The Lower East Side is known for being home to famous Latino artists such as poet Miguel Pinero, artist George Lee Quiñones and poet and activist Clemente Soto Vélez. Soto Vélez was known for mentoring many generations of artists in Puerto Rico and NYC. His legacy impacted the cultural, social and economic lives of Latinos worldwide. So it’s befitting that an exhibit that questions the Latino’s role in achieving the American Dream, and even pokes fun at it, should premier at the center bearing his name.
On April 3 Make ‘Em All Mexican debuted at The Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural & Educational Center. Conceptualized by L.A. based artist Linda Vallejo, MEAM is her satirical solution to a familiar question: “Where do I fit into the American Dream?” Vallejo’s answer is a comedic, yet thought provoking look at American iconography from a Chicano point of view. She takes old photographs, figurines and dolls and gives them a tan shellacking thereby providing them a new purpose, new meaning.
Just imagine…John, Paul, George and Ringo with brown faces and how that drastic change in skin color would’ve affected their role in history and pop culture. Or the Flintstones…how would different would Bedrock be if Fred and Barney had brown skin, with Barney’s skin being a couple shades darker than Fred’s once again questioning how skin color plays a role within one’s ethnicity. These are the types of scenarios that are explored through Vallejo’s work.
Over 30 pieces are displayed in the exhibit, some making the literal transformation to brown while others, like The Empire State Building glazed in a cocoa tint, are more esoteric in its challenge of The American Dream. Aristocrats, founding fathers, Norman Rockwell, even John Belushi doesn’t get spared in Vallejo’s recoloring of American/pop imagery. Looking at the Superman bust all glistening in candy coated caramel made him appear more animated.
While I had seen photographs of the work, the pieces were extremely dynamic in person. When displayed together, I felt as if I had stepped into a surreal universe; one that was actually closer to the world I lived in. As I walked around the room, I began to realize why the work fascinated me. When I was a girl my father, an avid collector of antiques, brought home two lawn jockeys, only these jockeys didn’t have the traditional jockey outfit, these boys were barefoot slaves. I asked my dad what he was going to do with them. He simply said, “I’m going to paint them.” He told me the history of these boys, how they were a symbol of the racism that is embedded in the core of this country. Slowly, I watched these slave boys transform. With primer and a few coats of paint to their skin, I began to see their features more clearly. I saw their personalities bloom in the colors my father chose for their clothing. The lanterns were replaced with flags. The sepia-skinned boy held the red, black and green colors of the Black Liberation flag. The dark-skinned statue held the flag of The African National Congress. Through this makeover these boys had a new purpose; they were the embodiment of pride. They instilled pride in me as well.
Growing up watching those boys in my backyard, from my bedroom window gave me a constant reminder of my roots. It also made me realize that “The American Dream” also belonged to me, that it came in multiple hues, not just red, white and blue. It is my belief that Make ‘Em All Mexican will do the same for Latinos. Make ‘Em All Mexican is on display until April 27. FAMERS get down to The Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural & Educational Center and get yourself a good dose of brown.