Wednesday, May 19, 2010

A Lifetime of Shooting the Bronx

A Lifetime of Shooting the Bronx
Author Michael Crichton writes in his book, Timeline, that, “Professor Johnston often said that if you didn’t know history, you didn’t know anything. You were a leaf that didn’t know it was part of a tree.”

Much to the credibility of that passage, it’s as if our own Latino history has been shamefully and unapologetically stripped from us in the curriculum of the American classroom, in order to keep us from realizing that we’re often the progeny of prominence.

We’re instead force-fed education about the most powerful families in America from the Kennedys and Vanderbilt’s, to the Du Ponts’ and Rockefellers’. But the half-truths always seem to omit any traces of greatness in the lineages of our own Latino and African ancestry.

The truly o
stentatious tales about our own descendants only survive through the spoken word and often times are lost over time, without ever having the opportunity to be documented properly for future generations to read about.

I had the pleasure of hearing one of these great tales from Lorraine Montenegro, the mother of famed Hip Hop photographer and author Joe Conzo Jr. (Born in the Bronx) about their families history of not only being survivors but saviors.

It was the story of Lucas Lopez, a Sephardic Jew and slave to the Spaniards who voyaged to Puerto Rico with the promise of freedom. Yet in keeping with the theme of broken promises the Sephardic Jews of Puerto Rico were never granted freedom and were forced to eventually shield their identities to avoid persecution by the conquistadors.

And while the life of Lucas isn’t literarily documented, the legend of his courageous act of saving a runaway slave named Mama Mangala from certain death at the hands of drowning is a tale that’s been passed down for generations.

It’s a tale which embodies the legacy of the great family lineage and compliments the later heritage of Dr. Evelina Lopez-Antonetty, Conzo’s grandmother, known as the, “Hell lady of the Bronx,” for her tireless efforts in serving the underserved communities of the South Bronx in the midst of the worst times the boroughs ever seen. A time when the Bronx wasn’t burning… it was burnt… a time when Bronx residents had been abandoned and left to find their own means of survival.

Lopez-Antonetty became a legendary activist eventually founding United Bronx Parents, Inc., an agency which continues to serve the South Bronx under the direction of Conzo’s mother; Lorraine Montenegro... a continued history of survival and saviors.

And while Conzo’s family was saving the South Bronx from itself, Joe was walking around with a camera visually documenting a new movement
being birthed out of the ash… a nameless movement created by the youth looking for an outlet for their anger and aggression.

A movement which saw storytellers such as Grandmaster Caz and Melle Mel reciting rhymes in the spoken word just as past ancestors had done… reciting stories of pain, hopelessness, drugs and despair.

It was a movement that helped Afrika Bambaatta of the Black Spades street gang, gain knowledge of self eve
ntually spawning the legendary Zulu Nation which generated the principles of peace, unity, love and having fun.

A movement which witnessed DJ Kool Herc host the first official Hip Hop jam at 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in the Bronx…

It was Hip Hop… a now billion dollar industry that very rarely, if ever, looks back to pay homage to its own impressive history. And one which owes a great debt of gratitude not only to the aforementioned pioneers, but to those such as Joe Conzo, Ernie Paniccioli and Jamel Shabazz who were insightful enough to visually document the movement. One which would’ve had a difficult time capturing the essence of itself without those visual works of art that their photography now affords the history books.

When I met with Conzo recently I asked him how he felt to finally be honored by clothing company Sedgwick & Cedar with a t-shirt line paying homage to his decades of photography.

Of course I was looking for a reply in the vein of, “It’s about time…” But instead Joe spoke softly and stated, “You know me, I’m humble… I’m just a kid from the South Bronx whose been fortunate enough to travel all over the world with my work. I’ve been able to visit Korea, Amsterdam and I’ll be going to Germany in September where they’re releasing my book (Born in the Bronx) in German. I’m honored and humbled at the same time...”

He went on to tell me that’s he’s proud of the company for doing things right. And in light of recent events with the Hip Hop museum slighting the pioneers, Joe is happy that Sedgwick & Cedar has enough foresight and respect for the pioneers of the culture to bring them in as business partners on their clothing line.

Hip Hop scholar and visual artist Koe Rodriguez was instrumental in brokering the deal with Sedgwick & Cedar to not only bring Conzo’s work to life on clothing, but also the work of Shabazz and Paniccioli ensuring that Hip Hop heads across the globe will be rocking the realest visual documentations of what it was really like to be a part of the earliest days of Hip Hop.

Just three days ago, Joe Conzo Jr. and his father, Joe Conzo Sr., a Latin music historian and one time confidant of Tito Puente were honored with the creation of a scholarship named after the father son duo at the Rafael Hernandez Middle School in the South Bronx, assuring that no matter where Joe goes in the world, he’ll always be tied to h
is roots back home.

The New York Times called Conzo Jr., “The Man Who Took Hip Hop’s Baby Pictures,” I’m just honored to call the man a good friend.

He’s certainly carrying a heavy family legacy on his shoulders. And in keeping with the tradition of his bloodline and his ancestor Lucas saving that runaway slave, Joe Conzo Jr. has proven to be the savior of what could’ve been a long forgotten about history of Latinos and African Americans running from the slavery of circumstance… and freeing themselves through creative expression.

We should all be grateful to the ancestors that Conzo was there to capture it all with his camera while shooting the Bronx.

Ivan Sanchez is the author of Next Stop: Growing up Wild-Style in the Bronx (Touchstone – Simon & Schuster, 2008). The book is the first memoir released by a major publishing house written by a Puerto Rican from the Bronx. Sanchez is also the co-author of It’s Just Begun: The Epic Journey of DJ Disco Wiz, Hip Hop’s First Latino DJ (powerHouse, 2009). He was awarded the National Novel honors for his first fiction offering and is currently working on several new books about NY Latinos. He is also the co-host of Rebel Radio on Urban Latino Radio.

Photos Courtesy of Francisco Reyes @


  1. loved the blog... now i want to go out and buy his book..

  2. It's like a living history. I just added the book to my list.

  3. I have been fortunate to meet Joe and Ernie and they both have shown me nothing but love and respect and where other photographers would ask me to get out of the frame or shoo me away they have always been respectful and always take my picture and then send it to me personally! The caliber of men that they are are hard to find and if it were not for them,how could we see our past,our story unfold? We'd be lost without images to attach to words,to memories,people long gone forever honored and caprtured for the enjoyment of generations to come!
    There are so many people who worked and struggled with Hip hop from it's infancy and it is great to honor them and recognize their efforts and also like my man Senor Berrios says their books!

    Thank you Ivan for always doing the right thing by your people.One day I hope to meet Senor Shabazz

    peace,love and mucho respeto\
    Lynx Garcia

    Love this blog