When the South Bronx burned 50 years ago, the reputation of the borough changed forever. Now, the Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater hopes to shift the narrative behind the 1970s Bronx fires through their production TORCHED!
TORCHED! will be the Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater’s first full in-person production since 2020. Its goal is to shed light and pay tribute to the individuals who tried to uncover the truth behind the fires. TORCHED! will run from May 19 to June 12 in English and Spanish with titles, and will take place at the Pregones Theater at 575 Walton Avenue.
Rosalba Rolón, who created and directed the play, said that the production is “so much about reclaiming a shared history and about giving credit where credit is due.”
“We forget that history doesn’t move that fast. It takes decades and years, sometimes hundreds of years, to recover and strengthen,” said Rolón. “Our hope is that we not only reveal something that we haven’t talked about enough, like the arson-for-profit situation, but also to validate the people, that generation, that are still with us, the young people that were fighting every moment and they deserve the attention. And good attention, not the bad attention they have received over the years.”
Rolón and her production are the latest in a long parade of cultural institutions and trends that have sprouted from the ashes of 50 years ago. Creative efforts born on the streets — from fashion, to music, dance, food and arts — have brought a different kind of attention to the Bronx and nurtured a new reputation for grit and resilience.
It’s difficult to separate Bronx history in the 1970s and 1980s without mentioning the infamous Bronx fires. According to the Bronx River Alliance, 80% of housing in the South Bronx was lost to the fires, and about 250,000 people were displaced in the 1970s. For those who grew up in the Bronx, fire was a defining force that the borough is still recovering from. Rolón says that the fires contributed to the “dangerous” reputation of the Bronx, one that was exacerbated by the media.
“To think that is what the entertainment industry, the news industry, and mass media was portraying around the world was really upsetting and really disturbing,” said Rolón. “I decided that enough was enough.”
TORCHED!, which has been in production for the past five years, comes at a relevant time. Just last January, 17 individuals were killed in a fire at Twin Parks, a housing complex built in the 1970s. The incident motivated people to push for more effective fire safety laws, such as self-closing doors and the addition of more sprinklers. Earlier this month, a fire located just blocks away from Twin Parks left one person dead and eight others injured. On Wednesday, May 18, another fire ripped through four buildings in Mott Haven, all of which were believed to be vacant.
The production is a reminder of an important consequence of the Bronx fires, both past and present: the efforts of Bronx residents to take it upon themselves to save their borough. Rolón’s characters are inspired by real people, such as a firefighter, journalist, and bodega owner, who played a role in bringing truth to the Bronx fires.
“I hope that people leave here inspired, knowing the truth, learning something new. I think that our story is so inspirational because we’re highlighting not only the people that were the culprits, but we’re also highlighting the heroes,” said Christin Cato, who will be playing the narrator, Gina. “We’re also highlighting the neighbors who rebuilt this place and put it back together and who fought back, the activists, you know, we’re celebrating those people.”
Cato, who is a Bronx native, said her mother was a pre-teen during the 1970s fires. She says that the effects of the fires are still tangible in the Bronx, ranging from generational trauma to health problems. She also says that the fires gave birth to a vibrant arts scene in the Bronx, a sign of the borough’s resilience amidst tragedy.
“I think the legacy of mistreatment is still inherent in the Bronx, but I think the resilience from that and the ability to rise from that is still very relevant, too,” said Cato. “ Those fires in the 1970s gave way to the birth of hip hop, gave way to the birth of salsa. We have this resilience that is part of our culture as Bronxites and that’s the legacy of the fires, too.”
The Pregones/Puerto Rican Traveling Theater is just one of many Bronx-based organizations that are working to promote the arts scene in the borough. THE POINT Community Development Corp. offers youth development programs to make art accessible in Hunts Point. The Bronx Council on the Arts also offers youth arts engagement programs and workshops for artists, as well as open calls for artists and curators.
The Hip Hop Museum is set to open at a 52,000 square foot development within the next two years, while the Bronx Children’s Museum is expected to open later this year. Through individuals and organizations, the South Bronx has been emerging over the years as a center of cultural richness and spunk, even in the face of continued challenges.
“It’s not too late,” said Nyseli Vega, an actor who will be playing a journalist named Linda Gonzalez. “And it’s like, let’s get people to come see this so that we can rewrite the reputation, you know?”
Rolón says that she hopes the production will not only amplify the voices of the generation who experienced the Bronx fires, but be a preventative measure for future fires in the Bronx.
“I’m hoping that if anything, it’s an alert, an alarm in a way,” said Rolón. “To one that says ‘let’s bring attention to this so that it doesn’t happen again.’”
Tickets for the production, can be purchased on the Pregones website.