A table filed with pictures of Juan Cruz, his art work, a memorial book for guests to write in and purple ribbons greet people as they enter La Casita Cultural Center. Photo by Laura Román López.

Juan Alberto Cruz: A Celebration of Life and Art

The Syracuse community gathered at La Casita Cultural Center on Saturday to celebrate the legacy of renowned artist Juan Cruz.

By Laura Román López

Mia Cruz-Worthy looked at the crowd at La Casita Cultural Center and marveled at the turnout for her father’s funeral, calling the assembled artists and art lovers “my dad’s chosen family.” 

Juan Alberto Cruz died on Jan. 10th at the age of 82. The space is filled for a memorial service in his honor, hosted by La Casita.

Artwork made by Cruz adorned the space, with paintings showcasing bright tones of blues and reds propped on easels around the room. Salsa music plays and traditional Puerto Rican foods like arroz con gandules (rice with pigeon peas) and bacalaitos (codfish fritters) are offered to guests. Conversation and laughter mix with the music as family, and friends share fond memories of the artist. 

Mia Cruz-Worthy speaks at her father’s memorial service at La Casita Cultural Center. Photo by Laura Román López.

“My dad was an amazing artist and a great contributor to this community,” Cruz-Worthy said. “Art was more than just a career for him. It was what kept him going. It was what set him free.” 

Juan Alberto Cruz was born on Sept. 24, 1941, in Puerto Rico. His life as an artist started at a young age as Cruz was known for drawing and sketching on brown paper bags that his family saved for him after grocery shopping. At age 5, Cruz moved to the Lower East Side of New York City with his family.  He would return to the island shortly, before making a permanent move to the United States in his teens. 

Soon, Cruz fell in with a gang and accidentally shot and killed a bystander when firing at rival gang members. At the age of 17, a judge sentenced him to a life sentence and he was sent to Auburn Correctional Facility. It was during this time that Cruz began to get formal training in painting through an inmate art program headed by James Harithas, director of the Everson Museum of Art at the time.  The Everson would become a pillar in his life as he would later become a guard at the museum, and also have several exhibitions showcased

As an artist, Cruz was known for his large outdoor murals and sculptures. His paintings have also been showcased in institutions like The Smithsonian and Schomburg Center. He was also an active member of the community as he collaborated with foundations like La Liga and La Casita, teaching and encouraging youth to express themselves through art. 

Paintings created by Juan Cruz are showcased in different areas of La Casita Cultural Center. Photo by Laura Román López.

“This is a beautiful event to remember Juan Cruz, someone who we all loved, worked with and were inspired by,” said Tere Paniagua, executive director at La Casita. “Juan contributed immensely to programming at La Casita for youth. His art made this center such a vibrant part of this community and we’re going to miss him terribly. We are blessed to have known him. We are blessed to have had Juan in our lives.” 

The last person to speak at the service was David MacDonald, a close friend of Cruz and a retired art professor from Syracuse University. Mcdonald expressed how Cruz would come into the ceramics studio at SU and they would talk about the cultural scene and how they could make it more diverse to artists of color. 

“I taught at Syracuse University and I earned my living teaching people how to make art,” MacDonald said. “But for me, the person who I learned the most from about being an artist was Juan.”  

MacDonald also reflected on the impact that Juan has had on the community and how this event was an affirmation of that.

“There is a quote from the Bible that says that a prophet is without honor in his home,” MacDonald said. “And a lot of times we take people for granted, we don’t talk about how great they are. But the turnout of the number of people here today is eloquent testimony to how important Juan was in terms of the Syracuse community and I don’t believe that he was a prophet without honor here in Syracuse.” 

Juan Cruz is survived by his children, Omar Cruz and Mia Cruz-Worthy, and two grandchildren.

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