by Hiba Ali
For people of color, the existence of communities is framed within the Western political framework as perpetually “new” — as though to presuppose a previously absent history. Nexo/Nexus: Latin American Connections in the Midwest, currently on view at the DePaul Art Museum, contravenes and corrects this narrow socio-political assessment. The works featureed are sourced entirely from the museum’s collection, organized by Bibiana Suàrez — DePaul Professor of Art and Vincent de Paul Professor of Art, Media, and Design— and Delia Consentino, DePaul Associate Professor of History of Art and Architecture. The two poignantly address the interconnected experiences of Latin American artists rooted in the Midwest region, Mexico, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. The show is assembled in alignment with the mission of the Latino Art Now! Conference, the culmination of which will take place at University of Illinois at Chicago in early April, with various exhibitions presented in conjunction throughout the city. Nexo/Nexus cuts through the propaganda that espouses a binary understanding of the geographical spaces adjacent to the United States of America and Latin America whose territories have been historically and economically linked with the complex political cycles of migration, labor, and shifting identities.
Bibiana Suàrez reflects on her fluctuating identity as it relates to history, politics and a sense of home in her pastel drawing Manilo que huye valla (Fleeing the Arena). In the drawing, a rooster crouches in the corner of a grass green color field indicating a pasture. The rooster’s presence refers to the legalized combat of the cockfight/pelea de gallo in Puerto Rico, a practice that is not allowed in United States of America. Having lived in Puerto Rico as much as the United States, for Suàrez, this cockfight symbolizes her sense of displacement in her assimilated and acculturated identity. A zoomed in illustration of the rooster’s claw hovers on the top left of the frame, referring to a segmentation of migration in which parts of one’s identity remain in focus while others are reconfigured. Reflecting on this aspect in her Domino prints series, Suàrez states: “1. To assimilate is “to take into the mind and thoroughly comprehend or to absorb into another cultural tradition.” 2. While I may acculturate, I resist assimilation.”
Echoing Suàrez, the collage Prelude by Cuban American, José Bernal, made in 1962 signifies his exile to the United States of America when he was profiled as a dissident after the CIA’s Bay of Pigs Invasion in Cuba. The postmodernist collage was made during the year the artist’s family relocated to Chicago, Illinois. Capturing the sense of placelessness and anxiety that occurs when leaving one’s home, two figures are present in the work; one is crouched in a ruminative pose while the other emotes a mixture of terror and sadness as it clings onto the other. Overlaid antique nursery rhymes with American stamps of George Washington balance the composition, serving as an allusion to the perpetrators of the Bay of Pigs and thereafter, the government of the artist’s new residence.
This negotiation of identity and place-making is reflected in Latin American communities all over the United States, especially in cities such as Chicago. While Latin American communities have always enriched the cities landscape, simultaneously being impacted by the forces of gentrification and displacement, this combination results in the erasure of not only the communities’ presence, but also their valued contributions to the history of Chicago. We see this chronologically and through similar demographics, as gentrifying populations turn people of color neighborhoods’ into upper class white spaces; in the 1930s, the Puerto Rican community was located in Chicago’s north side neighborhood, Lincoln Park, in the 60s it was displaced to the city’s west side neighborhood, Wicker Park. Since then, the community has moved out west to Humboldt Park and faces increasing economically and socially violent effects of gentrification that are amplified by Chicago’s turbulent history of redlining.
Redlining is a part and parcel of financial exploitation that Beryl Satter outlines in her book Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America in which she reflects on her father’s life as a civil rights lawyer in Chicago’s west side neighborhood, Lawndale. Redlining is a practice of racial discrimination and financial extortion made into law through the New Deal’s Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) in the 1930s. In this policy, neighborhoods with any black residents were “redlined” and denied access to mortgage loans by the Federal Housing Administration. Therefore the neighborhoods where black families lived were never developed or invested in and the government dissuaded white families from selling to black families because when blocks did sell, an entire neighborhood dramatically changed and promulgated “white flight.” Contract sellers took advantage of this by buying housing previous owned by white families at a lower rate and overcharging the black families. This act was compounded on black families by lack of basic maintenance, subdividing their apartments to fit more tenants and ever increasing fees. This racial segregation continues to impact Chicago’s neighborhoods as they remain racially homogenous and any external forces moving into people of color spaces without conferring with the community is an act of racialized class warfare. Casting a similar trajectory as Chicago’s Puerto Rican community, Chicago’s Mexican community rooted in the city’s southwest neighborhood, Pilsen and Little Village, are being forced out due to the intensification of gentrifying forces. This blatant disregard for the future sustainability of these thriving communities is often erroneously framed as a neighborhood “revitalization” project, whereas in actuality, we are witnessing the Latin American communities’ history disappearing right before our eyes.
Working towards amending this erasure, collaborative efforts like Chicago Latino Writers Initiative (CLWI) by Gozamos and Proyecto Latina provides a platform for Latino voices. They feature prominently the voices of Chicago’s Latin American community asserting their experiences’ visibility and staking a claim to Chicago’s – past, present and future – which their communities have helped create. Similarly, artist Matthew Silva — a speaker at the Latin Art! Now conference— champions the importance of local Latin American artists from Little Village at VillArte. Launched in 2006, VillArte collaborates with artists, organizations, business owners and volunteers to honor the culture of Little Village by organizing Little Village Arts Festival where for one-weekend storefronts feature art galleries.
Organizations like the CLW and VillaArte are immensely valuable, as they serve as physical and virtual markers of occurrences that will inform and chart peoples’ interconnected histories and communities. This aspect is writ at large in Nexo/Nexus, which depicts a symptom of how politics between these regions has continued to impact identities over time. The work discerns the immense overlapping connections of politics and policies that inform the lives of the many communities all over the Americas. The upcoming precedents for our future relationships lie in not only dismantling the embedded neoliberal dogma in our global relations but ultimately how we form relationships and uphold our region’s neighbors, families and communities – both locally and globally.
Hiba Ali is an International Contributor for THE SEEN.