Talking with Luis ‘White Shoes’ Martinez, the Man Behind the Camera in East Harlem, NYC

Hello, God bless you, Dios me lo bendiga!” photographer Luis Martinez, better known as “White Shoes” in honor of his signature footwear, answers his cellphone. “I get 30 calls a day, this phone rings all day.

Born in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Martinez (better known as “White Shoes”) has spent most of his life in the service of others. He arrived in New York in 1954 and served 24 years in the United States Air Force. He was one of the founders of the Puerto Rican Day Parades of Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens. Luis still runs a column for La Voz Hispana entitled “Asuntos De La Comundiad,” where he shares photos of Latino community events throughout New York City.

Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with “White Shoes” about his life and his craft.

Andrew J. Padilla: How’d you start taking photographs?

Luis Martinez: When you… when anybody enters the Air Force, the first thing they do is take photos. To have photos of all the places you’ve been. Iran, Pakistan, China, everyone that was with me, every time we left the plane, I’d take their photo. Back in the day, all of this, camera and films, it was cheap in the military stores, now with digital, it’s even cheaper. Everyone’s got a good camera.

Martinez in the Air Force (Photo by Andrew J. Padilla)
White Shoes in the Air Force (Photo by Andrew J. Padilla)

AJP: How did you come to El Barrio?

LM: When they killed my brother, my mom was alone in Puerto Rico, I eventually joined the service and had to go to, so I brought her to live in NYCHA Lehman Houses. Our neighbors took care of her so well, they always watched out for her. So when she died in the 80s, I stayed in the same apartment.

AJP: What happened to your brother?

LM: My brother was a fighter en Hato Rey y Río Piedras. One day, he was leaving the University of Puerto Rico with his girlfriend and a friend of theirs, she walking a bit behind them when a group of men came up and tried to attack her. He ran back and fought them. They cut his jugular. Somehow he survived, passed out in front of a clinic, only to be killed in Korea. An ambush. They were sleeping when it happened.

Rafael Martinez (Photo by Andrew J. Padilla)
Rafael Martinez (Photo by Andrew J. Padilla)

AJP: How old were you?

LM: I was just 9 when he died. I wish I’d gotten to know my brother as an adult. He was one of the smartest students at the University of Puerto Rico before he joined the 65th infantry. You know they were all Puerto Rican? The Borinqueneers. They got sent to all of the most dangerous missions. Suicide missions. Most of them died. I actually found out about the ambush from a friend who lives on 117th street in El Barrio now.

AJP: Why photography?

LM: The people you meet, that’s one of the best things about being a photographer. I have met so many people over the years. Musicians, baseball players, politicians.

Fidel Castro at Jimmy's Bronx Cafe, by White Shoes (Photo by Andrew J. Padilla)
Fidel Castro at Jimmy’s Bronx Cafe, by White Shoes (Photo by Andrew J. Padilla)

I’ve photographed all of the leaders in this city! I knew Koch, Dinkins, Cuomo, the dad that passed away, Pataki, he was very nice with me. Even Mayor Bloomberg would yell out “Hey ‘White Shoes!’ at the 111th Street Stickball Festival.

White Shoes and Bloomberg
Mayor Bloomberg and White Shoes (Photo by Andrew J. Padilla)

I know them all and I know the things they don’t want anybody to know.

AJP: What secrets did they not want people to know?

LM: Well, Hillary didn’t really win at dominoes, it was just a photo, they needed to make the photo happen and that’s the only way they could do it.

AJP: What are your dreams?

LM: I want to put together a book with photos from all of the parades in New York, all of our festivals. A book that talks about the great leaders we’ve had, that almost no one remembers. People like Ramon Velez. He was one of the smartest people to ever help the Puerto Ricans. People may say their things about him. Some of it was true, but he wasn’t like Boricua leaders today, that take care of others before Puerto Ricans, before Latinos, before their community. So many people in this world today are looking out for only themselves. They’ll fight their brother just to do better, in the end we all lose.

White Shoes Con La India
White Shoes with La India (Photo by Andrew J. Padilla)

AJP: What keeps you going?

LM: So many photographers in the barrio have gone away, those people, those papers died. I’m one of the few local reporters left. People tell me, ‘Luis, you need to calm down, take care of yourself.’ But this is my life. I’ve been taking photos professionally for almost 40 years now. People come up to me on the street all the time and tell me about the birthday I photographed 28 years ago. That’s why I still do it.

Before I can ask another question, Luis gets a call from his editor, “I need to get together the best photos for four events, write up what happened and who was there. I’ll be up late tonight.” White Shoes ends our interview and hurries off to make his deadline.

White Shoes - People Know BEtter
(Photo by Andrew J. Padilla)

LM: People walk around thinking some of the old timers here are bums, but we know better, everybody knows…

American Boricua: Living Beyond Race in America

“We have come to the conclusion that we’re not white enough for the white people, and we’re not black enough for the black people. So we’re caught in the middle. It doesn’t bother me, I go about my business just fine.”—Alice, Puerto Rican, 30-year resident of Memphis, Tennessee

American Boricua is the first visual document of Puerto Rican cultural migration in all 50 U.S. states. For the past 16 years, I have been telling the story of my people in America. My purpose is to create a visual road map of a people that have lived beyond the myth of race, right here in the United States, for over 100 years.

This project began like most things do—with family. After a nearly 20-year absence, the brutal August humidity in North Philadelphia had me feeling like a tourist in my own life. I reached for my camera and began making photographs of neighbors on my Tía’s block.

Wanda Benvenutti, Self-portrait (© Wanda Benvenutti)
Wanda Benvenutti, Self-portrait (© Wanda Benvenutti)

So much had changed, and so much hadn’t, in the old neighborhood. The empty building where we used to play “Cops and Robbers” was boarded up and for sale. There still wasn’t a decent grocery store within walking distance, but people were happy about the pancake house just past the gas station. The same shoe stores and dress shops lined Lehigh Avenue near Fifth Street. I kept feeling a nagging sense of stalled time, as if the roaring economy of the early 2000s never quite made it to the neighborhood and never would. No one expected it to. Was this why it felt so different?

The practice of equality, to be seen and recognized as equal, is something that informs all of my work as a photojournalist. This physical act of sight of course begins with our eyes. Yet it is our minds that get in the way, because we’ve been told the lie over and over again. That race is real. I am creating this body of work as evidence that race is a myth.

It is culture that is genuine.

It is culture that is real.

Piri Dreams, El Cerrito, CA Spring 2009 (© Wanda Benvenutti)
Piri Dreams, El Cerrito, CA Spring 2009 (© Wanda Benvenutti)

As a Puerto Rican woman, I am of two lands and one citizenry. Puerto Ricans are a people born of the past, pulling the future into the present time. What this means is that we simply cannot choose a side on the racial divide. We are a people that are of all the sides, because Puerto Ricans literally embody the inclusive reality of culture. Culture is inclusive, and accounts for those parts of history that are too complex for the rigid boxes of race to explain away.

***

“Wanda Benvenutti’s American Boricua: Puerto Rican Life in the United States” can currently be seen at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute’s Odessa Woolfolk Gallery in Birmingham, Alabama, now through February 28, 2016.

Peak Shots

We meet Claudia Lopez, the first Colombian woman to summit in the Himalayas. Lopez makes her living photographing world-class climbers, but she volunteers helping injured climbers get their confidence back. Juliana Schatz reports.

This story is part of the RadioNature series which explores the ways Latinos connect with nature. RadioNature is supported by the REI Foundation.

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Click here to download this week’s show. Cover image courtesy of Andrew Stelzer. 

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Images courtesy of Claudia Lopez.

Schatz_headshotJuliana Schatz specializes in stories of public health and human rights in communities of color, but her love for the outdoors and adrenaline means she occasionally dabbles in adventure storytelling. Her work with PBS FRONTLINE, GlobalPost and Sender Films has taken her from the peaks of Giza to the sky-high Rocky Mountains.

 

 

 

 

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PICTURE PERFECT BRONX

A group of Nuyorican photographers from the South Bronx has a new photo exhibit on display. The group calls itself “Los Seis del Sur”…six from the South. They chronicled everyday life in their neighborhoods during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when crime, drugs and arson were ravaging the Bronx. The six were just young men at the time, but they created a photographic history that no outsiders could rival. Lily Jamali reports.

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Click here to download this week’s show. Image by Lily Jamali.

Lily Jamali is a New York-based journalist who reports across the platforms of television, radio, and the web. Her work has taken her around the world to Europe, Asia, and Latin America and has been featured on NBC, CNN, PRI/BBC’s “The World”, and the CBC. Follow her on Twitter: @lilyjamali

Know Your Pro: Picture Perfect

Matt Armendariz travels all over the world to transform delectable dishes into photographs that look good enough to eat. If you’re a foodie who consumes cookbooks and food magazines, you’ve probably come across his handiwork. He tells us how he came by his shooting skills from his home and studio in Long Beach, California.

Do you know a pro we should know?

We’re looking for people with uncommon jobs: tightrope walkers, road kill disposers, chewing gum testers. We’d love to hear your suggestions for people we should profile. You can write us online, in the comments below; send us an email at info@futuromediagroup.org; or call our listener line at 646-571-1228.

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Click here to download this week’s show.

F‪or the past 20 years Matt Armendariz been immersed in food in one way or another. As a former graphic designer and art director in the food industry he surrounded himself with great food before branching out into photography and blogging. He began his blog in 2005 as a way to share his personal take on food and those behind-the-scenes moments I experienced in his work. His first cookbook called On A Stick! was released by Quirk in May 2011.