Republic, about 100 km north of the capital Santo Domingo. The Pueblo Viejo mine, which Barrick began operating in 2013 with Newmont Goldcorp (Barrick owns 60% of the mine), produced 542,000 ounces of gold in 2020, according to the website. Barrick also says the mine has “proven and probable” gold reserves of 6.2 million ounces. To extract these amounts of gold from minerals, the company used toxic chemicals like cyanide and sulfur that would have contaminated the groundwater, air and soil of the region.
In May, more than 80 environmental organizations signed a open letter against Barrick, accusing the company of widespread pollution, displaced communities and human rights violations. “Already, around three in four Dominicans depend on bottled water for their survival,” the letter said. “Risks to water have ripple effects on human health, agriculture, food security, livelihoods, biodiversity and more.” Barrick Gold did not respond to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
For more than a decade, cocoa and plantain farmers in the Dominican Republic have been protesting the environmental destruction Barrick mining has caused to their communities, which has reportedly spread disease and damage livestock and crops. Protests escalated last year when Barrick announced plans to expand the Pueblo Viejo mine to include a new tailings dam in the province of Monte Plata which store toxic mining by-products. According to open letter, the planned expansion runs the risk of polluting twelve rivers from the province, including the Ozama River, which supplies water to Santo Domingo. The protesters were faced with police violence.
For Placido, born to Dominican immigrants, and Rao, who grew up on the island and immigrated to New York at age 15, this struggle is personal. Both are also members of the groups Alliance of Third World Peoples and Dominicans United NYC. “It might be professionally risky for me to be active on this issue,” Placido told Hyperallergic outside of the music store. “But I am studying the matter and am concerned about my people who are asking us in the diaspora to make noise.”
Before the demonstration, Placido write an article on the harmful practices of Barrick in the Dominican Republic. “A woman I met in Cotuí told me that contamination of the air, soil and water from Barrick had increased the levels of lead in her blood so much that her doctor had to use a larger needle. to extract the thickened fluid from his veins. she wrote. “The people at the camp warned us not to dip our feet in the rivers, as many people who did developed rashes and infections, and I was shown photographs of shins and ankles that were bleeding and peeling. “
In Astoria, the two activists were pushing a cart filled with books, flyers, protest banners and a large jug of water. In a cafe next to the music store, Placido took out the jug of water and mixed it with red food coloring. to create “blood water” which will later be used in the manifestation to symbolize “blood shed for profit”.
Before taking an Uber to MoMA, the two activists handed out flyers to pedestrians on 31st Avenue in Astoria, inviting them to join the protest. They also stuck some of the flyers on street light poles. In doing so, they shared that neither of them had ever set foot inside the Manhattan Museum. “Museums always give me the vibe of places for rich whites,” Rao said. “They also hold a lot of items that have been stolen from our lands.”
In the car, Placido read from a 1493 letter that Christopher Columbus wrote to Luis De Sant Angel, announcing his discovery of “Hispaniola”.
“Hispaniola is a wonder,” the activist read, quoting Columbus. “Its hills and mountains, beautiful plains and countryside are rich and fertile for planting and grazing, and for building towns and villages. The seaports here are incredibly beautiful, as are the magnificent rivers, most of which bear gold. […] There are many spices and vast mines of gold and other metals in this island.
Columbus was referring to the same areas that Cisneros’ company now mines for gold. “The farming communities that fight Barrick today are the descendants of the people who fought Columbus 529 years ago,” Placido explained.
When the two organizers and I arrived at MoMA, heavy rain showers erupted, forcing a group of around 35 protesters to take shelter under scaffolding around a building across the street. There, Placido and Rao met an older generation of Dominican immigrants, who fought similar battles for years.
“I grew up drinking water from the Yuna River,” New York City taxi driver Joselin Almanzar told Hyperallergic. “Now if you live in the Dominican Republic you have to buy water. ”
Alternating between Spanish and English, Placido shouted through a megaphone: “Water is a more precious source than gold”; “We weren’t discovered 529 years ago, we were invaded”; And “MoMA should be ashamed of itself. Rao was on drums, playing ancestral Afro-Caribbean music with another protester.
At around 5 p.m., Placido led the protesters to the entrance of the MoMA, where they emptied a box of plantains on the floor. They chanted “Out, Out, Barrick Gold” in Spanish and performed a sacred palo dance in a circle around the scattered fruit. At a climax of the protest, Placido spilled the “blood water” she had prepared earlier on the plantains while repeating, “They wash their hands with the blood of our people.”
MoMA did not respond to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.
As in previous weeks, MoMA security staff closed the museum doors and directed visitors who were already inside to another exit. Daniel Osorio and Marcela Gonzalez, two Colombian tourists who had purchased tickets for the museum online, were among several visitors who were turned away after the museum entrance was closed. The two were confused at first, but after hearing the subject of the protest, they became more understanding. “It’s a lot more exciting than MoMA,” Osorio joked.
But not everyone approved of the protest. A couple who walked out of the adjacent ultra-luxurious museum tower on West 53rd shook their heads as they walked past the protesters. “Seriously?” the woman was seething.
Towards the end of the event, the sky cleared and the weather cleared, and the event turned into an outdoor celebration. Participants danced to upbeat bachata music and munched on Caribbean dishes (fried plantains, potatoes and sausages) which were handed out by the organizers.
“We came here to show MoMA that there is a large Dominican population in New York City that they should be dealing with,” Placido told Hyperallergic at the end of a long day. “They will hear more from us. ”