A Reflection on Discourse, Disruption, and Latinidad in Miami
Before I moved to Miami last year, I ran around New York researching the studio practices of Black and Brown artists and the ecosystems that supported them. I wanted to understand how these artists are supported and nurtured and what infrastructure they need to have their work sold, celebrated, and shared with the public. What I learned through my many conversations with artists, I ultimately already knew by way of my own experience working in the art world: it takes mad hustle, and usually, the artists sustain their artistic practice through several other side hustles. This intense laboring, I learned, creates a tension for artists: they are caught between supporting themselves and helping out their own families when they can while remaining free enough to pour what is left of their energy into creative pursuits. There is a similar tautness for Black and Brown arts administrators, especially for those of us who come from low-income households—families focused on surviving, with little to no disposable income, and only enough funds for the necessities. Art is a luxury.
As an arts administrator working in New York, I focused my research on Black and Indigenous Latinx artists. I attended symposiums, community meetings, gatherings hosted by the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, art openings, closings, panels in East Harlem moving the community to action to help our folks in Puerto Rico, discussions among artists in salas, and arguments over henny and chimis in artist studios uptown. I was everywhere. I was listening. I understood clearly: there are many art worlds at work simultaneously, and depending on where your interests lie and what access you have, you either see them or you don’t. I knew that the elite New York art world, although often wanting to position itself as neutral, is shaped by structural racism—a product of structural injustices in our society that repeatedly produce and maintain racial disparities.
My research in New York resulted in an article on the academic, institutional, and market support for Latinx art. I found that what was needed most was solidarity among artists and arts administrators— active connections that would lead to exhibition opportunities and to scholarship that contextualizes Latinx artwork within U.S. art history. Though my knowledge of Latinx art movements was highly informed by growing up and living mostly on the East Coast, a curatorial fellowship at the Pérez Art Museum Miami presented me with an opportunity to complicate further the notion of Latinidad and to move beyond the particularities a New York sensibility portends by relocating to a majority Latinx city in the South.
I had been to Miami a few times for Miami Art Week in December, and I have relatives living in West Palm Beach and Port St. Lucie. As a child, I even lived in Orlando before moving back to the Bronx. I was really curious to see what Miami was like outside of Art Week. I knew I would want to make sure that I took the time to experience every part of Miami that I could, especially those west of Biscayne (the less touristy areas of the large city).
Although the labels Black, Latinx, femme, and queer apply to me, my presence is distinct from that of other Black and Brown folks who have long called this city home. I am newly arrived; I am able-bodied and racially ambiguous, and, although I center my Blackness, the fact that I have the choice to do so and am not always perceived as a Black woman is a privilege in itself. I say this because I think it is important to acknowledge that, while we might have parallels and similar concerns, I am not necessarily here on the same terms as other Black and Brown Miamians. I was granted a two-year fellowship by an art institution and moved here with resources and direct access to the art ecosystem within Miami. If I were not to acknowledge this difference, I would be acting in the same way as Black and Brown transplants in New York City who often fail to recognize the consequences of their relocation for native New Yorkers. No matter what way I decide to be of service to the creative community in Miami, it is vital that I keep these realities in mind and try to learn as much as I can about the city’s history and current conditions.
Shortly after arriving, I was invited by Maria Elena Ortiz, Associate Curator at PAMM, and Natalia Zuluaga, independent curator, to co-organize Latinx Art Sessions. They had been working together for months to bring this two-day gathering to life. The convening was intended to be an opportunity to speak openly about the topic of Latinidad in Miami, as well as throughout the U.S. The convening consisted of three panels, each moderated by one of the organizers; studio visits for artist residents with our partner, Art Center South Florida; and a final dinner with panelists and participants. The panel I moderated, titled Disrupting Binaries in Latinidad, was an opportunity to consider how U.S. Latinx artists, journalists, curators, and academics navigate being caught between different colonial legacies. It addressed the dilemma of living the hyphen: being too much of one thing and not enough of another depending on where you are and who is asking. This conversation centered Black/Indigenous/queer/non-binary Latinx voices and included me (a curator), artists Morel Doucet and Guadalupe Maravilla, and Ain’t I Latina founder and journalist Janel Martinez.
I began my talk with a slide that read: Museums are not neutral. It was important to highlight this because we were having the conversation inside of a museum. Museums might be perceived as neutral, but the decisions and processes that determine what exhibitions are supported, what programs are funded, and which the audiences are prioritized all happen covertly behind closed doors with sometimes implicit bias. A public is addressed and served as a result of conversations that take place in private among a select group of individuals. Never forget that. When we see artwork in a museum, our interpretation of the work is informed by the space in which we view the art. We might process the work as more established or accept it as a standard of excellence simply because it is in the museum space.
It was difficult to co-organize Latinx Art Sessions since Latinidad in Miami is a topic that is met with different passionate, intergenerational, and regional perspectives. I was fearful, but I was inspired by Maria Elena and Natalia and their push to make the museum a real-life sala. In our planning sessions, we made sure that panels were representative of different lived experiences within Latinidad in Miami. It was important to us that the talks were free and open to the public. We invited artists and scholars who have experienced pivotal shifts in identity politics in the art world and who were part of resistance movements dating back to the middle of the 20th century. Historically, much of the formative discourse surrounding Latinx art has centered Chicanx and Nuyorican art movements. Although, as a result of many waves of migration, Miami has long been home to a large and racially diverse Latinx population, the examination of the city’s stake and contributions within the Latinx art discourse is fairly new.
Before Doucet, Maravilla, and Martinez spoke, I presented findings illustrating the benefits of racially complicating the mistakenly homogeneous and problematic “Hispanic” category in Miami-Dade County. Looking at race within the category of Latinx ethnicity is especially important in a region like South Florida, which has had several waves of immigration from the Caribbean and Central and South America, as well as having had a significant Indigenous, Black American, Bahamian, and Afro-Caribbean presence at its inception. Museums should serve as places in which cultural and sociopolitical issues are examined, tensions within the community are addressed, and artists whose work presents solutions for the community are continually supported.
My panel was a moment wherein Blackness and Latinidad were not separate, but one. We specifically chose local Haitian-American artist Doucet to participate, as acknowledging our Haitian community was key. Audience members applauded and cheered after his opening remark: “It was very important for me to be part of this panel because you cannot have a conversation about Latinx without including Haiti.” This affirmation was not a surprise, since the Haitian community in South Florida has a formidable presence, with population numbers upwards of 300,000. (It is the largest concentration of Haitians in the country.)
Although Haitians should always be included when questions of Latinidad are being addressed, Haitians and Latinidad are often discussed in opposition to one another. It is crucial for Haiti to be centered in the conversation of Latinidad in Miami and beyond because Haiti’s contributions to the development of Latin America and the Caribbean are paramount. Yet, Haiti’s role within this historical reflection and contemporary discourse is often minimized and dismissed.
Doucet shared an image of his piece The Brown Menagerie (2015). There are three figures sitting next to one another dipped in what looks like rich dark brown chocolate. The figures are glazed ceramic covered in aerosol paint, with limbs missing and foliage where one would expect each figure’s head to be. The work was inspired by a study of the color brown, wherein over 3,000 people were asked to choose a color from a box of crayons and the color brown was the color most often left in the box. Doucet depicted foliage found in the Allapattah neighborhood of Miami, a primarily Dominican-American neighborhood nicknamed “Little Santo Domingo” in 2003. Inclusion of the foliage from this specific area of Miami is a nod to the violent and painful history and current relationship between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Blackness has been criminalized in the Dominican Republic and the country’s government systematically stripped thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship and immigration status.
Doucet’s artwork explores narratives of vulnerability and the displacement of the African diaspora, and it complicates our understanding of Blackness as static and unchanging. He addressed the audience initially by sharing that, for him, the terms Afro-Latinx/Latinx have a racial bias informed by colorism and the erasure of Black people. Because of this, it was important for him to speak and claim the term publicly, as Blackness and Latinidad are often read as mutually exclusive in the U.S.
I was interested in hosting a conversation that expanded our notions of Latinidad across different sectors. After Doucet spoke, we shifted to a discussion of how the movement to create a collective understanding of Latinidad within an intersectional framework is happening simultaneously in the work artists produce, on social media, and on digital news platforms. Martinez referred to the newsroom as the canvas within which she unites the Black diaspora from across Latin America and the Caribbean. “My family is Afro-Indigenous from Honduras. We are Garifuna. As you can see I am a Black woman. Being Latinx has been a part of my existence before the terminology came to be. I want to cover topics of the diaspora and the exclusion of Blackness, Asian identity, Indigenous identity. For me, Ain’t I Latina was about covering particularly Afro-Latinx womxn. When I say womxn, I want to be clear that I’m not saying just cis womxn: I mean however you choose to identify under the umbrella of womxnhood.”
Martinez has covered Garifuna culture in the U.S., written about workshops that are aimed at healing Haitian-Dominican divides through lessons on their shared history, offered reflections on the Afro-Latina term as it moves away from centering Black womxn, and critiqued Latinx media (Television and Univision, whose major studios are in Miami) for their refusal to hire consistently racially diverse casts and for their insistence on promoting European beauty standards. Her journalism provides us with language on how to discuss and understand issues of colorism and disenfranchisement within the Latinx community, always contextualized by a cultural and political historical analysis. Her admission her native language was not Spanish, but Garifuna—an Afro-Indigenous language of the Arawak family—transitioned us into a discussion on transdisciplinary artist Maravilla’s work, which celebrates Indigenous culture.
Maravilla first shared the story behind why they decided to change their name from Irvin Morazan to Guadalupe Maravilla. They were part of the first wave of unaccompanied children to arrive from Central America at the U.S. border in the 1980s. As a gesture of solidarity with their undocumented father—who uses Maravilla as his last name in his fake identity—and the undocumented community at large, they changed their name. Maravilla’s work honors immigrant, Indigenous Latinx culture and becomes a stage for the invisible experience of being undocumented. They shared images of their 2018 Whitney Museum performance, which was part of the Whitney’s first U.S. Latinx exhibition, Pacha, Llaqta, Wasichay: Indigenous Space, Modern Architecture, New Art. Maravilla invited their students, who are DACA recipients, to participate in the performance; incorporated a mythical family of immigrant vampires who only drank the blood of Americans; and had quincieñeras in mourning because of the atrocities happening at the border.
One of the most striking takeaways from Maravilla’s message was the internal conflict with which they wrestled. While they assured the audience that their experience working with staff at the Whitney was wonderful, they noted that they also were disappointed to learn that that the vice chair of the Whitney’s board, Warren B. Kanders, is the owner and CEO of the weapons manufacturer Safariland, which produced tear-gas canisters used on asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border earlier this year. “As an artist, it was such a difficult moment because of my connection to the Whitney. We have to question everything including my role within institutions. It’s interesting to be invited to perform, and then three months later, I’m protesting in the same space. I have friends that are terrified to post anything on social media in support of the protests because they’re afraid they may never get a chance to show at museums.” Watching Maravilla grapple on stage with the reality of how the institutional space that hosted their performance benefits financially from the violence against their own community at the border, brought me back to the ethical dilemma many artists face: Black and Brown artists practicing socially engaged work often have to choose between the prestige institutional backing can provide and stay true to the core values embodied in their work. When museums present themselves as places open to hosting an exchange of ideas yet meet the public’s criticism or attempts to hold it accountable with silence, their actions do not align with what they currently aspire to be.
I have not lost hope in the belief that museums can be transformational spaces for everyone. Museums should be hubs of cultural exchange, refuge, and support for a creative community, as well as spaces to celebrate, to mourn, to organize, and to foster awareness. While museums now strive—according to their missions—to welcome independent learning and to be a safe haven for folks to engage in civic dialogue, they haven’t always been successful in being the living room of a community. To center community means to prioritize being of service— action beyond mission statements—to all, and especially to those who are most vulnerable. This means amplifying conversations that are generative in our pursuit of addressing systemic inequities in our communities. PAMM and Art Center South Florida’s hosting of Latinx Art Sessions is one such example.
I walked away from those two days with mixed emotions. I was proud of what Maria Elena, Natalia, and I made possible, deeply encouraged by my colleagues, and honored that the Miami community showed up and supported us. I also encountered what felt like a brick wall with some Latinx folks of a different generation who could not see a need to do away with the gender binary or who became so hung up on the word, that the idea of solidarity and what could come of it faded into the background. Still, I’m grateful for this experience and hope that the discomfort felt by some inspires growth and new ways of seeing. I hope that the Miami community felt seen and heard and that this kind of gathering inspires other institutions, individuals, and organizers to address painful collective histories directly.
For institutions to truly be for everyone, they must be open to criticism, transparent in their findings regarding who they have left out, and take risks by implementing radical structural changes. They must address uncomfortable topics, support grassroots organizers, and routinely host open listening sessions with the community. Given the contentious dialogues regarding the role of arts institutions within their respective communities, it is imperative that museums step into the briar patch of this messy field and lead in untangling the complexities of a multifarious community.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Naiomy Guerrero is an art historian and arts equity advocate. Her research focuses on highlighting contemporary Latinx artists born or long living in the U.S., their contributions to the cannon of U.S. art history and development of the Latinx art market. Guerrero’s work as a writer, curator, and on social media has highlighted the intersection of blackness with the larger discourse of Latinx and Latin American art, and how that intersectionality has often been marginalized. Her research has been shared by NPR Latino, Artsy, and Teen Vogue.
Guerrero is the inaugural curatorial fellow of the Pérez Art Museum Miami’s Diversifying Art Museum Leadership Initiative. The two-year fellowship, endowed by the Walton Family Foundation and the Ford Foundation, aims to offer curatorial training to young professionals from historically underrepresented groups in curatorial and museum leadership. She is a Posse Foundation scholar and holds a B.A. in Art History from DePauw University. She co-curated the Perez Art Museum’s 35th Anniversary permanent collection exhibition ‘The Gift of Art’, currently on view and co-organized the first Latinx Art Sessions convening to discuss the U.S. Latinx Art Cannon with scholars, art professionals, creatives, and the community at large in Miami.