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The Path and Passing of
Don Otilio Díaz
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RAFAEL MERINO CORTÉS   
Tuesday, August 29, 2006

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"Don Otilio held deep fondness for Julia de Burgos and held annual events on her birthday, and frequently screened her biography and recorded interpretations of her work," according to Marina Ortiz of East Harlem Preservation (Photo credit).


Imageon Otilio Díaz, model ‘sweet, old man’ of the Puerto Rican community who led La Casa de la Herencia Cultural Puertorriqueña (La Casa) for over 25 years, passed away on Monday, August 21, 2006. He was 75.


He was a gentle observer, guardian of the Puerto Rican culture and a humble man who held a stubborn streak close to his breast pocket. He had no children but was constantly surrounded by a vibrant if not frenzied community in transition, whether in La Casa’s home in El Barrio/ Spanish Harlem or his other home, on Grand Concourse, in the Bronx. This community, along with a sister, several nieces and a nephew here in New York, was his family.

Don Otilio was definitely the uncle character. He was well versed in his discipline of Puerto Rican culture and had a solid educational foundation (He earned a BA from the University of Puerto Rico and an MS in Educational Administration from Fordham University). But you could hang out with him, laugh, drink and share jokes.

Even at 75, Don Otilio’s passing was poignant and certainly an untimely occurrence for a community desperately in need of spiritual reconnection.

In a diaspora influenced by hip-hop, the English language and a 'bling-bling' material world backed by billion-dollar marketing campaigns, Don Otilio helped remind a new generation of Boricuas where they came from. While Puerto Rican kids today will rattle off lyrics from Ivy Queen (not to say she is not part of our heritage -- she is), Don Otilio could throw down verses from Julia de Burgos, one of his favorite cultural icons. And that was the mission he chose: building cultural nodes to help create a network between generations. The Guayama, Puerto Rico native was intensely proud of his heritage and saw in La Casa an opportunity to become one of those few beacons, or lighthouses for the community. ‘In case you need direction, you can come here.’

Puerto Rican culture is at a crossroads these days. Our bomba y plena, our food, our language and our struggles do not have a billion-dollar budget or Madison Avenue advertising agency contract. Our rice and beans are seldom used for product placement in video games, movies or television in proportion to our numbers. In a time when young people, in both the diaspora and in Puerto Rico, are questioning ‘what else is there to being Puerto Rican beyond the flag,’ Don Otilio’s importance in the community becomes clearer.

The Guayama, Puerto Rico native was intensely proud of his heritage and saw in La Casa an opportunity to become one of those few beacons, or lighthouses for the community.
And yet, there is a sense that the few people and institutions that remain are taken for granted, as if death, taxes and rent will never push out the little that’s left in our collective. The few places that serve up readings from Julia de Burgos or Juan Antonio Corretjer and that give cuatro lessons, or live bomba y plena performances should be mobbed with Boricuas on the regular. The even fewer places where public forums on our history and political struggles can be openly discussed should be standing room only.

Indeed, we take a lot for granted in New York City. There is a legacy of people like Don Otilio who struggled to keep these types of institutions alive. But without the continued and growing support of the community, places like El Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños at hunter College, The Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center, El Maestro Cultural and Educational Center, La Casa and others can fall victim to reprogramming or redistribution of resources. These institutions do not exist in a magic bubble, although they themselves can be blamed for that perception at times.

These are the things Don Otilio reflected on, believed to be important and worth an uncompromising devotion. He saw the need of an 'advertisement agency' for our culture to help spread the word about the richness we have inherited. He held the doors of La Casa open not just to the Puerto Rican community but to everyone who was interested in learning and sharing in that legacy.

So it is that benevolence and magnanimous nature that we find at the flipside of the moment of his departure. The irony is almost blatant; a beloved, giving and cheerful community leader leaves his corporal existence in a melancholy moment of solitude.

Don Otilio passed away alone, sitting on a park bench in Franz Sigel Park, not far from where he lived. He was admitted to Columbia Presbyterian Hospital just hours before, but checked himself out shortly after, against the recommendations of the doctors. Arguably, he was aware of the gravity of his condition.

While some may attest to elements of stubbornness in Don Otilio, at the moment of his final hours he may have simply chosen to be in a more comfortable and familiar place. He chose to walk the last kilometers of a dignified life, instead of lying down with tubes and needles in him. Instead of passing his last hours surrounded by cold, hospital walls and machines, he preferred to go to the Bronx, closer to home, closer to his people, his music and the food that gave him life.





A public memorial will be held from 3:00 pm to 9:00 pm on Wednesday, August 30 and Thursday, August 31 in Room 103 of the Julia de Burgos Latino Cultural Center, located at 1680 Lexington Avenue near 106 Street. Religious services will be held at 10:00 AM on Friday, September 1 at Saint Cecilia's Church, located on East 106th Street between Lexington and Park Avenues. Mr. Diaz will then be buried in his hometown of Guayama, Puerto Rico.

The board of directors of La Casa de la Herencia Cultural Puertorriqueña, Inc. has held several meetings to discuss the agency’s future, and will now begin moving forward to implement their Strategic Plan. For more information, visit: www.lacasapr.org.






RAFAEL MERINO CORTÉS



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