Second City Identity Crisis

Saxophonist, band leader extraordinaire, Miguel Zenón performed as part of the UChicago Presents late last month.

miguel zenon

The performance of Identities are Changeable exhibited excellent craftsmanship accompanied by compelling video content. He focused on the complex identities of Puerto Ricans in New York or also known as Nuyoricans. 

Video interviews played on a projected screen in the background of the performance while the music was being played. Zenón cued the clips from a laptop and led the band. The interviewees in the video were asked a number of questions about how they describe themselves and some of the complicated aspects of being  Nuyorican.

Check out what Urban Dictionary says about Nuyoricans. It’s fascinating!

Consistent in the submitted definitions about Nuyoricans:

  1. Distinct from native Puerto Ricans (Boricuas)
  2. Don’t know Spanish
  3. Act more “Black” than Latino

The Nuyorican identity seems to be defined by not being like other cultures.

“An estimated 1,800,000 Nuyoricans are said to live in New York city, the largest Puerto Rican community outside Puerto Rico.”(read more) This identity is unique, but also represents such a large group of people.

When it comes to Nuyoricans in pop culture, many people think of the classic Sharks in West Side Story. The man of the moment on Broadway, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was born in New York of Puerto Rican parents.

In Zenón’s performance, the videos explored the nuance of different Nuyoricans relationship to the culture. Some knew and used Spanish, others did not. They were unsure of what they wanted to pass on to future generations. Most of the interviewees wanted to spend some time in Puerto Rico, but didn’t know when they would do it. They are both distant from the culture, while also having their own community of transplants in New York.

This NPR video goes in depth about Zenón’s project.

What is the future of jazz performance?

With integrated content and videos, could this be a way to grab different audiences into the jazz world? Or is this just a natural expanse of this particular project?

The music carries some of the content by fusing Latin rhythms and jazz licks. Identities change in the thematic musical material. The rhythms shift and evolve.

I was particularly sad that there were no women in Zenón’s band. It unfortunately came across as the identity of a jazz musician is male. (Please read about these awesome female jazz musicians!) Jazz is a predominantly male field, but when putting together a multidisciplinary work about identity, the represented identities of the performers on stage should be considered. Zenón’s sister and her young son appear in the video content, as well as a couple other female interviewees. But having a more diversely gendered band, would have changed my perception of the project.

Some reviewers thought that the interviews on the album of Identities are Changeable  were distracting from the music. I think that it is different having the interviews playing on a screen in a performance setting because there are visual elements to the sound that make it easier to follow. But is it an integrated performance or music with video content just added on?

Artistically, to what extent do we have to stick to the “identity” of our genre?

I think, it’s art, not chemistry. You’re not going to put to things together and cause a massive, middle school science fair style explosion. Stepping outside the genre can reveal and emphasize certain aspects of the work in the marriage of different genres. But if you find it doesn’t speak a message resonant with your artistic identity, then it might be time to try something else.

It’s all about perspective!

This performance made be think about the dualities  and complexities of art genres and also, of our identities. When thinking of a visual art expression, I first thought of the optical illusion tricks, like the old lady/young lady drawing.

People can be 2+ things at the same time. Multiple identities can coexist and contradict and commingle in a person.


(Above is a picture from a College Humor skit that jokes about the old lady/young lady optical illusion was transferred to a person in real life.)

I thought of transferring this principle to the city.

On the topic of New York, I LOVE this opening sequence to the film of West Side Story. The audience listens to the overture with a abstract form changing colors. Then in a magical reveal, the abstract lines make up the New York skyline.

Gets me every time!!

Thinking about identity, the lines are individual and disparate until the form the represent is revealed. Together they make something that is not immediately clear, but then apparent.

I painted watercolors in the negative space, but oppositely for the two skylines. Both cities have their own unique identities, different paint splatters, different people, but there are a lot of similarities as well. Often Chicago (the second city) is defined comparison to New York and I wanted to play of this duality which resembles the urban definitions of Nuyoricans, always in comparison.


We take pride in our second city, but know that we have our own distinct identity as Chicagoans. I hope we can find more ways to celebrate the diverse people that make up the identity of our city as a whole.



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