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Yetzelly Gonzalez-Amador: Revealing a ‘Little World’ within the World

Posted on March 10, 2016 by in The OFI Blog

image3puertoricoWhat comes to your mind when you hear about Puerto Rico? Breathtaking natural beaches, palm trees, toucans… El Yunque National Forest and the renowned castles of San Juan, perhaps? But there is so much more to this archipelago in the Caribbean, with its rich culture and historical heritage.

Yetzelly Gonzalez-Amador, a recent graduate from the University of Puerto Rico, joined the team of the National Museum of American History (NMAH) as an intern to help bring this heritage to life here at the Smithsonian. A Tourism and Culture major, she had previously interned with Puerto Rican National Park Service working at the historic sites of Castillo San Cristóbal and Castillo San Felipe del Morro. Yetzelly believes that it is essential to encourage exploration of Puerto Rican legacy both by domestic and international audience: “We need to learn more about what makes us who we are, as well as to give the global community a chance to see what we have to share.”

Her personal vision resonates with the main objective of the Program in Latino History and Culture at NMAH, which is to raise awareness of the diverse contributions of Latino communities into the world’s treasury of arts and culture. As put by the Program’s Director Magdalena Mieri, we learn to be more tolerant, sensitive and appreciative through the exposure to different world views reflected in traditions, folklore, artisan objects, and other creative endeavors.

5db6157411af34a252fbab44ea346965Puerto Rican cultural heritage includes artistry, music, bright festivals as well as intangible values such as distinct family traditions and unflagging optimism deeply rooted in the society. Puertorriqueñidad is the term coined by Teodoro Vidal, a prominent historian and folklorist, to define the unique identity of his native land. In 1997 he donated his personal collection comprising more than 3,200 objects to the Smithsonian. It is nowadays one of the largest collections of Puerto Rican material culture in the world, which includes musical instruments, santos (wooden, clay or stone figures of saints), historical documents, photographs, paintings, everyday objects and… the famous carnival maskscaretas. These masks, made of papier-mâché or coconut shells, often signify evil spirits and are worn during carnival celebrations. Another gem of the collection is pieces of the traditional Puerto Rican hand-made bobbin lace, called mundillo. In Spanish this word means a ‘little world’, which is an allusion to cylindrical pillows used by lace-makers for weaving designs.

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Yetzelly and the ‘Mascara’ mask from Carnaval Ponceño, an exhibit from the permanent collection at NMAH

Yetzelly Gonzalez has been fortunate to get a first-hand experience in working with this legendary collection. She has been carrying out research in the archives, and has engaged in event programming and educational outreach activities involving the collection. Furthermore, Yetzelly is participating in building potential collaborations for the upcoming 2017 Centennial of the Jones Act, which made Puerto Rico a US territory. As noted by her supervisor Magdalena Mieri, she brought in diversity and fresh vision, but, most importantly, has been discovering her potential, learning about opportunities and expanding horizons. Indeed, the main outcome of the internship, Yetzelly says, was being able to better understand her goals and finally set a clear career path. “Here I was faced with challenges from overcoming the fear of public speaking to adjusting to a new culture, but eventually, under the amazing mentorship and support of Magdalena, I got to the first peak on my climb.”

Puerto Rico is itself a little world within the world, brimming with wonders and hidden beauty, and Yetzelly has been able to reach other people, to help them discover more, and by doing so apparently revealed a world within herself, which, as it turns out, is not so little after all.

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Yetzelly (right) and Magdalena Mieri, Director, Special Initiatives and Director, Program in Latino History and Culture at NMAH