Puerto Rican artist paints portraits that show the strength of her people
on April 11, 2019
On a recent Tuesday, Rebeca Garcia-Gonzalez unpacked large portraits of Puerto Ricans who hail from different corners of the island. She was standing in an art studio in North Richmond, about seven weeks after returning from Puerto Rico. In a sense, she was nearly at the end of a journey that began more than a year ago after Hurricane Irma and then Hurricane Maria ripped through her homeland.
“Puerto Ricans were being portrayed in the media as victims,” she said after she switched off the traditional Puerto Rican music she listens to while painting. This is something, she said, that began with the 2008 financial crisis when the island’s debt accumulated and people started losing their jobs and moving off the island.
“I am hoping this show will get people to think about the politics of representation for Puerto Ricans, away from the victimhood narrative, what we call the ‘pobrecito narrative,’” she said.
That objective triggered a four-month odyssey: from Kickstarter to her painting trip and then back to Richmond. On her quest, she painted 16 portraits that include representations of people with diverse class, gender and racial identities from across the island that the artist will show on July 5 at Sanchez Contemporary gallery in Oakland. More than half the models live near Garcia-Gonzalez’s hometown of San Juan, but others come from areas including Manatí, Loíza and Caguas.
Soraya Ferri, 24, a transgender woman and community advocate, posed for Garcia-Gonzalez in her bedroom in the San Juan house she shares with her mother and younger sister. Her legs are crossed in the painting and she wears a bright red short-sleeved shirt, revealing a few bold tattoos down her arm. Her hormone replacement therapy sits on her nightstand.
“How often do you get to see hormone pills in a painting? That’s pretty cool,” said Ferri,. “Paintings are supposed to be beautiful European things, so you never see Black, tropical trans girls in them with their hormone pills.”
Gonzalez was determined to include queer and gender nonconforming models in order to capture as many Puerto Rican experiences as possible. “One strong criteria was to get a variety of age groups and genders. That included having transgender individuals,” she said.
Ferri heard about the modeling gig from a friend who also posed for Garcia-Gonzalez. Ferri trusted Garcia-Gonzalez because she is from the island and is part of the LGBTQ+ community. Ferri lived lived in Seattle and attended Seattle University for four years and was excited to be a part of an art exhibition in the Bay Area.
“It was the first time I got to sit down and talk for a longer period of time with someone who is older but also queer but also Puerto Rican and also lives in the States,” Ferri said. “Something about being in an art Gallery in Oakland just sounds cool.”
To attract a wide range of models, Garcia-Gonzalez posted flyers about the modeling job in different areas on the island and asked good friends from college who move in different social circles to reach out to people who they thought might be interested. It didn’t take long before she started receiving texts from people across the island who wanted the $80-a-day gig.
In the end, Garcia-Gonzalez found models who identified as white, Latinx, black and indigenous. Some were in their twenties and others were in their eighties. Four of the models were unemployed, and others worked as chefs, professors, nurses, performers and activists.
“After the famous Hurricane Maria, it was like waking up from a dream,” said Gia Limery, an actress and graduate student studying psychology at Carlos Albizu University in San Juan. She said she felt empowered posing for Garcia-Gonzalez as part of the portrait series. “It’s a way to say I am Puerto Rican, I am here and I can represent my country,” Limery said.
Limery spent five months in the dark after the hurricane thanks to power outages in her neighborhood. She volunteered for Brigada Solidaria Post-Maria, a grassroots organization that provides aid to areas that are still devastated.
The models were able to choose where they sat and what they wore. Often, the subjects picked items or a background that underscored some aspect of their personal life. Garcia-Gonzalez pointed to one completed portrait in her studio of a man on a beach. He is from the coastal town of Loíza, and he asked her to include his beaded bracelet in the painting, indicating his Santeria religion.
In another portrait, a woman of Dominican-descent, who lives in Santurce, a city in the municipality of San Juan, wore a headpiece and printed skirt to represent her African roots.
This isn’t the first time Garcia-Gonzalez has produced a portrait series. She came to the Bay Area from Puerto Rico in the 1980s to pursue art and eventually settled in Richmond in 2005. She noticed the large number of Latinx people living in the city and started painting them. She said she was especially motivated to paint undocumented Latinx immigrants, and was inspired by traditional portrait and landscape painters like Joaquin Sorolla and Alice Neel and the contemporary Puerto Rican artist Rafael Tufiño.
“When I started painting undocumented people, I realized I could connect emotionally with the people I was painting,” she said. “The story is visual. They need to gaze into the portrait and connect.”
She found her first models by driving around Richmond in her pickup truck and asking day workers who had not yet been hired if they were interested in a different job—sitting while she painted them for $20 an hour. Many agreed—and when the word got out about the paid modeling job, groups of men would approach her truck to get the gig, she said.
She painted about 30 undocumented immigrants between 2006 and 2016. She showcased her final portrait series of undocumented immigrants at Richmond Art Center last Fall and dreamed of painting portraits of people in her homeland. But she knew flying to Puerto Rico, paying models, buying supplies and shipping the portraits back to Richmond would cost about $7,000. So she created a Kickstarter last September and raised over $8,000 in about two weeks.
For some of her models, the stipend meant income for the week. A few were looking for work and “didn’t have a penny to their name,” Garcia-Gonzalez said.
For others, the modeling was a unique opportunity to represent Puerto Rico on the mainland. Two donated their stipends to organizations that bring aid to impoverished communities throughout the island, Garcia-Gonzalez said.
Limery was one model who posed to increase visibility of Puerto Ricans on the mainland and represent the joy she experiences on the island.
“We are happy still in this bad moment.”
Garcia-Gonzelez was especially struck by the young people who organized after the hurricanes and are still providing aid to devastated areas. “You thank God for the younger people who said, ‘We are not going to sit here and wait for help and we are going to do something about it.’ And that’s why I went home in awe,” she said.
She hopes people come to the show in July to develop a deeper understanding of her home country. “For non-Puerto Ricans, I hope they go home with a more accurate picture of Puerto Ricans, as a diverse and resilient people,” she said.
Photos by Meiying Wu.
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