Inspiration and Background
by artist Yasmín Hernández
History and Solidarity: México y Puerto Rico
In 1917, strategically the year the US entered World War I, Puerto Ricans were made (not by vote) US citizens and drafted to fight in US wars. This limited, colonial citizenship with no voting representation in Washington for Puerto Rico, allows Puerto Ricans the ability to travel back and forth to the US, yet they encounter similar challenges and feelings of exile, displacement, discrimination and unwelcome that other immigrants experience.
Through war and invasion Puerto Rico and its people became part of the United States. Although Mexicans in the US are mostly discussed as part of the immigration debate, many fail to remember that half of México came to be part of the United States through war and conquest (1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo), 50 years before Puerto Rico encountered the same fate (1898 Treaty of Paris). Chicanxs describe this experience with the popular quote, “We did not cross the border, the border crossed us.” In other words, countless Mexicans and their descendants never immigrated to the US. They were already there long before the US came to possess those lands. Puerto Ricans, Mexican-Americans and Chicanxs share the struggles surrounding the nation within a nation notion that comes with invasion and war.
This fissure in our history and geography caused by US invasions has created a division among our own people. Stateside Puerto Ricans are not considered to be real Puerto Ricans by many of those living on the island and Mexican Americans whose families have been on their lands of Atzlan for centuries may be called “gringos” when visiting today’s México.
Mexican and Puerto Rican artists resisted the replacement of their cultural idiosyncrasies and political ideologies by invading forces, be they France, or the US or the resident elite. Through institutions like the Taller Gráfica Popular (TGP) in México and el Centro de Arte Puertorriqueño, printmakers took art out of the hands of the privileged and wealthy and brought it to the masses, teaching culture, heritage, history and politics via murals and newspaper cartoons and illustrations. In fact the late Puerto Rican master printmaker Rafael Tufiño studied at the TGP in México and brought back many of the principles of post-revolutionary Mexican art and printmaking to the work of CAP in Puerto Rico. He then was a great influence in the founding of Taller Boricua which started as a printshop in El Barrio in New York City. Rising out of the Civil Rights Movement, Chicanx and Puerto Rican artists poured their revolution onto posters and art in print workshops and walls throughout the United States. Not to mention these two communities' socio political contributions to this movement with groups like the Young Lords Party and the Brown Berets, and huge parallels between the Chicanx and Nuyorican Poetry Movements.
A beautiful and personal example of the solidarity to have existed between Puerto Ricans and Mexicans exists in the case of former Puerto Rican Political Prisoner Dylcia Pagán and William Morales, exiled in Cuba. The child of these two Puerto Rican revolutionaries found refuge in Mexico, where he was taken in by a Mexican family, raised and loved as their own. His story was chronicled in the documentary that aired nationally on PBS, The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez. His mother, born and raised in el Barrio to parents from Puerto Rico, was released by the Clinton Administration along with 10 of her comrades in 1999 after serving 20 years in US prisons for wanting Puerto Rico to be a free nation. The spirit of these common histories and examples of solidarity is what this mural celebrates.
Julia and Frida sit together clasping their hands in solidarity. Behind them are the flags of their respective countries. The Mexican and Puerto Rican flags share a common central red stripe, merging the two flags. On this stripe, between the two women appears the following excerpt from Julia’s poem, “El regalo de los Reyes:”
Esa misma bandera, que en tu nido tranquilo
a cada hora del día ves serena flotar;
cada vez que la toques dale un beso, alma mía
como si fuese una caricia maternal.
(That same flag, that in your tranquil nest
you see waving serenely each hour of the day
each time you touch it, give it a kiss, my soul
As if it were a maternal caress.)
Although Julia wrote these words about the Puerto Rican flag, here they speak to all Puerto Ricans and Mexicans alike, encouraging them to honor and adore their respective flags.
Nationalists even in death
One of my favorite Julia de Burgos quotes surprisingly does not
come from one of her poems. It comes from a letter she
wrote to her sister during her years living in New York. Not very
fond of her experience there, Julia wrote:
Tengo hambre de libertad. Si me muero no quiero que este trágico país se tragué mis huesos. Necesitan el calor de Borinquen, por lo menos para fortalecer los gusanos de allá, no los de acá.
(I hunger for freedom. If I die I do not want this tragic country to swallow my bones. They need the warmth of Puerto Rico, if only to fortify the worms over there, not the ones here.)
This quote appears along the bottom left border of the mural. There are rose bushes with 40 roses, referencing a Julia de Burgos poem. The roots of those bushes extend below into a cross section of brown soil where they form the words of this quote in an ochre-colored calligraphy. Visually I am reminded of several of Frida Kahlo’s paintings where roots sprout from her body, connecting her to the earth. In the quote however, I removed the reference to “Borinquen” because I wanted it to speak to Puerto Ricans and Mexicans alike. I feel that although many people travel to the US in search of better opportunities, many have suffered harsh conditions that make them long for the warmth they left behind in their respective countries. In particular the quote seems to echo Frida Kahlo’s sentiments, where she believed that New York and also Paris lacked the warmth and spirit of her native Mexico. They both questioned an obsession with industrialization and an overwhelming impersonal, cold feel to society that was unlike what they felt from their own people and respective homelands.
It is interesting that two years after painting Soldaderas, I too left my native New York City to return to the land of my ancestors, Puerto Rico, driven as these women were towards the warmth and the constant connection to the land that nurtures my soul and fuels my art.
Mural Site/ location: Modesto Flores Community Garden
Modesto “Tin” Flores converted a vacant lot that was used as a dumping ground into a community garden. Leading a community clean-up, he began planting in the space, developing the garden we enjoy today. Thus it was named in his memory. When it was first suggested that I create the mural in this garden, which is now run by Hope Community, Inc., I was not too happy with the idea since the garden is gated and is not accessible to the public year-round. I would have preferred that the mural be on the street, accessible to everyone at all times. However after visiting the space, seeing the flowers and plants, the stream of water that runs through the garden and turtles swimming in it, and Colombiana artist Lina Puerta’s water fountain sculpture of a woman’s womb, I knew Frida Kahlo and Julia de Burgos would want their mural in that space.
It is ironic that to view the mural from the street you sometimes must do so through these iron bars, as of course Julia de Burgos, a member of the Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, viewed her homeland of Puerto Rico as imprisoned in colonialism. Puerto Rico is indeed and continues to be a colony of the United States. To add to this irony, pun intended, back when I painted it there was usually a US flag hanging from this gate. So when the garden was locked, to view the mural, you had to do so through an iron gate bearing the US flag, a necessary reminder of our continued political state and the work left to be done.
Nature: Flowers, plants and water
The presence of trees, fountains, streams, turtles and flowers in the garden make it the perfect host for Frida Kahlo and Julia de Burgos, two women who loved la naturaleza and celebrated it in their work. To the left of the portraits is scenery inspired by Julia de Burgos’s poems and both women’s high respect and love for the natural environment.
Goddesses, Women, & Babies
Here the two artists are presented as larger than life goddesses, examples to women globally. Referencing nature, solidarity and sisterhood, the figures are dressed in blue and yellow, the colors of the Yoruba sister goddesses Yemaya and Oshun who represent the ocean and the river respectively. References to both sweet and salt water are found throughout Julia de Burgos’ poetry. The two goddesses guide over all women and mothers. Both Frida Kahlo and Julia de Burgos were profoundly affected by miscarriages they suffered and their inability to birth children and become mothers. They revealed their despair through graphic paintings and poems. We see this especially in Frida Kahlo's painting Henry Ford Hospital 1932, depicting herself, bleeding on a hospital bed post-miscarriage. The top of the Soldaderas mural is bordered by a Julia de Burgos quote which is divided by images of three fetuses. Though they appear to be in utero, they are actually floating in blue bubbles, and hover over the mural as if in the heavens. An umbilical cord would mark them as viable fetuses, nurtured still through their mother and so I have omitted these. The three fetuses represent the spirits of unborn babies. Three is the number of fetuses in total that Frida Kahlo lost. Each baby depicted represents miscarriages suffered by Frida Kahlo, Julia de Burgos and myself. I received the news of the mural project finally coming to life just weeks after having suffered a miscarriage in my second pregnancy. I began painting the mural three months after that loss, feeling yet another bond connecting me to my two heroes. The Julia de Burgos quote that borders the upper portion of the mural reads:
Como naciste para la claridad te fuiste no nacido
Pie fértil caminando para siempre en la tierra
(Since you were born for clarity you left unborn
Fertile foot forever walking the earth)
I write more on these connections in my blog post Frida y Julia, Guerrilla Goddesses and Guides. Perhaps channeling the spirit of these two mujeres and the energies of Yemaya and Oshun, less than two weeks after I began working on the mural, I learned I was pregnant again. My second son, Josef Elijah, was born on February 11, 2012, a week before what would have been Julia de Burgos' 97th birthday.
This mural and its unveiling ceremony would not have been possible without:
-my husband rushing home each night from work to sleep our son so that I could paint into the late hours.
-my mom for helping watch my son in the last weeks of the project, never knowing that her husband's cancer battle would come to an end just two weeks after the mural unveiled.
-Eliana Godoy, founder of Art For Change, for believing in my work and supporting me through the years, and for the Uma/ Gabriel play dates while I painted.
-Claudia Plaza, AFC volunteer and school teacher with an incomparable passion for and commitment to children with autism. She would accompany me each night as I painted into the late hours and ensured that I had ample lighting each night to work.
-Xen Medina who helped with painting (bullets especially) and stayed till 5am that last evening before the unveiling to ensure the mural would be ready.
-Hope Community volunteer Yvonne for always ensuring that I had access to the garden whenever I needed to paint and for graciously preparing surprise bandejas of food for the unveiling!
-the crew of men and women who would hang out at the garden who provided the soundtrack, conversations and consejos.
-the legendary poets, artists, dancers, musicians, great thinkers and performers que dijeron presente, offering an emotional and heartfelt tribute to Julia de Burgos and Frida Kahlo at the unveiling on July 6th, 2011. (See the photos by clicking the button below)
It takes a village to raise a child and to birth art! My eternal gratitude!