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CHARAS/El Bohío Cultural and Community Center Records

Identifier: MSS 233

Scope and Contents

The CHARAS/El Bohío Cultural and Community Center Records are important documentation about a Puerto Rican/Latino grassroots and community organization in New York City’s Lower East Side (Loisaida) during the turbulent years of the 1970s and 1980s. Although the collection encompasses the years between 1965 and 2010, the bulk of the material dates from 1970-2001.

This collection includes such material as certificates of incorporations; mission statements; correspondence; Board of Directors’ meeting minutes; meeting minutes of various committees; financial reports; budgets; fundraising letters; grant applications; information on Puerto Rican organizations; exhibition catalogs; play and festival programs; news clippings; press releases; brochures; posters; flyers; postcards; photographs; negatives; and slides. The majority of the material is in English and Spanish.

More detailed information about the contents can be found in the box and folder inventory section of this finding aid.


  • 1965-2010
  • Majority of material found within 1970s-1990s


Conditions Governing Access

Open to researchers without restrictions.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyrights held by Centro.

Biographical / Historical

CHARAS/El Bohío Cultural and Community Center was a non-profit cultural and community center established by a group of former gang members in the Lower East Side neighborhood (known in as Loisaida) in New York City. The city government abandoned Loisaida, East Harlem (El Barrio) and the South Bronx, all predominately Puerto Rican working class neighborhoods, during the fiscal crisis in the 1970s. The lack of public funds exacerbated the poor quality of life throughout the 1970s and 1980s and these communities turned into examples of decay and urban blight in the United States.

Activists and the community joined forces to save and bring their neighborhoods back to life while steering hundreds of young people away from drugs, gangs, and violence. The Loisaida neighbors’ fight against slumlords, delinquents, and drug addicts led to the creation of CHARAS and many other organizations. These institutions also became safe havens of creativity and ingenuity. CHARAS/El Bohío Cultural and Community Center organically developed basic and innovative programs including housing initiatives; after-school programs; martial arts classes; galleries; exhibition, film and performance space; and art festivals, to create facilities for the community to strengthen the social fabric, empower other local organizations, and create cultural institutions vital for the community’s growth and development.

As the city’s economy improved many of these urban spaces began experiencing gentrification and spaces like the former P.S. 64 building (CHARAS/El Bohío Cultural and Community Center headquarters) became attractive to investors and the community organizations, despite their many accomplishments, ended up being evicted. The seed for CHARAS/El Bohío was planted by a group of young Puerto Rican residents Loisaida organized under the name, the Real Great Society (RGS). Shortly after the start of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, these enthusiastic young men joined forces in the spring of 1964. RGS felt better positioned than the government’s so-called Great Society plan to fight poverty and racial injustice in their working class communities. They turned their lives away from gangs and delinquency and became advocates for the working class neighborhoods. As agents of social change with the mission to transform the decaying urban spaces they lived in, they realized that respect for others, education, and individual responsibility were the basic tenets of life.

Among the many issues that they got involved in were fair and low-cost housing and literacy. They worked with environmentalists discussing how to use solar energy, wind power and other kinds of alternative resources. Influenced by architect Buckminster Fuller, they worked building geodesic domes structures around the neighborhood. They organized successful rent strikes to address the residents’ complaints and forced some landlords to take care of their tenants’ needs. Furthermore, RGS expanded their leadership role beyond the Loisaida community and these many accomplishments hinted to a promising future. Life magazine noticed and published “The REAL Great Society,” a seven page article on September 15, 1967 describing “some tough New York slum kids [who] team[ed] up to fight poverty instead each other.”

From their headquarters out of a tenement at 605 East 6th Street they expanded their ideas for social change. As they continued capturing the public’s attention, they were invited to participate in several national speaking engagements and conferences, and visited colleges, prisons, and community centers. They discussed ways to help local gang members in poor neighborhoods by organizing constructive activities. With the help of Bill Watman, the leader of a local Office of Economic Opportunity in Virginia, and Fred Good, the brother of Mike Good, the Real Great Society wrote a proposal to start small businesses and applied to different foundations for supporting funds. Eventually, they received two grants from the Vincent Astor Foundation in New York. The first one under the category of small-business prospectus was used to open a leather store on Avenue A. The latter grant was to start a program with free instructional schools, which they used to launch storefront schools for teaching basic reading and math in East Harlem and the Lower East Side.

In 1979, Carlos "Chino" García, Humberto Crespo, Angelo Gonzales, Roy Battiste, (Moses) Anthony Figueroa, and Sal Becker founded the organization they named CHARAS. The acronym takes the first letter of each one of the founding members’ name. Soon after, other members, like Armando Perez and the street poet and playwright Bimbo Rivas, joined the group. The newly created organization’s mission stated that they wanted to empower Puerto Rican and other minorities from Loisaida “by providing exposure to the arts and opportunities in artistic creation.” They expected to fight against poverty by aiming to eradicate illiteracy, combating hunger and malnutrition, erasing discrimination and stereotypes of populations of color and reducing run-ins with the law enforcement. Government officials and landlords continued abandoning buildings as New York City’s budget crisis got worst. Many buildings were vandalized and neglected. CHARAS and other community organizations, like Adopt-A-Building, requested these derelict buildings be turned over to the community, but to no avail. Taking matters into their own hands, CHARAS and other community organizations began to renovate and squat in some of these buildings. After 1973, the 519 East Eleventh Street building became the first of its kind to be renovated using “sweat equity,” a pioneering idea at the time. This concept encompassed the idea that hard work, rather than money, brings an idea to life. Another novelty, the building became the first solar and wind powered building in any urban area in the United States. CHARAS and Adopt-A-Building also began to squat in former P.S. 64, an abandoned six-story school building on East 9th Street. Utilizing Adopt-A-Building’s construction training program, they renovated the building, which had been entirely gutted by vandals and frequently used by heroin addicts.

In 1979, CHARAS and Adopt-A-Building negotiated a temporary lease with the New York City Department of General Services to utilize the old P.S. 64 as a cultural and community center. The run-down building renamed “El Bohío”, a Taino indian word for “the hut” was turned into an oasis of hope in Loisaida. One year later, other community organizations serving the Loisaida community like Seven Loaves and Quality of Life in Loisaida/La Calidad de Vida en Loisaida, a bi-monthly community magazine moved into CHARAS/El Bohío. All of these organizations remained independent partners with their own missions; but all of them supported each other in the common goal to better serve the Loisaida community.

Seven Loaves provided administrative assistance, such as grant writing and public relations, to community arts organizations on the Lower East Side; in addition, it was responsible for CHARAS’s finances during the 1970s. Adopt-a-Building’s activities included the aforementioned construction training program, a tenant management program, a building rehabilitation program, and the development of the Avenue C Merchants Association, among others. Picture the Homeless, a grassroot organization started by Anthony Williams and Lewis Haggins, Jr. participated in one of CHARAS’s substance-abuse meetings and began operating in one of El Bohío’s spaces.

CHARAS/El Bohío was integral to artistic innovation in the Lower East Side. El Bohío housed CHARAS programs over the years, all of which were intended to provide a cultural, artistic, and low-cost outlet for the Lower East Side, especially for the members of Puerto Rican and other Hispanic communities. CHARAS maintained eight rehearsal spaces, which were rented at a low cost to artists, musicians, and other individuals and organizations. Additional tenants and associated organizations included artists, musicians, and theater groups, such as the Living Theatre, Theater for the New City, and Bread and Puppet. Chicano Raza, Tompkins Square Artist, Carnival Knowledge, Musicians Unlimited United, Tylis Photography, East River Amphitheater, Divadlo Theater (formerly Scavenger Theater), Big Bucket Theater Company and Ninth Theater also had connections to El Bohío. El Bohío became a public development corporation, governed by a Board of Directors that included members of CHARAS, Seven Loaves, and other tenants. CHARAS, however, was responsible for El Bohío’s management and maintenance. CHARAS also was governed by a Board of Directors that included founding member Chino García and other community activists like Armando Pérez and honorary members, including Susan Sarandon and Lucy Lippard and consulting and advisory members. Other celebrities, such as Richard Gere and Brooke Adams, would support CHARAS over the years and advocate on its behalf.

One of CHARAS’s earliest activities, in the 1970s, was working with Buckminster Fuller on his geodesic dome project. This project focused on urban renewal and the environment by using low cost and energy efficient materials. CHARAS built experimental domes for residential and recreational use. These domes were viewed as alternative low-cost housing, since they were inexpensive, easy to move, and made from recycled material. CHARAS was also involved in creating the first major community gardens in the Lower East Side, including Plaza Cultural, located on 9th Street and Avenue C.

A theater program was also developed in the 1970s, led by Bimbo Rivas, the program director, street poet, writer, and longstanding contributor to CHARAS. In the early 1970s, Chino García and Rivas reconfigured Man of La Mancha for an urban setting; it led to the creation of the name, “Loisaida” (“Spanglish” for “Lower East Side”). Rivas would also write a poem, Loisaida, which would help cement the name used to describe the community. Although never performed in its entirety, their Man of La Mancha was part of a traveling theater group, which Rivas referred to as “El Teatro Ambulante”, or, the “ambulatory theater.” These plays were performed in political festivals in different locations throughout the city. By the 1980s, six plays were produced annually and held at La Terraza Theatre, The New Assembly Performance Space, and elsewhere. Most of the plays were written, directed, and performed by neighborhood residents.

In 1981 Films CHARAS was founded by Doris Kornish, founder of the Pioneer Theater, and Matthew Seig; its focus was to present films by and about minorities, the developing world, and community development. In addition, it showed early films of now-noted directors John Sayles, Todd Haynes, and Spike Lee. Loisaida Puerto Rican Actor Luis Guzmán’s first film role was in a movie partially shot at El Bohío. The screenings ran for eighteen years and provided an important public forum for independent films.

Additional programs included a concert series of different genres of musical performances; numerous workshops and classes in dance, computers, English, mask-making, and others; lectures; art exhibitions; after-school programs; and performances by regional, national, and international dance and theater companies.

Throughout the years, CHARAS/El Bohío struggled with obtaining a permanent lease. CHARAS, El Bohío, and Adopt-a-Building joined forces in 1985 to negotiate a long-term lease. As they continued being a powerful voice and forcefully advocated for the community’s needs and betterment, they clashed more often with some of city government agencies and administrations. In 1998, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and the city of New York sold the El Bohío building at public auction to a private developer. CHARAS/El Bohío and Adopt-a-Building sued the city and the developer, in 1999 and 2000, because lease restrictions required that the building be used for purposes that benefited the community. In December 2001, days before the end of his administration, Giuliani ordered the forcible eviction of the tenants of El Bohío.

Despite major protests, demonstrations, and petitions, Save CHARAS, comprised of community organizers, city councilmembers, and CHARAS staff and supporters including Pete Seeger, Leo Castelli, and Luis Valdez, Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere, the organization was not able to reclaim the building which was given landmark status in 2006. CHARAS/El Bohío and other organizations that shared the old P.S. 64 building remained locked out with their programs and community center inaccessible to the Loisaida neighborhood.

According to founder Chino Garcia, CHARAS/El Bohío was a symbol of hope for other organizations, because it offered space, a place to organize, and an opportunity for anyone with an idea; it acted as “a mecca for alternative everything: alternative life, technology, health, you name it…” and it operated, simply, in order to help people.

Sources: “Former Street Fighters Urge Respect for Law”, The Fauquier Democrat, Warrenton, September 1, 1966

“P.S. 64/El Bohío (former)”, Place Matters,

“The Reminiscences of Carlos ‘Chino’ Garcia”, Interviewer Leyla Vural For the New York Preservation Archive Project, Saving Preservation Stories: Diversity and the Outer Boroughs Oral History Project, November 13, 2017

Landy, Mark, “The Real Great Society”, The Oberlin Review, September 27, 1966

Syeus Mottel, CHARAS The Improbable Dome Builders. The Song Cave & Pioneer Works Press, Brooklyn, 2017.

Vaughan, Roger, “The REAL Great Society”, Life Magazine, September 15,1967.


13 Cubic Feet

Language of Materials


Spanish; Castilian


The CHARAS/El Bohío Cultural and Community Center Records are an important resource for studying Puerto Ricans and other Latino communities in the Lower East Side (known as Loisaida), New York from 1970 to 2010. The collection consists of correspondence, memoranda, minutes, photographs, flyers, clippings, posters, proposals, reports, financial statements, and artifacts.


The collection is divided into six series: I. Administrative II. Programs III. Publications IV. Publicity, Marketing, and Development V. Audiovisual VI. Artifacts

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Donated by Carlos "Chino" García.

Separated Materials

Some books were transferred to the Centro Library. Excess duplicates and non-related materials were weeded out from collection.

Processing Information

Collection Inventory completed on March 2016. Collection processed November-December 2017. Finding aid revised in 2021.

CHARAS/El Bohío Cultural and Community Center Records
Lauren Stark and Project Supervisor, Pedro Juan Hernandez with assistance of Ana Rosa Perez and Juber Ayala.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
This project was made possible in part by a grant from the Documentary Heritage Program of the New York State Archives, a program of the State Education Department. Collection Inventory completed on March 2016. Collection processed November-December 2017.

Revision Statements

  • 2021: Revised by Susan M. Kline

Repository Details

Part of the Archives of the Puerto Rican Diaspora Repository

Silberman Building, Hunter College
2180 Third Ave. Rm. 122
New York New York 10065

About the Collections

Our collections consist of personal papers from prominent Puerto Rican artists, elected officials, social activists, writers, as well as the records of community-based organizations. Our largest collection, the Offices of the Government of Puerto Rico in the United States (OGPRUS) Records, measures approximately 2,900 cubic feet and contains an extraordinary amount of information regarding Puerto Rican migrants and the government institutions established to assist them. The collections date from the 1890s to the present, and document Puerto Rican communities in the Northeast, Midwest, Florida, California and Hawaii.