At first, his appointment to the position of executive director at the Museo del Barrio was protested, but now, he’s credited with expanding the museum’s profile beyond New York and around the world.
In this week’s One on 1, Budd Mishkin talks about cultural identity with Julian Zugazagiotia.
First rule of thumb in broadcast journalism: Know how to say the name. What's in a name, you ask? A lot.
"Your accent or the way you pronounce things, tells wherever you're from and says so much about the history,” says El Museo del Barrio executive director Julian Zugazagoitia. “So the fact that I have a Spanish-Basque name, but I say it as a Mexican, tells you, already: migration story.”
Zugazagoita is a man of the world.
Born into a German Spanish family, raised in Mexico, educated in France, worked all over the globe.
Now his world is El Museo del Barrio.
“Here feels like coming home in one way because on the one side, all of my passion for the arts, I could be exploited in all tools, intellectual tools, also for that, I can be further developed,” says Zugazagoitia. “But on the other side, my own identity as a Latin American, as a Latino, plays a very important role."
Since 2002, Zugazagoitia has been El Museo’s executive director.
Many credit him with expanding the museum's profile, opening its doors to schools around New York and bringing its exhibits around the world.
El Museo was founded by the Puerto Rican community, but Zugazagoitia points out that its mission expanded almost ten years before he got there.
"What I believe El Museo has as a mission, is really to be the place where Latinos from any origin and any walk of life find something relevant to them,” says Zugazagoitia. “So, in building our program, what we are trying to build is a story that each Latino will come out gaining some knowledge."
When Zugazagoitia was hired, his professional credentials were fine, including cultural positions throughout Europe and three years at the Guggenheim.
But he was the first non-Puerto Rican to run El Museo and because of that, he was confronted with protests.
“Maybe I was naive, or maybe I was not paying attention, but certainly I did not, from early on, understand, how I would be perceived as a Mexican national,” says Zugazagoitia. "What it told me is that how beloved this institution is in this community and perhaps that was very important way for me to focus on the uniqueness of this institution."
The public protests have since subsided.
The latest exhibit at the museum is entitled Los Desaparecidos, "The Disappeared."
It is the story of tens of thousands who were kidnapped, tortured, and killed in Latin America by military dictatorships from the 1950s through the 1980s, when Zugazagoitia was living and working in Europe.
“One of the most haunting things I remember is that I, some of my Argentinean or Chilean friends who could not go back to their country and the void, the emptiness that that gave them,” says Zugazagoitia.
Heading up El Museo del Barrio isn't the first time that Zugazagoitia has made news.
His mother is the Mexican actress Susana Alexander, so his birth was in all the papers. But he says that was no big news.
“My mom already then was a very well-known actress, very celebrated for her own accomplishments as an actress in Mexico, so she was always in the press,” says Zugazagoitia.
Despite a happy childhood, his family's home in Mexico City had some shadows.
His mother's mother left Germany in 1933, but other members of the family died in the Holocaust. His father's father was one of the founders of the Spanish socialist party.
Zugazagoitia says he was killed by Francisco Franco's nationalist government in Spain.
"That was a tragedy for my family side that was somehow very difficult to digest, and very, for a whole generation almost, unspoken,” says Zugazagoitia. "My father was, I think, overburdened because of the disappearance of his father in tragic circumstances, but in a subdued way; while my mother is an expansion of life."
Zugazagoitia is a human mosaic, a man of German, Basque, Jewish and Mexican heritage. But he says his identity was never an issue.
"I grew up in an environment that many of my friends, whether from school or from family, were coming from also very mixed backgrounds,” says Zugazagoitia. “So that is something that was for me like normal."
Now after working and traveling around the globe, living in New York has brought it all back home.
“In educating my own kids, that is something that I cherish about New York, is, in the public school, where Alexander goes, in his class there's like 13 or 14 different nationalities, and that is great, because then all of sudden also, his own mixed background is not exceptional, this is just New York,” says Zugazagoitia.
Since taking over as executive director of El Museo, Zugazagoitia found a way to merge family and work, at least for one night back in 2005, when his mother performed at the museum's theater.
“I know how her level of — everything has to be perfect and right and everything and very high. So, yeah, delivering her the public, the stage, it was a little bit nightmarish, but the end result was that a lot of people enjoyed very much that evening,” says Zugazagoitia.
El Museo del Barrio was started in the neighborhood. Zugazagoitia now likes to say that the neighborhood is a nation.
And particularly in light of the immigration issue, the museum's outreach around New York and the entire country has never been more important.
“El Museo, in a way, by celebrating the best of the Latinos, wants to participate from a cultural point of view on this dialogue, by saying that we have more to offer than what has been criticized,” says Zugazagoitia.
— Budd Mishkin