As we reflect on the year so far and think forward to November, political art has never been more important. The Latinx community, which has a long history of “artivism,” has brought power to racial struggles for decades and helped unite Chicago and capture the fervent energy this summer. In a culturally rich and diverse but segregated city, Latinx artivism shows there is power in community, especially in the midst of a pandemic that disproportionately hits Black and Brown Chicagoans the worst.
To culminate the celebration of Latinx Heritage Month–also called Hispanic Heritage Month, though that is far less inclusive of what it means to be Latinx–which began September 15 and ends October 15, we’re highlighting five Latinx artists bringing voice to the social justice movements of our time and how identity blends with their work.
Rolando Rodriguez gets his hands from his father. His padre was a sign painter. As a child growing up in Bridgeport, he enjoyed sketching and had a deep attraction to the lines, light, and shapes cast by Chicago architecture. A first-generation Mexican American, he has always had a connection to the arts–but finding his path did not come easily. In 2014, his life was upended by a series of catastrophic personal events; all in one year, he lost his mother, he got salmonella, and he was fired from his retail job.
Unsatisfied with just about everything in his life, he went back to school, earning a degree in architecture. He then scored his first job at a firm.
Rodriguez suffers from the same genetic disorder his mother did. At the end of 2017, his kidneys failed.
“You’re in a chair, you know, hooked up to machines for four hours, three days a week,” Rolando says of his year and a half spent on dialysis for polycystic kidney disease. “That’s kind of where I started sketching more often, to take my mind off of it.”
He was lucky to obtain one organ from a donor and now lives a relatively normal (though quiet) life–but his health status prevents him from attending protests. When they started earlier this year in response to police brutality, he ached for a way to contribute, knowing that he would be out photographing if he felt safe to do so.
The first protest photo he sketched, of a riot in Minneapolis, didn’t capture much attention. But soon enough, his sketches of Chicago photographs started spreading on social media. Assembling them into a zine seemed natural; he kept the cost low and gave free copies away to activists. “I consider myself more of a DJ,” Rolando says. “I’m giving things a second life.”
The response to his sketches has been overwhelmingly positive. Rather than considering him a copycat or a plagiarizer, photographers have been impressed by his interpretations of their work. At the beginning of October, he published his second zine, this time watercolor sketches of nature scenes. Money from each issue sold will be donated to Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, a group that has been organizing around environmental justice issues in La Villita, a neighborhood burdened by toxic industry since 1994.
The pandemic brought on a moment of reckoning for first-generation Mexican American and illustrator Veronica Martinez. She found a deep sense of community and hope in the protests this summer–one she hadn’t felt working in retail, which used to be her full-time job. Once action hit the streets, she began capturing the tense moments of Cicero, where she grew up, which shook with violent unrest and clashes between Black and Brown neighbors. Pulling from her Latinx culture’s roots of family and community, she felt compelled to do her part to heal and bring people together.
“Wanting to help each other out is at the core of why I create art,” Martinez says. “Is it going to change the world? I don’t know, but if it can help somebody tell their story, then great.”
Martinez felt like gasoline was poured on Chicago this summer–a fuel to create, organize, and be heard. She demoted herself at work and started illustrating for Cicero Independiente, South Side Weekly, and now, Injustice Watch. She has made protest flyers and political art reflecting the upcoming election, police department corruption, and school board protests. She created three murals, in Berwyn, Pilsen, and Little Village, for Alivio Medical Center, showing Black and Brown hands clasped tight with the same message: “Las Vidas Negras Importan” (Black Lives Matter). She says it calls attention to the racism in Latinx culture and is important for the community to see during the pandemic.
“As Latinos, we have a lot of work to do,” she says. “I felt like our community kept hiding behind, ‘We are minorities too,’ but no, we can also be complicit in anti-Blackness. I felt this need to put it out on the wall.”
After losing his job at a call center due to the pandemic, Fernando Delgado turned to art to contribute to the movements. The Mexican-American illustrator’s work was never political until now. He joined social justice groups to visually spread facts about Lori Lightoot’s stance on the police and issues facing the Latinx community, such as immigration rights, environmental racism, and gentrification. His graphic calling to abolish ICE and defund the police is what really took off. “Sin justicia, no hay paz,” (without justice, there is no peace) and “La migra, la policia, la misma porqueria” (ICE officials, the police, both are good-for-nothing trash) is written on the design, which features a group of protesters and ears of corn. A delightful yet impactful parody of the El Milagro tortilla design, the image received an overwhelming response and resonated with the Latinx community.
“Art really came through for me, and not only art, but the people supporting it, and that’s most important to me,” Delgado says.
One of those people is Oscar Sanchez, a first-generation Mexican-American photographer and community organizer who saw the Abolish ICE work and knew its message needed to spread. Sanchez helped create T-shirts and tote bags for sale and helped with marketing and production. “I want to be known for serving people,” Sanchez says. “I want to know the right people that have a talent.”
His goal is always to connect with the community and create with intention. Delgado’s project does this by shining a light on the immigrant struggles and showing solidarity with Afro-Latinxs, Central American immigrants, and others who aren’t as tokenized in the immigrant narrative as Mexicans are.
“It’s powerful–it’s about understanding the institutions at hand meant to tear apart our communities,” he says. “You can’t spell police without ICE. When I smile, when I wear this shirt, it’s a middle finger to the oppressor.”
Delgado didn’t expect his work to be so well-received, but he sold out of the first batch of T-shirts in less than a month. Now, he’s working on production for the second batch and plans to donate proceeds to pro-immigration causes. “It makes me really proud to see people are wearing these shirts, the bags, and saying, ‘This is my message,'” he says.
Amara “Rebel Betty” Martin is a lifelong Chicagoan and third-generation Puerto Rican. Growing up in Lakeview in the 90s, she found refuge in after-school arts programs. She wanted to be an artist from a very young age and has explored all kinds of media, from collages and handmade items to DJing and video editing. The promotional video she mixed for July’s Black Indigenous Solidarity Rally made waves across social media and was one of the first pieces of hers that caught our eyes–and ears. But she has been a prolific artist for years.
“I feel like the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve been able to explore my heritage, or where I come from, in my art,” Rebel Betty says. “I didn’t necessarily, as someone living in the diaspora, have a full understanding of what it meant to be Puerto Rican on the mainland.”
Like many others whose grandparents and parents migrated to the mainland U.S., Rebel Betty feels a sense of privilege in being able to spend her time making art. Her grandmother worked in a factory, and her mother had to put her own personal dreams on hold to raise a family. “I take it very seriously, and I honor that I have the opportunity to do it,” she says.
Rebel Betty’s art has strong feminist solidarity themes. She woke up one day compelled to make a collage for Oluwatoyin “Toyin” Salau, a Nigerian-American Black Lives Matter activist who was kidnapped, sexually assaulted, and murdered in June. Toyin was only 17 years old.
“For myself, being a survivor of patriarchal violence, and just violence from men, that really hit me,” Rebel Betty says. Her piece Black and Brown Forever shows two masked women, dressed with pink and purple accents, looking toward one another. Splashed across the top in a scrawling font is the phrase, “I got your back, and if we stick together they’re finished.” Between them is the hashtag #VivasNosQueremos (“We want us alive”). The hashtag originated as a reference to the ongoing epidemic of violence against women in Mexico–an infuriating crisis the president of the country has tried to minimize.
Rebel Betty says a summer of activism has definitely influenced the way she approaches her art. “A lot of artists, including myself, have stepped out of our little creative cocoons and gone out into the streets to see what’s happening, what people who organize every day are experiencing,” she says. “I know it will affect our work in the future. I know it definitely has affected my artwork.” v