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The Latino List

The Brooklyn Museum explores what it means to be Latino with an exhibition, full day of free performances and screening of a new HBO documentary.

What does it mean to be Latino?

To Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, it meant growing up in a community of people “who lived and worked and supported each other.”

To golfing pro Chi-Chi Rodriguez, it meant struggle: "I’ve been working since I was seven years old.”

To America Ferrera, the star of Ugly Betty, it meant feeling apart: "Just somewhere weirdly in between...I didn’t feel different until someone made an effort to point it out to me.”

These famous people and nearly a dozen other prominent Latinos – including an astronaut, author, academic, actor and advocate -- are featured in “The Latino List,” a documentary debuting this week on HBO, offering the personal stories of just a handful of the huge, diverse population of people of Spanish-speaking descent living in the United States. As financial adviser Julie Stav points out in the documentary, “there are more Latinos in the United States than Canadians in Canada.”

“The Latino List” will be screened as part of Target First Saturdays October 1 at the Brooklyn Museum, which is presenting a day full of free performances to coincide with Hispanic Heritage Month.

The Latino List is also the name of an exhibition at the museum, featuring photographic portraits of 25 prominent Latinos, as well as a couple of computers where visitors to the museum have been offering their own take on how their Latino heritage has shaped their life.

“What’s great about being Latino is that there’s a richness and variety of cultures —so many cultures under the Latino umbrella,” says Jose Conde, a musician who will be performing at the museum on Saturday with his band, nu Latin groove.  His own experience shows that richness and variety, and some of the contradictions too.

During his performance, he will be singing mostly in spanish, the language of some ninety percent of his compositions, which contain traces of son, rumba, mambo, cumbia, and other traditional Latin-American music. “I am certainly Latino,” says Conde, the son of immigrants from Cuba who grew up in Miami.

“But,” he adds, “I feel I’m a Brooklyn resident more than I feel like I’m Latino.”

Conde, who has lived in Park Slope for 13 years, was born in the United States, played american football in high school (“I never liked baseball”) and even made fun of his mother’s accent. As a child, he listened to Michael Jackson or Earth, Wind and Fire more than Celia Cruz. Even when he got serious about being a musician, his formal studies were first in opera and then (at Boston’s Berklee College of Music) in jazz.

It was only, ironically, once he left Miami that he started taking an intense interest in Latin music.  “When I moved to Boston, I missed my culture.”  It was several years more before he started writing songs in Spanish.

All his musical influences have been added to the mix of what one critic described as Conde’s “Afro-Cuban music with an enlarged frame,” encompassing New Orleans funk, Nigerian Afrobeat, James Brown rhythms, Haitian compas, New York City boogaloo.

“I would call his music World Latin,”  says Deirdre Lovell, a neighbor who is also a fan, who happens to run into him on the street. “He infuses world polyrhythmic music with the entire Latin diaspora.”

“Woo-hoo,” Conde says, impressed at the analysis.

Conde calls his music fusion. Its diversity is reflected in his band, most of whom also live in Brooklyn. Electric guitarist Marko Pankovich of Carroll Gardens (and Serbian descent) specializes in African/Caribbean music.  Drummer Gintas Janusonis of Fort Greene, the son of immigrants from Lithuania, plays in styles ranging from funk to soul to World Music.

Yes, Conde’s new album, entitled simply “Jose Conde,” is mostly in Spanish. But there are also songs in English—and Portuguese and Tsonga (a South African language). “I love the sound of the languages,” Conde says. “The language itself is a song.”

Conde understands now that it was a gift growing up fluent in two languages. However, he says, “being someone who’s bilingual can be very confusing. You think in one language, but feel in another. 

“It took me a long time to figure out who I was. I’m still trying to figure it out.”

That too is what it means to be Latino.

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