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Tola’s Room: A Puerto Rican Home Museum and Cultural Oasis in Baltimore

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Christina Delgado is a tireless artist, educator, and culture worker who has called Baltimore home for the past 18 years. She is the creator of Tola’s Room, a Puerto Rican home museum and culture space in Northeast Baltimore. The museum draws on a personal cultural perspective, displaying passion and pride for identity in family and homeplace, describing itself as, “Tola’s Room is an Interactive Puerto Rican Culture Museum. A nostalgic Boricua curation from the heart and mind of a Nuyorican. It is a place to engage all of your senses during this interactive and cultural experience.” 

The design of the space entices the senses and invokes feeling through food, music, and interactive art. Delgado aims to pay homage to the Puerto Rican cultural experience and history, hoping to educate, influence, and inspire the local Diasporican narrative, especially those within Baltimore City. The name Tola’s Room is inspired by her daughter, Omotola, meaning “child is wealth, one of worldly wealth.”

BmoreArt interviewed Delgado over email about community organizing, Puerto Rican heritage, and her plans for Tola’s Room.

 

Raquel Castedo: What brought you to Baltimore? 

Christina Delgado: At the time, I was seeking a closer connection to home. I’m originally from New York City. I moved to Richmond, Virginia, for undergrad and migrated to Washington, DC, after graduation. There was something about DC that didn’t feel warm to me, and I think it had a lot to do with being in my early 20s and navigating adulthood.

When I was introduced to Baltimore, many parallels to New York brought me a sense of home and comfort; the markets, music, art and culture, mom and pop businesses, the city neighborhoods. I also loved the calm compared to DC’s traffic and parking struggles. I saw a positive change for my life in Baltimore, and I knew growth was an accessible option for me here. 

What’s your personal/professional background?

I’m a Renaissance woman, though I define my talents as an artist, educator, and culture worker. My educational experience is in psychology, art, and leadership in teaching. I was always a quirky artistic kid, though, during that time, my parents didn’t know how to nurture my creative interests.

I became an artist later in my young adult life. It started when I became a professional makeup artist, which later developed into an interest in photography. As that talent grew, I grew as an educator and art educator. My teaching style has always been community centered. As a special education classroom teacher, I often partnered with community groups and neighborhood spaces to engage my students’ learning, providing experiential connections. 

When I purchased my first home in NE Baltimore, specific challenges in the community and on my block needed to be addressed. I partnered with the local community nonprofit, which helped nurture my role as a community leader. Over time, that connection developed into a profession as a community advocate and organizer.

As an art teacher and organizer, curation and design have always been a part of my practice. Within the past three years, I’ve focused more on curating and designing spaces and community gatherings – culture work. Culture work brought my career full circle. It gave me purpose and confidence that my experiences can empower people to be the change they want to see. 

 

Photo of Christina Delgado by Justin Tsucalas

How does being born in New York City affect your work?

Being from New York City has given me a unique perspective on life, shaped by the city’s diversity and cultural influences. This perspective impacts my approach to my work in Baltimore, where I often raise questions about access, race, class, and streamlining processes. What happened to the Puerto Rican population here? Why aren’t more spaces providing cultural representation of the Diasporican, especially from Puerto Rico? What can be done to create a space that is inviting and embraced by others who want to know more about Puerto Rican culture and history? My mindset is to challenge the city bureaucracy and ensure all communities have equal access to resources and opportunities.

As a Nuyorican – an individual with Puerto Rican heritage who was either born or raised in New York City – I am proud of my Puerto Rican heritage and cultural experience, which has motivated me to envision a platform for the Puerto Rican diaspora in Baltimore. I aim to create a space that invites others to share their stories and learn more about Puerto Rican culture and history. I strive to make a positive impact in Baltimore and highlight the Diasporican communities.

 

Where did you find inspiration to start Tola’s Room? Tell us about how it started and how it has changed over the years.

My experiences inspired Tola’s Room as an artist and educator and community organizer. I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur and have a business using a collective space concept. When I purchased my home in 2006 in Northeast Baltimore, it was everything that I wanted, a large turn-key home with elements of historic charm, and I instantly sensed a vision for the basement and detached garage. 

Fast forward, I lost my dad suddenly in 2013, a day before Tola’s first birthday. As I dealt with his estate and cleared through the things he left behind, it was like opening a time capsule, memories of the past flooding my mind. It was a re-learning of him, my parents, and so much about myself. This experience gave me a renewed sense of self as a woman, a woman of color, and as a Puerto Rican. I wanted to honor my father and express my newfound pride creatively through my photography, so I developed a series entitled, Relics of My Father.  

In 2020, when the pandemic hit, I no longer had barriers of time and a scheduled routine to keep me distracted. I felt the need, as many did, to propel my creative ideas forward. I started to brainstorm with the help and support of my family, using my skill set of designing, organizing, and managing events, people, and spaces. After about five months of planning, I took the plunge and created an appealing design in my home that told my story, honoring my father, my family, and my culture. So on June 12, 2021, an interactive culture museum concept entitled Puerto Rican Passion was launched. It was our first time doing a project in a permanent location. The space paid homage to the Puerto Rican and Nuyorican cultural experience and history, hoping to influence and inspire others to share their cultural stories. The museum drew on personal cultural perspective, lineage, and experience. It was designed to entice the senses and invoke feelings of family and home through food, music, and multiple interactive art experiences.  

Some of the sections, including La Casita de Tolita (Tola’s little house), were designed based on memories I had as a child when walking home from school in New York City. I would see “casitas” on vacant lots or junkyards, always sensing friendship, joy, and celebration from the people. In my research, I later learned that these “casitas” were ways Puerto Ricans held onto their cultural experience of “la isla,” creating spaces that reminded them of home. In La Casita de Tolita, participants gather, laugh, dance, and celebrate. 

Ropa Vieja, which means old clothes, was an interactive experience. Clothes from my childhood were hanging from the clothesline. The background of that story comes from my experience as a kid watching my mom put clothes out on the clothesline. Folks were then invited to write their thoughts around culture on pieces of fabric and put them up on the clothesline. 

The Shrine paid homage to my ancestors. It started with a space designed to celebrate the life of my father, Edwin Delgado. He was a proud man, a proud Puerto Rican, a proud New Yorker, and a proud veteran.

My design encouraged participants to read papers and books, view pictures, touch objects, and play vinyl records, all things that belonged to him. This experience ended in reflection. I prompted the viewer to sit, pray, stare, and to be in thought. I used an altar-like design that included prayer cards dating back to the funeral of my grandfather, Vicente Delgado, and moved in sequential order to other loved ones passing. 

In 2022, we had our first-anniversary event entitled I ♡ PR Passion, a play on “I ♡ NY.” We celebrated the space growing from the first basement floors to the entire home. We remixed some of the spaces; the mindset around that design was a cleaner and more streamlined feel. During the anniversary event, we unveiled the opening of the third floor and the new designs. This particular exhibition was called A Series of Love Letters. The idea was that these smaller spaces were telling a love story or sharing a story of love for the different people and places that helped me become who I am.

One of the things I was most proud of from that experience was Ropa Vieja Remix. From these fabrics that participants wrote on in the previous year, I wanted to do something a little bit more unique with them, but wasn’t sure what at first. As time evolved, I thought of putting these pieces of fabric on the old clothes hanging on the line. From that, I further deepened the story by wanting to have some kind of show or performance piece where people could see these clothes and share my representation of a story of indigenous roots, rich cultural experiences, and how that’s evolved over time: the matriarch, the offerings, the family greetings, the celebrations, the music. I was able to partner with Aszana Bell-Lopez, a Baltimore and New York-based fashion designer. She helped me to curate the patch design, the stitching, and the location of the patches. We took these pieces of fabric and put them on the “ropa vieja” I had collected over the years. Then the performance piece grew from a little bit of acting and performance art into a fashion show. 

 

Photo by Justin Tsucalas

What is your favorite artifact in the museum and why?

That is really hard to answer. The things that come to mind are definitely my father’s vinyls because music was such an important part of who he was. Music is a really important part of who I am. Music was our love language; it was often our way of communicating. It was often the way he would communicate feelings of joy and cultural pride with me.

I remember as a child, he would tap the salsa rhythms on my leg. I realize he was doing that as a way for me to be connected with the sound and rhythms of our culture, he wanted me to have an ear and feeling for the sounds. Other artifacts that I really value are the photographs and documents of my ancestors such as birth certificates, marriage certificates, and death certificates. They help me to feel close to much of my family that is no longer alive, and fill in a lot of the missing gaps connected to my lineage and history.  

What is the BmoreBoricua project?

The BmoreBoricua Project is a series of curated workshops and events to gather the Diasporican narrative of Baltimore through the form of oral stories and artifacts. “Boricua” is a term used to refer to a person from Puerto Rico or of Puerto Rican descent. The term comes from the indigenous Taíno word “Borikén,” which was the original name for the island of Puerto Rico before the arrival of Spanish colonizers. Over time, the term “Boricua” has become a term of pride and cultural identity for people from Puerto Rico and the Puerto Rican diaspora. 

The first Diasporican narrative I shared at Tola’s Room was about my Nuyorican and Puerto Rican experience, living in Baltimore since the early 2000s.

As I began to dig deeper, I learned that Puerto Ricans were one of the larger Latinx populations in Baltimore, as far back as the 1940s. This prompted me to do outreach to those currently here and to local historians and archives to see if I could gather a sense as to why Puerto Ricans don’t seem to have a presence in Baltimore today. It’s been tough finding the historical details, and we are still searching. In tandem with collecting past narratives, I decided to collect the current stories of local Puerto Ricans. In October 2021, I created a Google form entitled “Puerto Rican History of Baltimore” that asks basic questions to anyone of Puerto Rican descent who currently lives in Baltimore City, to share a segment of their story.

Through this form, I’ve been able to meet and hear the stories of at least 12 Puerto Ricans, and I have met countless others through networking and Tola’s Room events. BmoreBoricua Project workshops (August 2023) will cater to the individuals who have completed the Google form and their families, along with Puerto Ricans who have attended our events and any other Puerto Ricans who live in Baltimore City who want their story to be collected, preserved, and shared as part of the Diasporican narrative of Baltimore at Tola’s Room. 

 

Photo by Justin Tsucalas

Why did you become an artist, and why is community organizing essential to your art?

I became an artist later in life. Though it wasn’t nurtured early on, creativity and viewing things differently were intrinsic to my being. I absorbed my environment from a unique perspective and was often described as different, weird, or quirky. When I got to college, I fell into a profession as a makeup artist, and it was in that experience I realized my creative/artistic potential. This profession moved me to Washington, DC, where I worked as a freelance makeup artist.

Over time, photography began to interest me, and when I moved to Baltimore, I went to school to learn the craft more in-depth. I started with film, though digital photography was infiltrating the field quickly, and most of my courses were digital. Baltimore has a creative community filled with talented people, and as I did more, I learned more, and got close to many of the creative talent here in the city. I am beyond grateful to this city for that. 

Community organizing is essential to my practice because it was the missing link that made what I do as an educator and artist come together effortlessly. I always describe community, art, and education as the three pillars of my philosophy; you can’t have one without the other. Organizing work or connection to the community has been essential to what I do and has helped to define my career. People are power and many times in black and brown communities, the systems are designed to take our power, to make us question our power, and to keep us from making powerful decisions for ourselves, our families, and our communities. My life’s work is to share what I know and my experience to empower people and to reassure them that what they do is so valuable and necessary to keep their communities connected and thriving. 

As a new educator, I would take students on community photo walks to inspire their images. As a more seasoned teacher, I use my community work as a point of reference for students to know me and to be inspired to share their stories.

When on the ground working alongside residents or initially engaging in a neighborhood, I often use culture and art as foundational engagement tools to either spark conversation or to create a common ground. My most beloved subject matter, outside of my daughter, is capturing moments in time while walking in the streets of different cities.

As a designer and curator, I want to engage the community through storytelling and story-sharing. I’m creating space for the Diasporican narrative of Baltimore so that we no longer have to wonder and question or dig deep into the archives.

 

What challenges do you face to grow Tola’s Room while ensuring you’re true to your core values?

Having patience, knowing that I have something beautiful to share and that it takes time to build capacity with intention. From the community and culture lens, this project started as a form of art therapy and a way to share my Nuyorican/Puerto Rican experience. It has now grown into a Puerto Rican home museum and culture space, and I’m working to create a trusted environment for others to share their narrative through their stories, artifacts, and creativity.

As a culture worker, I know the necessary time it takes to do research and build trusted relationships that encourage and empower people. It’s a big undertaking to search for the Diasporican narrative of Baltimore, especially because Baltimore historically is so segregated. I never want to compromise the authenticity of my work, so this new phase of Tola’s Room must take time and care. 

The challenge of a micro business is always around time management and access to human and financial capital. Another challenge is the unique nature of a home museum and that I am a social entrepreneur, not a nonprofit, so access to certain programs and funding can be tricky and sometimes creates challenges. I am hopeful that in the next two years, we can receive enough financial backing to be open 5 days a week.

Tola’s Room has been extremely fortunate to be seen by friends, family, and our local and national community, who have helped to support us. I’m also grateful to Weave The Social Fabric Project and The Deutsch Foundation, who have supported Tola’s Room throughout the 2022-23 year. 

What are you currently working on? 

The Circle, held on March 4, 2023, created space for caregivers and elders to share their stories, work to heal any frustration, pain, or trauma they are experiencing, and create artistic expressions of love as a form of healing. We ate, we cried, we laughed, and we created! 

I noticed a need for support and healing among my friends, peers, and myself, who are a part of the Sandwich Generation, raising children and supporting aging parents or other important elders in their life. I wanted to provide a space where caregivers and elders could have an honest dialogue about their feelings, fears, and frustrations and offer a healthy outlet for those sentiments. This concept was a pilot project to help prepare programming that will happen systematically at Tola’s Room starting in July 2023 when we begin our regular museum hours. 

On Saturday, June 24, 2023, Tola’s Room will host a summer funday and backyard sale (event title TBD). We are bringing in summer vibes with nostalgic tastes of Puerto Rican “cookout” food and drinks and sounds by Baltimore-based DJ JustJuWit. In addition, guests will have the opportunity to navigate through La Casita (garage), the backyard, and the basement level to purchase various secondhand items such as artwork, teaching, art, and restaurant supplies, and more. We’re fundraising to build custom shelving on our basement level to help organize our regular museum hours and upcoming programming and events.  

Our guests and followers spoke, and Tola’s Room listened. Tola’s Room will have regular museum hours 2 days a week (Wednesdays and Sundays) starting July 2023. The museum will be open for viewing and happy hour events on Wednesdays, and on Sundays, for workshops and family programming. More details about hours, cost, events, and our workshop/programming schedule will be unveiled during our backyard sale event. 

We have two events planned for July, one in partnership with Charm City Picnic (Sunday, July 30th), and the other with Baltimore Heritage (Sunday, July 23rd). 

BmoreBoricua project will begin filming stories and leading a few culture workshops in August 2023.  

I was invited by the Maryland Women’s Heritage Center to be a featured artist for their window exhibit from September 2023-October 2023. My work around Tola’s Room and the Disapsorican narrative will be featured in this exhibit. I was also invited to curate a Puerto Rican art exhibition at Motor House, opening October 2023. Both were intentionally chosen to be featured during Latinx Heritage Month as a way to promote the local Puerto Rican culture and narrative. 

 

Christina Delgado was recently added to the Diasporican Art in Motion (DAM) digital archive by CENTRO, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. CENTRO is the largest university-based research institute, library, and archive dedicated to the Puerto Rican experience in the United States.

More info about Tola’s Room.

 

 

Portraits of Delgado by Justin Tsucalas for Issue 15: Migration and Photos of Tola's Room by Oliver Maddox

This story is from Issue 15: Migration, available here.

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