Vega, Marta Moreno

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Vega, Marta Moreno


Author, professor, and arts administrator

In broad terms Marta Moreno Vega is not unique. There are plenty of dark-skinned Puerto Ricans who have grown up in East Harlem, received a good education, embraced their ethnic roots, and written books. Few of them, however, have devoted their lives so thoroughly to questions of identity and culture and matters of the spirit as Vega. As founder of the Frank H. Williams Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, and as a professor, author, and filmmaker, she has been a driving force for three decades in bringing these issues into the public consciousness. Most of her work has been centered in New York, but she has also sought and reached a broader audience.

Marta Moreno Vega was born in about 1942 in New York City and grew up in East Harlem, a predominantly Latino and Caribbean section of the city known as Spanish Harlem. Both of her parents were from Puerto Rico, and her father's dark skin reflected his African heritage. Marta inherited his dark complexion; growing up in "El Barrio," she was constantly reminded of her appearance by relatives and neighbors, who nicknamed her "Negrita." "I was constantly aware of myself," she was quoted as saying in a 2004 New York Post article. "At some point you realize that you don't fit into anything."

Yet as she grew older, Vega came to embrace her African lineage with increasing strength. She learned that much of the Puerto Rican culture she grew up with had African roots, including the rhythms of the Caribbean dance music she loved. Another key African influence on Vega's upbringing was Santeria, a religion that is widespread in the Afro-Caribbean world, and common in the United States among populations from Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and other landing points of the African diaspora. Also known as Lukumi and Regla de Ocha, Santeria first emerged among African slaves in Cuba, growing out of a combination of traditional Yoruban beliefs and the worship of Catholic saints. Some of Vega's fondest childhood memories are of times spent in the apartment of her grandmother, who kept a sacred room that featured a huge mural of St. Michael wielding a sword over the head of a cowering fallen angel. The room, which had the pleasant smell of sandalwood incense, also contained small statues of many important Santeria figures and an altar for making offerings to the saints. While Vega was raised in the midst of Santeria, neither her grandmother nor her parents ever completely explained the significance of the practice to her. She did not become interested in the religion until much later into her adulthood.

The artistic expression of her childhood culture was the first that Vega worked to preserve and nurture in adulthood. Once Vega had both a bachelor's and master's degree in education from New York University in hand, she made herself into a leading figure in the preservation and showcasing of Hispanic arts in the New York area. In 1976 she founded the Visual Arts Research and Resource Center Relating to the Caribbean, which later became known as the Caribbean Cultural Center, and still later the Frank H. Williams Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute. Vega remained the Center's executive director from its founding until 1995 and then continued to serve as president of its board of directors into the new millennium. She also founded the Amigos del Museo del Barrio, Inc., which supports the work of El Museo del Barrio, a museum formed in 1969 and widely regarded as one of New York's most important Latino cultural institutions. She also helped found the Association of Hispanic Arts, an important New York-based arts advocacy and public education organization.

Along the way, Vega experienced something of a spiritual awakening in 1981, when she traveled to Havana, Cuba, to be formally initiated into the Santeria religion. As she later wrote on the Web site for her 2000 book Altar of My Soul, "In search of a religion that reflected my racial and cultural heritage, I was led to Cuba by the spirits of my ancestors. Through my godparents' guidance, I have connected to loved ones who reside in the spirit world. I have learned to live in balance with the forces of nature that surround me."

While running the Caribbean Cultural Center and launching her myriad other projects, Vega continued her own studies. In 1995 she received a Ph.D. in African Studies from Temple University, after which she left the day-to-day direction of the Center and took a job as an assistant professor at Baruch College, part of the City University of New York (CUNY) system. At Baruch, Vega continued to explore the question of cultural identity, as she sought to make connections between her Afro-Caribbean heritage and modern life as a New Yorker of Hispanic descent. She organized an influential conference at Baruch in 1998 called "Race and the Construction of the Puerto Rican Identity." She also continued to curate art exhibits and generally act as a facilitator of all sorts of cultural affairs relevant to her areas of expertise—primarily African identity and Santeria.

2000 was a pivotal year for Vega. That year, she co-founded the Global Afro-Latino and Caribbean Initiative, a collaborative project of Hunter College's Latin American and Caribbean Studies Department and the Caribbean Cultural Center. Vega continues to serve as co-director of the Initiative, which is dedicated to "correcting the persisting inequities that have had a devastating impact on the lives of African descendants in the Americas—a direct result of more than four hundred years of the enslavement that brought more than 15 million Africans forcibly to the Americas." The year 2000 also marked the publication of her first book, The Altar of My Soul: The Living Traditions of Santeria. The book traces the roots, practices, and themes of the Santeria religion, as well as Vega's own experiences, both as a child observing her grandmother's activities and as an adult transforming herself into a committed practitioner.

In 2002 Vega completed work on a 90-minute documentary called When the Spirits Dance Mambo. The film, shot in Cuba, traces the voyage of African cultural elements across the Atlantic into Cuba, from where they percolated into the arts and lifestyles of all Caribbean-American communities. When the Spirits Dance Mambo had its premier showing in Havana, Cuba, in December of 2002, and its first North American screening in February of 2003 in New York.

In 2004, Vega published a book of the same title, though the subtitle was changed. The book, When the Spirits Dance Mambo: Growing Up Nuyorican in El Barrio is Vega's personal memoir, covering the range of issues that have shaped her professional as well as her personal life—Afro-Caribbean-American identity, the influence of African culture in Hispanic America, and the spirituality of Santeria—linking them all together into a vibrant portrait of her own experience as a woman of color growing up in Spanish Harlem and finding her way in the world. Through her writing, public speaking engagements, and other projects, Vega has helped spread an understanding of her unique experience to an ever-growing audience.

At a Glance …

Born 1942(?) in New York, NY; children: Sergio, Omar. Education: New York University, education, BA; New York University, education, MA; Temple University, African Studies, PhD, 1995. Religion: Santeria.


Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, New York, NY, founder and director, 1976-95; City University of New York, Baruch College, assistant professor, 1996-2000; Hunter College, Global Afro-Latino and Caribbean Initiative, co-director, 2000-.


Frank H. Williams Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, board of directors and president; Amigos del Museo del Barrio, founder.


Office—Global Afro-Latino and Caribbean Initiative, Hunter College, CUNY, 695 Park Ave., HW1516, New York NY 10021. Office—Frank H. Williams Caribbean Cultural Center African Diaspora Institute, 408 West 58th Street, New York, NY 10019.

Selected writings


The Altar of My Soul, One World, 2000.

When the Spirits Dance Mambo, Three Rivers Press, 2004.



The Altar of My Soul, One World, 2000.

When the Spirits Dance Mambo, Three Rivers Press, 2004.


New York Amsterdam News, November 30, 2000, p. 24.

New York Post, June 9, 2004, p. 50.


"About Marta," The Altar of My Soul, (March 13, 2007).

"Marta Vega: The Santeria Tradition," Conversation for Exploration, (March 13, 2007).