Celia Cruz and Tito Puente, Lehman College, 1982.
Joe Cuba and Charlie Palmier, Tito Puente Scholarship Gala, 1981.
Eddie Palmieri, New York Casino, 1980.
Tito Puente and Machito, 116th Street Old Timers Day, 1979.
Ray Baretto, Beau's Restaurant, Bronx, 1984.
Born and raised n the Bronx, Joe Conzo bore witness to the radical changes that affected his community during the 1970s and 80s. Conzo and his family were at the vanguard of New York Puerto Rican political and cultural scene. His grandmother, Dr. Evelina Antonetty, who was known as “The Hell Lady of the Bronx” engaged in defiant acts of civil disobedience for the rights of minorities in the South Bronx, while his father, Joe Conzo Sr., was the longtime confidant and biographer for the legendary orchestra leader and musician Tito Puente.
Between the years of 1979-1984, Conzo and his camera were on the frontlines of New York City history, politics, and culture. He was coming of age in a time and a place that gave rise to the great pop culture movements of the late twentieth century: Salsa, Disco, and Hip Hop. He grew up going out to the clubs like Bonds, Studio 54, Gotham East, Gotham West, the Garage, the Loft, listening to DJs like Larry Levan. Meanwhile, he was part of the first graduating class, 1980, of South Bronx High School, which he attended with members of the Cold Crush Brothers. In becoming their official photographer, Conzo became the first to actively document the nascent Hip Hop scene, which was collected in his seminal monograph, Born in the Bronx (Rizzoli).
But it is Conzo’s Latin Legends that steal the show, a collection of photographs taken behind the scenes during the height of Latin music in New York. Conzo speaks with the Click about his early years in photography, and the way in which his family and community have been intimately intertwined in his practice of art.
Conzo recalls, “I first picked up a camera in at nine years old, in 1972. I was influenced by my stepfather, Michael Kane; he was always taking family pictures. I have tons of them. And it just grew on me. I liked photography! So I enrolled in photography at school at a young age, and it just became a passion and a love.
“I was enrolled in Agnes Russell, an elementary school at Columbia University. My stepfather was a professor at Columbia, and so my brother and I were students there. It was the end of the 1960s era and there were demonstrations every other month on the campus. It was a turbulent time, but it was also a time of free love and free expression. Demonstrations and protests were my playground growing up. It was those demonstrations on City Hall and at the Board of Education that are my fondest memories of the 1970s, growing up.
“The ‘70s are a lost time. Demonstrations and protests were my playground growing up. My grandmother, Dr. Evelina Antonetty, started a Parent Teachers Organization. That’s how she started and she was instrumental in introducing bilingual education into the public schools. She was instrumental in feeding the homeless back in the ‘70s when they started the summer lunch programs, better food in the schools, feeding the people in her community. And that’s why they used to call her The Hell Lady of the Bronx. She had no problem with cursing a congressman, an assemblyman, a council member—because, in essence, they worked for her, they work for the people who elected them.
“I was raised to respect the elders, whether they were related to you or not. My grandmother and my mother had the eyebrow. Once the eyebrow was raised, you went into submission and hoped that you didn’t get when we call a coco taso, a knuckle in the head, or a belt across your rump. But again, outside, we respected the elders because you knew somehow, someway it was going to get back to your mother, it was going to get back to your father.
“I didn’t get to know my father until I was a teenager. My father had a big battle with drugs and left the family when I was at an early age. I didn’t really get to know him until I was fourteen or fifteen years old, when he had cleaned himself up. When he came back into my life he was very honest, saying, ‘Listen, I was out partying and got caught up in drugs but my life is clean now and I’d like to have you and your brother back in my life.’
“He was a confidant of Tito Puente, and the rest of the Latin legends of the time. He used to come pick us up on weekends and we’d stay over at his house one weekends. Again, I was with my camera, and I’d be at the Corso or Barney Googles, or anywhere else seeing Tito rehearsing and performing, and I’d be taking pictures. Again, not knowing that I’m documenting the pinnacle of Latin music at that time in New York City. You know, Madison Square Garden, forty thousand people and I have all access backstage to take pictures.
“It was a crazy scene. You’re talking the ‘70s and ‘80s. Drugs were rampant in the Latin music business, in any genre of music. And since I was Joe Conzo Sr.’s son, nothing was really hidden from me. I saw the wheelings and dealings of what went on and that was okay. It was just part of the culture. It went on, on the other side of the street with Hip Hop. Drugs were rampant in that scene also. It really didn’t shock me or surprise me, and as I got older I became part of it. But again, it was a fun-loving innocent time with people having a good old time.
“I photographed Tito Puento, Ray Baretto, Celia Cruz, Machito, Eddie Palmieri, Charlie Palmieri—I mean you name it, I pretty much shot it. Even the legends today, when they were young back then, I photographed them. I didn’t look up to them as stars because they were part of my father’s inner circle. They were like Tio Tito or Tia Celia.
“Latin music is beautiful music. The dancing is phenomenal. I wanted to do that but I was just too shy. But I was part of the scene because of the camera. The women and the men—the way they were dressed! It was just phenomenal. It was real music. Real instruments. Real bands. Real everything. . It broadened my horizons; it sharpened my eye.”
Mongo Santamaria, Lehman College, Tito Puente Scholarship Gala ,1981.
Johnny Pacheco, Beau's Restaurant, Bronx, 1984.
Johnny Pacheco and Charlie Palmieri ,Beau's Restaurant, Bronx, 1984.
Mayor Koch, Felipe Luciano, Tito, Dina and Robert Merrill, Unknown, Lincoln Center, NY, 1979.
Tito Puente, Atlantic City, 1996.