Friends of Marvette Perez, curator of Latino History and Culture at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, used to say that before there was Google, there was Marvette. Now the Smithsonian, Cantigas, and her friends will no longer have the benefit of her wisdom. Perez died in her sleep on August 19 at age 52.
The American History Museum’s Office of Public Affairs Director Melinda Machado writes via email that while no autopsy was performed, Perez likely died of a heart attack. A funeral service was held August 26 in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, along with several tribute events in D.C., including one at Nellie’s Sports Bar.
Perez, an anthropologist and member of chorale group Cantigas, became the Smithsonian’s first curator of Latino history in 1991. She was best known for the 2005 exhibit “Azúcar!: The Life and Music of Celia Cruz,” a show that included the legendary Cuban singer’s flamboyant wigs, clothes, and high heels, in addition to multimedia displays. Perez worked for two years traveling and researching and putting together that presentation.
Other exhibits she worked on included “A Collector’s Vision of Puerto Rico: The Teodoro Vidal Collection,” “Ritmos de Identidad: Fernando Ortiz’s Legacy and the Howard Family Collection of Percussion Instruments,” and “Latin Jazz: La Combinacion Perfecta.” She also guided the community curation of the “Latino Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender Organizations in Washington, D.C., 1987-Present” exhibition at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.
WPFW radio DJ Jim Byers writes via email, “I always loved having Marvette join me as a guest for the Latin Flavor Classic Edition because, in addition to her scholarship, her intense joy in sharing came through to the listener. Figures such as Diosa Costello, Celia Cruz, and Ruth Fernandez were made fully dimensional for the listener because of that joy. I think that’s also what you see in the exhibits she curated. It wasn’t just about ‘These are really important people, and you ought to respect them…’ Her interest in the subjects went so deep—-not only [into] their professional accomplishments, but their personalities, intimate stories, and foibles… [so] she made the history tangible and fun.”
Hunter College professor Arlene Torres was so impressed with Perez’s accomplishments that she developed a nonprofit charitable organization in Perez’s honor. The organization intends to help develop scholarships that support research and education in arts and museum studies with a particular interest in archiving Latina/o history. Torres says that Perez played a critical role at the Smithsonian. Via email, Torres writes, “speaking truth to power, she challenged academia and the culture of the museum.”
Associate Professor of American Studies and Anthropology at Wesleyan University J. Kehaulani Kauanui writes via email that Perez’s “curated exhibits and numerous public talks within the Smithsonian Institution and beyond, as well as numerous conference presentations, made important contributions to (and interventions in) American Studies and Latin@ Studies, as well as the discipline she was trained in: anthropology.”
Diana Saez, Cantigas’ artistic director, tells me in a phone call that Perez was a percussionist with the group from its beginnings in December 1991 through its holiday show at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage in December 2012. Saez and Perez also performed together in an ensemble called Cantare, with Argentinian Cecilia Esquivel and Brazilian Patricia Vergara. Perez sang and played bongos and the bombo with them live and on their album, Eva Luna. She also served as an adviser to Cantigas’ board and offered program ideas. She had “concepts and themes. She was super creative. She knew about singers I never heard of in my life. She was always teaching me,” Saez says. “We would always share a love for folk music.” But Perez was more than just an adviser. She taught Saez’s daughter percussion and played music at her holiday gatherings. “She was family,” Saez says.