Inside Rita Indiana’s New York Era

rita-indiana-RS-1800 - Credit: Christopher Gregory
rita-indiana-RS-1800 - Credit: Christopher Gregory

Last month, at the Clemente Soto Vélez Center in New York’s Lower East Side, Rita Indiana experienced a night of firsts. The Dominican novelist and artist stepped on stage to debut her latest project, Tu Nombre Verdadero, a performance and a collection of songs that she worked on alongside her wife, the Puerto Rican director and filmmaker Noelia Quintero Herencia. The piece comes after they’ve spent 14 years working together professionally, and it was also the first body of work Indiana premiered live. Days later, she shared that it was a thrilling moment for her: “It made me recover a kind of joy I hadn’t felt in a long time.”

That joy might seem strange, given that Tu Nombre Verdadero is a dark, sometimes gory tale of death and loss that deals with people’s legacies and identities after they’re gone. But Indiana has confronted death in her past work, and she says both she and Quintero were on their own journey of personal grief over the past few years, following the death of their close friend, the painter Jorge Pineda Pérez, one of the Dominican Republic’s most prominent artists, who Indiana describes as “a mentor to most contemporary artists in the country.” “He was a collaborator in spirit for this piece,” Indiana says. “We experienced his process of death over his last few years and witnessing him work while being sick — he never stopped working.”

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Indiana and Quintero shared Tu Nombre Verdadero with Pineda through different stages, opening an opportunity for him to listen and give his opinion. In many ways, Tu Nombre Verdadero is a celebration of Pineda’s life, legacy, and what it means to the Dominican Republic now that he’s passed. “Understanding and living through that experience was very important for the piece,” Indiana says.

It was perhaps the spirits among us that made the performance of Tu Nombre Verdadero — a two-night run that started on April 14 as part of the Clemente Soto Vélez Center’s 30th anniversary — a cathartic episode. A prolific novelist and singer, Tu Nombre Verdadero is a marker of the type of work Indiana has been focusing on since moving to New York from Puerto Rico in 2021 and deciding to concentrate on the stage over recordings or texts.

“It was a spiritual communion,” says Libertad Guerra, the executive director at the Clemente Soto Vélez. “There was a connection with the audience, and whatever she [Indiana] did on stage, people responded.”

Guerra worked closely with Indiana and Quintero on the performance, which was first commissioned by the Americas Society in 2021 and brought to life during a micro-residency program at the Clemente Soto Vélez earlier this year. “We wanted to make something that was musical, theatrical, and meant to be presented live,” says Indiana. “We really liked the space [the Clemente Soto Velez Center] because it’s been a door for many immigrants, a sacred land of the Loisaida community, where so many artists we admire have presented their work. It was the ideal place to present this.”

Indiana’s arrival at the Clemente Soto Vélez continues a long line of artistic and political work that’s held the center as a touchstone of the Latine community in New York City. Founded in 1993 and named after the Puerto Rican author and activist, who died that same year, the Clemente Soto Vélez has welcomed multi-disciplinary creatives like the musician Esperanza Spalding, textile and costume designer Daniela Fabrizi, and the embroidery artist Lulu Varona throughout a series of micro-residencies of a maximum of three months. “This is the last cultural institution that focuses on Latino communities, located in ground zero of the gentrification phenomenon in New York City from the ‘90s,” says Guerra. “It’s experimental, it has heritage, it deals with activism; we have a hybrid approach toward art.”

“Hybrid” is a term that also describes Indiana’s music, which cruises seamlessly between classic Caribbean genres, like merengue and plena, and spins them into futurist tales of diasporic longing and end-of-times survival. Back in 2010, she released El Juidero, a 12-track project alongside her band Los Misterios, gaining recognition in her homeland under her alter ego “La Montra.” She returned a decade later, amid the coronavirus pandemic, with Mandinga Times, an apocalyptic Latin Grammy-nominated album produced by Calle 13’s Eduardo Cabra. Even her novels, which she continued releasing during a 10-year musical hiatus, offer an experimental, forward-looking take on the perils of human existence that make them hard to categorize.

But Tu Nombre Veradero, which includes arrangements by Luis Amed Irizarry, Indiana wanted to stay as classic as possible. “It’s the first time I don’t have that much fusion,” she admits. “What you find is a lot of pure genres.” There are some interesting propositions, though: “Palo e’ Guao,” a Tim Burton-like merengue, gives the lively genre a grisly twist, or “Museíto,” which transforms a classic romantic copla into an anti-colonial anthem.

Anti-colonialism has been a theme on Indiana’s previous albums, especially on Mandinga Times. Songs like “The Heist,” a modern plena featuring Puerto Rican artist Mima, tells the story of a $7 million robbery of a Wells Fargo in Connecticut by Los Macheteros, a Puerto Rican pro-independence militant organization, Although she moved to New York City’s Washington Heights in 2021, she lived on the archipelago for almost 20 years and has always had an interest in Puerto Rico’s anti-colonial movements. “Puerto Rico was my refuge, it’s a magical place of incredible creative production,” she says. “It taught me to never sell out in a very courageous fashion.”

Now, she’s settled in New York’s Washington Heights — one of the largest Dominican neighborhoods in the city — Indiana has also broken new ground in academia, working as the acting director of New York University’s Creative Writing in Spanish graduate program, a job she absolutely loves — so much, in fact,  that, last year, when she was nominated for a Latin Grammy, Indiana chose to stay in New York to teach class instead of attending the award ceremony: “I had just started and was enjoying myself too much,” she says.

Her New York era is pushing her outside her comfort zone — on the stage and in the classroom: “It’s so beautiful to see the realm of possibilities of who we are and who we can be.”

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