Thursday, August 13

Notable New Yorkers: Mario César Romero

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Mario César Romero, (1942–2020), who recently passed away from COVID-19, was a great friend to The Museum of the City of New York. Kathy Benson Haskins, former Museum staff member (now retired) and founding board member of East Harlem Preservation, wrote this heartfelt tribute that highlights his connections to the art and history of East Harlem.

I met Mario when he joined the East Harlem Historical Organization, which East Harlem’s Union Settlement Association started in connection with its 100th anniversary in 1995. He was a proud Puerto Rican—actually, a Nuyorican, having been born on Manhattan’s West Side on January 6—Three Kings Day—and had lived for many years in El Barrio/East Harlem, the mythical cradle of the Puerto Rican community in the continental United States. He knew a great deal about East Harlem history as well as its artists and had worked in various capacities with several cultural institutions in the neighborhood, including El Museo del Barrio and Taller Boricua (Puerto Rican Workshop). I was interested in all things East Harlem, so we immediately had much in common. Our paths would cross frequently after that. But how we got to be close friends I really don’t remember.

For a time in the mid-2000s we both belonged to the East Harlem Board of Tourism. In 2006, I recommended him to then Manhattan Borough Historian Celedonia “Cal” Jones as one of two East Harlem Community Historians. Mario was so proud to be inaugurated by Borough President Scott Stringer in June 2006.

That same year and month, I had arranged for him to conduct a walking tour for the Museum of the City of New York entitled El Barrio (East Harlem) Art Walk. Stops on the tour ranged from mosaics by Manny Vega to murals by James De La Vega; from MediaNoche Gallery (now closed) to Taller Boricua Gallery; and from the studio of Diogenes Ballester to the apartment building of Alice Neel (who lived and worked in East Harlem from 1938 to 1962). One of the most fascinating stops on the tour was the Disken Building, a yellow painted brick structure built in 1887 with that date visible at the top of its East 106th Street side and a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise at street level on Third Avenue. After climbing a dark, narrow, staircase, tour participants were rewarded with visits to the studios of Puerto Rican artist Julio Valdez and Ghanaian artist Tafa Fiadzigbe as well as to what was then the workshop of Faustino J. Dujovne, a fine art restorer who had worked as a conservator for several arts institutions. Mario knew them all.

Color photograph of the Dicksen Building
Samuel Walters via Flikr. The Disken (1887) East 106th Street, 2015. (c) Samuel Waters

Two thousand six was a big year for Mario. He also served on a committee at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College to organize a symposium on Latino Art. This event brought together leading scholars, curators, collectors, and appraisers throughout the United State and Latin America. An outgrowth of the symposium was an organized trip to Puerto Rico. Mario accompanied the group and helped arrange meetings and tours of museums and galleries there. It was his last visit to Puerto Rico.

After that trip, his health began to fail. He was living on the top floor of a tenement on East 106th Street just off Third Avenue. The only advantage of that location was that the street level was occupied by La Fonda Boricua, a popular Puerto Rican restaurant whose walls were decorated with prints by the Puerto Rican artist Diogenes Ballester.

Mario’s apartment had no air conditioning and was desperately hot in the summertime. Some 50-60 steps separated him from street level. Afflicted with arthritis in his knees, he generally negotiated the steps on his derrière. Of course, there was no intercom. When I visited him, I would let him know in advance and then call to him from the sidewalk. He would open a window and throw the key to the building down to me in the weighted toe of a sock. I don’t know how he came to the attention of the Isaac H. Tuttle Fund, the mission of which is to “provide for the temporal and spiritual welfare of aged persons,” but happily he began to receive a stipend from the fund and was able to acquire an air conditioner.

Mario never cared much about money. There were times in his life when he was practically homeless. On those occasions, he would sell pieces from his extensive art collection to tide him over. But in his last years, he wanted to donate his collection to various museums and dismissed my suggestion that he could use the money to make his life more comfortable.

Though in increasingly poor health, he continued to be active in the arts. In 2009 he curated the inaugural exhibition at the Association of Hispanic Arts gallery on Lexington Avenue and East 107th Street (no longer there). It featured the work of the late East Harlem artist Jorge Soto Sanchez, who was represented in Mario’s collection. Mario was instrumental in securing a grant of $10,000 from the Judith Rothschild Foundation to conserve the works to be displayed.

When Community Works NYC proposed to mount an exhibition of the work of East Harlem artists at the Dwyer Cultural Center in Harlem, I recommended Mario as curator. Not only did he organize the exhibition Spirit of Community: Artists of East Harlem, which opened in February 2012, but also he formally appraised the works on view for insurance purposes.

Yes, he was also an appraiser. I have in my files a resume that he dictated to me to type, probably for the purpose of establishing his credentials for appraising the Artists of East Harlem works. In it he explained, “I was educated at the Universidad de Puerto Rico and Fordham University, where I majored in Art History. Furthermore, I have taken graduate courses in Art History at Yale and Columbia Universities.

“In my final years as an undergraduate, I enrolled in the Appraisal Studies Program of the Adult Education Department of Yeshiva University (Stern College), which was founded by Harold Jaffe, my mentor. In this program, given my very strong background in Art History, I was asked to join the faculty and to teach three courses . . . This program was transferred to the New York University School of Continuing Education, where I taught for one year and organized a symposium on New Trends in Collecting: Latin American Art.”

I learned from that resume that In the 1970s and 80s he had worked at the Cayman Gallery on West Broadway in SoHo. The gallery specialized in mid-career Latin American artists. Also that during the 1970s he was an adviser to the Museo Latino-Americano, a virtual/conceptual museum whose staff worked closely with galleries such as Galerías Bonino (New York, Paris, Milan, and Buenos Aires) and the Center for Inter-American Relations, now the Americas Society.

Occasionally he would speak of the time he headed a National Endowment for the Arts program in Connecticut—Bridgeport, I think. He also mentioned having been a dancer and heading a dance company, but I don’t believe he ever mentioned its name. After his death, I saw a wonderful photograph of him performing. His longtime friend, Susana Toruella Leval, director emeritus of El Museo del Barrio, who met him when they were both in graduate school, recalls, “He danced like an angel.” I wish I had known him then.

Black and white photo of Mario César Romero dancing
Mario César Romero dancing at an unidentified performance.
Image credit: Mario César Romero Papers, 1970s-2000s. Center for Puerto Rican Studies Library & Archives, Hunter College, CUNY

By the time he was in his late 60s, Mario had diabetes, heart trouble, and all sorts of other ailments. Thanks to a wonderful organization called Search and Care, whose mission is to help the elderly in Yorkville, Carnegie Hill, and East Harlem, he was able to move to a senior citizen residence on East 93rd Street. Although it was located south of his beloved East Harlem, it was clean, had food service, and was equipped with an elevator. He filled his one bedroom apartment with his art and book collection, played WQXR constantly in both his living room and bedroom, and happily received visitors, regaling them with stories and gleaning the latest news. While he was still ambulatory, he returned to El Barrio once a week to do his banking at the Union Settlement credit union and to hold court at East Harlem Café—a warm welcoming place which sadly is no more but where he could happily while away an afternoon and expect to meet up with just about everyone who was anyone in El Barrio.

He attended exhibition openings at Taller Boricua, El Museo del Barrio, the Museum of the City of New York, and other museums and galleries. He rarely missed a concert by Musica de Camara, founded in 1979 by East Harlem resident and longtime friend, soprano Eva de la O to present Puerto Rican, and Hispanic classical music instrumentalists, singers, and composers in concert and in schools. And he was always delighted to accept his friend Karl Michaelis’s invitations to attend the annual competition of the Gerda Lissner Foundation, the mission of which is to provide young singers with the financial support they need to pursue their craft and excel in the world of opera.

After he was confined to a wheelchair, he had to send a trusted home attendant or a friend to the credit union. Volunteers organized by Search and Care came regularly to empty his cat Alejandro’s litter box. He still managed, with help, to attend select openings and concerts. I believe I took him to the last museum exhibition he visited, pushing him around in his wheelchair to view the stunning collographs in NKAME: A Retrospective of Cuban Printmaker Belkis Ayón at El Museo del Barrio in the fall of 2017.

Hospitalized in July 2019 after falling out of bed one too many times as he tried to get to or from his wheelchair unassisted, he was soon transferred to the Upper East Side Rehabilitation and Nursing Facility. He suffered from diabetes-related neuropathy, so physical therapy was excruciatingly painful. His arthritis was also advanced: in the nine months he was there, I never once saw him sit fully upright in his bed. After he was assigned to palliative care, he had to give up his precious cat Alejandro for adoption and to suffer the loss of his apartment in the senior residence. Although he would brighten when a visitor arrived and engage in his usual erudite conversation, he was clearly depressed. But eventually, his old spirit returned. He finally asked for the television in his room to be turned on—and to be tuned to MSNBC. He missed his “friends at WQXR,” so I brought him my little SONY radio. He started telephoning relatives and friends.

And Mario had plans. He was going to get better and leave the rehab center. He knew exactly where he wanted to live: the Lott Senior Residence on Fifth Avenue and 108th Street, just a few blocks from where he used to live above his favorite Puerto Rican restaurant, La Fonda.

Almost to the end, he was engaged with the people around him. Every time new nurses or therapists or attendants entered his room, he asked where they were from and then made some connection or other. My last visit to the rehab center was to drop off a color photograph of our Ghanaian artist friend Tafa. I had attended an exhibition of Tafa’s work a couple of weeks earlier and taken iPhone pictures to show Mario. He loved one photo of Tafa in traditional costume and asked me to make a print of it. There was a new night attendant from Ghana to whom he wanted to show the photograph of his Ghanaian friend. When I arrived with the photograph, I was greeted by signs barring visitors, so I left it at the desk for him. Three weeks later, he began to exhibit all the symptoms of the Corona virus. He had very little strength to fight the disease and died within a few days. Like most other victims of COVID-19, he had neither family or friends with him, but I believe that the staff of the rehab center comforted him as best they could. He had, after all, managed to make a personal connection with each of them.

Courtesy of The Museum of the City of New York.

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