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Voices Fall-Winter 2008:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the In Praise of Women column, “Elena Martínez” by Eileen Condon.
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Voices FW2008


Volume 34

Elena Martinez by Eileen Condon

In Praise of Women For Elena Martínez, folklorist at City Lore in Manhattan, it’s been a good year. Fellow folklorists Hanna Griff-Sleven and Jean Crandall made this observation as they nominated Elena to be profiled in this issue’s “In Praise of Women.” Last summer, the dance documentary Elena produced with City Lore colleagues—From Mambo to Hip Hop—won the National Council of La Raza’s prestigious ALMA award. NCLR, the nation’s largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization, presents the ALMAs on a televised show “like the Latino Oscars,” Elena explained. “We were up against some really amazing documentaries...but everyone really liked our film.” With prime footage of South Bronx mambo, salsa, and hip hop by Latinos and insightful conversations with the genres’ leading proponents—from Eddie Palmieri to Willie Colón and the late Ray Barretto—From Mambo to Hip Hop has been screened widely, to strong reviews, and will be released shortly on DVD. For Elena, co-producer Steve Zeitlin, director Henry Chalfant, and all involved in creating the film, the rewards are long-awaited and sweet. This year’s highlights for Elena also included the popular Aguinaldo Navideño program—City Lore’s second annual Puerto Rican holiday dinner, with music, poetry, dance, and song—co-produced with Teatro LA TEA. A Mohawk poetry dinner is in the works, too, along with a large-scale program comparing the performative, material, and ritual traditions of Haiti, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic.

For Elena, interviewing artists is a joy and privilege. “You’ll be calling cabs and booking hotel rooms...but you also get to meet these amazing people.” Meeting John Trudell, a Native American singer, poet, and activist she had long admired, at the 1999 People’s Poetry Gathering was a thrill. Even more meaningful, she says, is the element of advocacy in her work. Elena assisted Mike Amadeo, owner of Casa Amadeo, New York City’s oldest continuously run Latin music store, in getting the store into the National Register of Historic Places. She also had the pleasure of nominating Rosa Elena Egipciaco, a New York–based Puerto Rican mundillo lace maker, for the NEA’s National Heritage fellowship, which Rosa won in 2003. Elena lauds City Lore and its founder, Steve Zeitlin, for envisioning programs that incorporate advocacy. The People’s Poetry Gathering has raised awareness of endangered world languages, and City Lore’s People’s Hall of Fame “counters mainstream celebrity,” Elena says, by honoring ordinary people for extraordinary, community-enriching achievements within the everyday life of the city.

Elena’s path into folklore can be traced from her native New York to the West Coast and back. “The funny thing is,” she began, explaining at high speed, with typically dry humor,
there were two things I wanted to do when I was a kid. One was, I just loved reading about Roman, Greek, Egyptian myths...and thought about something like that when I was older. Then you know, you think of practical-type jobs, so I never followed it. Then the other thing was...I always saw Joan Embery [of the San Diego Zoo] on TV. On Johnny Carson. And wanted to work in a zoo like she did. So I ended up being a zoology major for a while. But then the, um, the organic chemistry kicked my ass. So I thought, I’m going to go into anthropology, because that was what I had always really liked.
At SUNY–Oswego, where she earned a bachelor’s degree, she encountered anthropologist Ivan Brady, who encouraged her in folklore. As a graduate student in the early 1990s, she discovered the University of Oregon could offer her a master’s degree in folklore as well as anthropology, so she earned the two degrees in rapid succession. Before graduating she completed an internship at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and another unpaid internship at City Lore. As a City Lore intern, Elena finally met “Dr. Roberta Singer” face to face:
Roberta Singer. I used to read her articles. When I was in Oregon I would devour anything I could find on Puerto Rican culture. Of course I always found articles by Roberta on various Latin musics, and when I first came to intern at City Lore—she wasn’t in the office that day—but someone said, “Do you want to meet Dr. Singer?” “OH, MY GOD! YES!”
“Who called me Dr. Singer?” Roberta asked Elena when they met, insisting she address her as Bobbi or Roberta instead. Elena describes Roberta as a mentor and views her own work at City Lore as “following in [Singer’s] footsteps.” She credits City Lore’s strong Puerto Rican and Latino programming to Singer’s decades of work in these communities. The two still work closely on Latino projects and have co-written some of New York’s finest, most in-depth interpretive materials on Puerto Rican cultural traditions.

Upon graduation, Elena phoned Steve Zeitlin to ask whether he could suggest any grants that might allow her to return to work at City Lore. To her astonishment, Zeitlin explained there was a position open and offered it to her. She accepted on the spot. That was eleven years ago. Elena continues to value the “freedom and flexibility” she has at City Lore to work not only on City Lore’s renowned core programs, but also on programs entirely her own, like the well-traveled Puerto Rican photographic exhibition “¡Que Bonita Bandera!” which considers the Puerto Rican flag as folklore, politics, and history.

New York folklorists Jean Crandall and Hanna Griff-Sleven find Elena an exemplary researcher and programmer and a good friend. Jean praises Elena’s passion and tough integrity, while Hanna thanks Elena for sharing resources: referrals, references, transcribers, time, talk. Hanna also acknowledges Elena for helping her, Jean, and others in the field realize the importance of chocolate breaks in the afternoon.


Photo of Eileen Condon Eileen Condon is project director at the Center for Traditional Music and Dance in New York City. To nominate a colleague for “In Praise of Women,” contact her at

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 34, Fall-Winter 2008. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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