The artist on the meaning of archetypes and the need for femme empowerment.
I've read that memory is a really important element you draw on for your work. I was curious, what is it about the nature of memory that you find interesting, and how did it become important in your practice?
It became important pretty recently. Growing up, I went through a lot of photographs that my grandma would archive and I saw a lot of repetition. A lot of the things that I went through that were photographed included my journey of immigration from the island of Puerto Rico to the US. So, I'm drawing a lot from those memories, from those photographs. A lot of these are filling gaps. I think I'm drawing from colors that I was exposed to growing up. I don’t have a lot of explicit memories as a child, but I do have different parts of my memory. I feel like I gravitate toward colors in the photographs or even just the spatial awareness that the photographs brought to me.
Even when revisiting the island, I think memory plays a big role. I saw so many things changing on the island. It brought a lot of sadness to me, but it also has brought a lot of joy, which are two things that I think have existed a lot in my work. I'm exploring and constantly thinking about the things that are missing in my history, things that I don’t necessarily feel responsible for, but I'm constantly trying to resurface the ways that my own history, my own transness, has been hidden under a lot of these different memories and different archival histories that I feel have always existed. So it's a lot of resurfacing, but a lot of these things are also really new. I think memory is really important in analyzing and critiquing the colonial impact on memory. It's all really important to my practice, but I am drawing mostly from personal experience. Although a lot of current events have and are still very relevant, I'm drawing from very autobiographical reference points.
In going back through those photographs, what were some of the things that you found repeating, and what were some of the things that caused you sadness?
A lot of that would be the architecture. The architecture changed a lot. For example, I have a lot of pictures of houses and the house where I grew up. When I would revisit, the colors were completely stripped away. Going back to the island in a modern context, a lot of the bright colors that used to be there are now gray. I think that, with photographs and the ways that I'm looking at photographs, a lot of the colors in the photographs aren't exactly how they seem, but a lot of their own luminosities come through. In the photographs, I'm constantly seeing hues of pink that come from the process of photographic aging. There is this quality that aging brings to these photographs that becomes really repetitive.
I'm thinking about the ways I see some hues as divine and I'm constantly thinking that these pink hues are relevant to our current history. I’m thinking about myself existing in these pink hues, inserting myself in past histories. The pink hues are recurring in my work because of the many ways that they're just repeating and resurfacing within my own life.
You spoke about how much Puerto Rico has changed since these images were taken. I know there are so many issues involved with that. What are some of the things that you personally feel are really important but that many people aren't aware of?
I'd say land is a big one. I think people who travel to the island will have a different experience versus a native Puerto Rican returning home. I think that there are different things people will focus on. Most people who aren't native will focus on the color, for example. People might focus on how it's bright and everything's so beautiful. I think those experiences are really different from my experiences, the contrasting experience that I'm constantly feeling when I return, which is mourning. I feel like I'm constantly mourning when I return. I think that those feelings come from not being able to see my home the same way.
I’m drawing from my own palettes of houses that I used to have, and that’s even reflected in my use of hibiscus. Colors are completely absorbed by the hibiscus itself and then being reinserted into the work or reinserted through visual language. A lot of it is about observation. I think that, as a native Puerto Rican, I want to preserve as much as I can through my work.
To that point, I know in reading about your work that you use different natural plants and materials in your work to create washes and things like that. How did that come about? Was that a process you created for yourself? What inspired that?
It was actually a visit to Puerto Rico that I had in 2019 that inspired my use of hibiscus and my natural washes. I used natural washes before hibiscus, but I started to use hibiscus for the color mostly. Hibiscus are also commonly known as the state flower of Puerto Rico. It's something that I feel has an almost assigned iconography, an assigned symbol. It correlates to gender and the construction of identity. Everything's assigned, everything's constructed. It's through the social construct of these things we start to adopt. I started to think about ways of adopting an identity through hibiscus and solely hibiscus as a way of thinking about indigeneity and feminine energy, and gender itself as we try to navigate our own identities and our own comforts.
I think a lot about the ways that I am exuding my own feminine energy into my own lineage. I'm looking at photographs of my grandma and my mother, and I'm drawing inspiration from them rather than drawing inspiration from the things that I've been assigned, things that I've been told to appreciate and to value. I think it's something where the work says, “OK, let's appreciate our own bloodline. Let's appreciate our history, as a lot of it is being erased currently.” It is being erased every day. In a larger context, I'm thinking a lot about erasure as well.
There are so many really complex geopolitical themes and historical themes that you're addressing in all of that. Do you disagree at all with the way that all of those things get discussed in relation to your work in the art world or by the press that covers you?
I think the art world, in general, has a really big issue with trans femmes. I think the art world has a long way to go in terms of catching up and educating itself on the history of trans femmes within the Caribbean and in general.
With a lot of these things, when I start talking about them in the art world or in a gallery, I feel very alone with all of these ideas. I'm talking about colonial history with people who make a life, make a business from selling and from a market. Their jobs are literally to market me and I'm like, “Wait, actually, I don't really want to participate in a lot of the things that I think the art world does participate in, which is capitalism.”
I guess I did try to talk about it for a while in the art world, but then I kind of gave up, to be honest. I started just existing and doing everything I needed to do. I'm a trans girl, a trans Puerto Rican girl, doing my paintings, doing what I need to do to heal, doing what I need to do to protect my energy. I think that all the things the world tries to assign and throw at me are really flattening. It's really easy for me to get swallowed by those opinions and by those thoughts of being a successful artist.
There are just so many different mentalities that I'm constantly rejecting. I think that it's easier to just exist and let the work speak for itself. Especially as a trans person, I'm tired of being labeled. I'm tired of being perceived a certain way by the world. Stop with the gender talk. I'm so tired of gender always being an issue for everyone. It's very difficult to talk about transness when it comes to art. I think that transness is existing all around us already, within nature, within our everyday lives as natural beings. We're natural beings of the world. So, I think that using organic materials is a big way for me to tap into that and remind people because I think that the materials themselves are protecting me in the ways that I'm talking about myself and my community.
That's beautiful. You mentioned trying to broach that history and those figures that have existed in that part of the world. Who are some figures who you find inspiring, or are there any particular events or movements that you wish more people were familiar with?
Honestly, I'm going to say my abuela. I'm going to say Ivy Queen. I'm going to say La Lupe. There are a lot of people who inspire me, but a lot of them, I don't think were really welcomed by the industry or whatever field they’re a part of. They're transdisciplinary, where they became their own genre. I think I found most of these genre-breaking icons the most inspiring because they were creating their own plane of existence, their own archetype.
I think archetypes are really important in empowering ourselves and creating our own path. I think a lot of the time, artists are in charge of their paths, creating their paths, doing their paths. Everyone's path is different. Some people have advantages. Others are flying through. Meanwhile, there are a lot of us who are struggling to be listened to, struggling to find the language. Everyone's receiving a visual understanding of what artists are doing, but they're not receiving the words. I think that sometimes the words are important. Dialogues are important.
But you asked me who I was inspired by. Honestly, I wish I could say artists, but I am not that inspired by artists except La Lupe. I love musicians. I'm very affiliated with organizations that work on funding trans youth, helping trans people specifically in NYC with gender-affirming procedures, anything that has to do with transition. Everyone's transition is different. I'm more driven by my community than anything else.
What are some of your favorite organizations in that space?
We love Body Hack. Shout out to Body Hack for the girls. I would say We Are The Ones We've Been Waiting For. They're based on the West coast and trans-femme-led. There are so many different groups here. There are a lot of different groups that feed people, feed the community, and are also trans-led. Comida Pal Pueblo is based here in Brooklyn. There are so many people doing such amazing work. They're very important for me in my practice and are constantly fueling me. I don't know where I would be.
It could be in any context, but is there a space that you go to or a thing that you look to when you just want to feel inspired, refreshed, energized–anything along those lines?
Outside! I am at the beach all the time. I go to the park and I'm drawing for hours. I spend a lot of time in my garden where I'm sitting with my flowers. It's springtime. It's Gemini season. I've been sitting outside a lot lately. Sometimes I'm sipping a little wine, having a little moment. I've been finding a lot of joy lately outside and also going to the Botanical Garden. Outside has been really beautiful lately. Pride month has been feeding me, been giving me everything. But I've been drawing so much outside and it's been bringing me lots of joy. I'm going to start painting outside soon and building and easel in my backyard, which is exciting.
I've also been very much feeling being outside because it was so gross out for so long this past winter and spring. Right?
It was. It really was. I had a solo in January and it was so cold. I felt very disingenuous when I was releasing this body of work that had so much light and color. I was like, “Where am I drawing from?” I'd been trapped in my studio for a few months. Then this wave of hot sun and fresh breeze came. It's giving us everything we need. It has been really inspiring. My work has changed dramatically since then. It's kind of crazy how just the sun, the temperature can just flip everything. Mentally, I'm somewhere else.
It makes all the difference. You've touched on some of these things, but I'd be curious to hear more. What are some of the things outside of art that you're really into, hobbies that you have or things that you're nerdy about?
My God, I'm such a gamer. I have been obsessing. Maybe I'm in my gamer girl era, but I've been really obsessing over video games. I love these femme fatale characters that are so iconic. I've been drawing them, but Puerto Rican versions. With these feminine icons, I'm like, “Let me make them Puerto Rican because anything that I make is Puerto Rican, because I'm making it." I’ve just entered this mentality recently where I realized, “Oh, I haven't been seeing myself in gaming either. Let me take these archetypes and then place myself within them.” But on top of doing a lot of gaming, I've also been doing a lot of skateboarding and swimming. It's been fun.
That sounds so dreamy. Maybe I'm pulling this out of thin air, but you speaking about video games and remaking the characters, not necessarily in your own image, but in a Puerto Rican image got me thinking: Does that tie into your interest in archetypes and what they mean?
Yeah, because I'm always referencing myself, even when I'm not being explicit, archetypes are really helpful in that they're like personalities. I have a persona in my work, who's reoccurring and is activating the work. If we were to talk about the pieces on Platform, I feel like it's the same person who's reappearing in all the pieces. I think in three of the pieces, I would see this person as an archetype of myself, but I'd also see archetypes existing as siblings or cousins, archetypes people could attach themselves to. For example, with a video game character, they'd have blonde hair, blue eyes, and look demonic. I would be like, “I'm going to give her brown eyes. I'm going to give her big-ass hair and I'm going to make sure that she looks like me. So being able to alter that, I think as an artist, like hello, power to us. If we choose to alter the things in front of us and it empowers us, then why not?
Exactly. A bit of a shift, but given all of your interests, is there anything accidental or otherwise that you've found yourself collecting over the years?
Yes. Literally, I find myself collecting the strangest things. This is a bit odd, but I've collected my hair for years. Every time I get a hair haircut, I will put my hair in a coconut shell. And then I'd wrap the hair that has been discarded in the mesh they use to make bags for fruit. It completely holds my hair together and it keeps its form in a ball.
I've started collecting hibiscus from my garden just randomly, but I also kind of want to use the ink from my garden to make work. Just because I'm growing it, I've been collecting lots of lavender.
I have a Tweety Bird collection. Tweety Bird is my shit. I have so much of Tweety Bird in my space, and most of them have been gifts. I have a lot of friends who are just like, “Oh my God, I saw this Tweety Bird at the flea market or at a thrift store.” Tweety Bird is just a reoccurring figure. I think a lot of my friends and family and whatever community always think and agree with me that Tweety Bird is fucking trans, queer, gender nonconforming. The resurrection of Tweety Bird being gender-neutral is pretty iconic. I love that it's becoming something that people are talking about more, similarly to video games.
There are these icons that have always been trans. I can't get my head outside of video games lately, but there are a lot of characters, even in popular video games. Like in Mario Brothers, there's this character named Birdo, who is a pink Yoshi. She has been misgendered throughout the whole history of Mario because her original name is actually Birdetta. But in the game, they would only refer to her as Birdo. It's crazy. It's this whole shift in how I perceive things. Also, Birdetta is left out of all these games. There are a lot of levels to it.
Why are femmes excluded from all these things, but constantly being utilized for sexual images aesthetically? There are a lot of different things that femmes are used for, but none of them seem to be for empowerment. All of them seem to be for sex. I can't quite put my finger on it, but it's not giving everything that we have the ability to give.
Oh, wow. That was fantastic. I feel like we could almost have a whole convo just on that. Since we’re on the subject of how people or things are perceived, is there anything that the world has embraced that you're a bit reluctant to?
I have a few, but they're also very not art. I don't know. I feel mean. I'm not into a lot of things in the mainstream. I just think that a lot of things are tacky, but I think lately something people have been embracing that I'm not really for are these white, Latino Reggaeton artists. There are just a lot of white artists in general who have been appropriating music or have been using a lot of different symbols. I just can't get on board. I can't get on board with Rosalia. I can't get on board with Bad Bunny. I feel like that's just where I am at. I'm reluctant because I think I'm constantly talking about colonialism and examining it and then seeing how much people are obsessed with appropriation and culture vultures and anti-Blackness. It's just normalized to the point of, “Oh, are we all supposed to just love this? Or are we supposed to react?” I don't think that there has been enough space for reaction without being a hater. I guess I'm a hater for commenting on very colonizer behavior. Colonization teaches us that the things that aren't safe are safe. It teaches us to ignore the very obvious things that are harmful and I think a lot of people eat it up because it's all that they know. So I can't not examine it, but I guess I would say most of Reggaeton lately.
I totally hear you. On the flip side of something you want to embrace, what's something you're really looking forward to?
Oh, my God. I am looking forward to my forties. I'm looking forward to my future. I think everything that I've been working really hard toward is falling into place in terms of my transition, in terms of my visions, in terms of following my intuition more, trusting myself. I am excited to be 40 and living in my home in Puerto Rico with my chickens, living my best life, ignoring the art world, absorbing all the sun, growing flowers in my backyard, having friends over. I'm excited for trans people to rule the world. There are just so many things that I'm excited for. I feel like, as trans people, we're never really excited about the future. We have a certain life expectancy. We have fear, paranoia to worry about and our safety, but I'm excited for 40 because I think that when I turn 40, I will have a clearer understanding of where I'll be. I think that I'm working really hard now, but when I'm 40, I feel like I can look at all the work that I've done and be really proud of myself. I'm really excited to have that moment with myself a couple of decades later.
I hope all of those things happen for you. OK, last one: Is there anything you wish you were asked more often?
I wish I was asked more about color. I wish I was asked more about different memories and my relationship to my surroundings. I wish I was asked more how to pronounce my name correctly. There are so many things I can think of that I'm just like, “Should I just list them all?” I wish I was asked more about myself. I guess a lot of things that I feel like I would want to be asked, I'm constantly depending on my art to say for me. I think people are scared to ask questions, especially to artists because of this elitism that exists where it's like, “Oh, the art is conceptual.” Of course that exists. To a degree, my work is inaccessible, but I also think that accessing the work and allowing people to access the work is a really big joy when it's your community, when your community is absorbing it and understanding it. Also, being able to respond to it in the ways that they are relating to it. But overall, I just want to be asked more questions about what inspires me, because that's a conversation that I feel like I can constantly have based on any piece that I'm doing. What are you dreaming of? What have your dreams been like lately? I like that question. Sometimes it's easier to talk about work when we're having dream talk, because a lot of it doesn't have to be real in order for it to be absorbed and believed. We dreamed it. We imagined it. I think art is so similar to that.