In Miami the ocean behaves like a painting, diversity like an artist’s brushstrokes on a canvas, the immigrant like a dreamer. Swaying like a northerly, “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art”— a powerful art exhibit curated by E. Carmen Ramos and a permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum — made the second stop on its national tour in the temperate landscape of South Florida.
From May 9th until May 11th, nine poets from Miami, Tampa, and El Salvador — Elisa Albo, Adrian Castro, Silvia Curbelo, Mia Leonin, Rita Maria Martinez, Caridad Moro-McCormick, Alexandra Lytton Regalado, and yours truly — convened at Florida International University’s Frost Art Museum to respond to the exhibit’sdiverse collection of works. Under the guidance of Francisco Aragón and Emma Trelles, we engaged in a phenomenal workshop entitled, “PINTURA:PALABRA, a project in ekphrasis”—the brainchild of Letras Latinas, the literary initiative of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
I felt at home around these brilliant writers whose work I had previously read but who now sat next to me, taking down notes and preparing to give me feedback on my ekphrastic pieces. With these poets, I knelt on the floor to engage with a sculpture, or I hopped imperceptibly to establish a relationship of movement with a large painting. I also laid flat on the floor to re-appreciate certain lines and photographed myself against any piece that could reflect me. Throughout, I maintained mental discussions with a sculpture (Luis Jiménez’s Man on Fire) and with how I could offer it a poem. "How do you want me to read your nakedness?" I asked.
"How can I be your medium?" Each time I received a different answer.
Through rich exchanges with my fellow poets, I found out some of them had received a newfound creative jolt from the exhibit and this project. We were provided with context and outside materials to help us consider, for example, each work as a cultural artifact or a visual text. My creative productivity increased since I, too, found myself a part of an inclusive community of Latino writers — a community seldom seen while I was growing up in Allapattah, Florida, but which is currently burgeoning in Miami through a wide range of projects and festivals, such as the O, Miami poetry festival.
Spending time with the exhibit itself, the poetry we were assigned to read, the theoretical essays we analyzed, and what we ultimately produced allowed us to discuss ekphrastic poetry as an exchange that occurs in translation, the body, sensuality, gender, borderlands, Spanglish, diaspora, and family.
Trelles found ways to engage us with the artwork and with the work of other poets who have embarked on similar journeys. She gave us an outstanding bibliography to understand what we were there to produce. Suddenly, we developed the perspicacity to unravel multifarious tensions between Latino vs. Latinidad, Latino vs. Art, Poetry vs.Class; Creation vs. History, Identity vs. Perception, Culture vs. Ontology. And respond respond to the artwork we did!
Weeks before I witnessed it in person, I gravitated — almost out of submission — towards Luis Jiménez’s Man on Fire, a robust fiberglass sculpture first unveiled in 1969. The figure’s size, gloss, color distribution, and
themes of sacrifice, martyrdom and sexuality all appealed to me. These factors enabled me to reconnect with my own past as well. I went to art school when I was a child, but because of money and stigma, I was never able to properly fulfill that dream. This exhibit reminded me that as a poet, I am also an artist. Man on Fire, a take on the Aztec ruler Cuauhtémoc, whose death is recontextualized as a protest emblem against the Vietnam War, helped me reflect on how my mother emigrated from Honduras and my stepfather from Cuba, and how countless of lives are lost in the pursuit of concretizing a dream. Jiménez’s figure stands as tall as a rock ‘n’ roll star, but his skin melts under tragedy and memory’s burden. He’s pride and suffering, simultaneously.
Elia Alba is another artist whose photography I found arresting; she celebrates and further complicates identity in her work. Her Larry Levan-inspired pictures, forinstance, depict different people wearing masks of Levan’s face. Levan was an American DJ, a pioneer of house music, and a staple of New York City’s nightclub scene. Alba highlights Levan’s interplay of genres to show that identity is always shifting, forever reveling in contradiction.
As a gay Latino poet who writes from the margins, I find in Alba’s work a Latino community whose makeup is defined by oppositions, conquests, and confusion, and whose lives are a daily negotiation through them. Alba and Jiménez are just a few artists in this exhibit whose work demonstrates precisely the diversity of our Latino perspectives.
Of course, diversity is a condition that goes beyond exteriors, and through “Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art” and “PINTURA:PALABRA” I have discovered much more potential in my writing. I have also developed more pride in the work of my fellow writers and pride for those artists who constantly try to overcome innumerable challenges to celebrate our numerous traditions. Latinos have an important voice in the United States and these brief but fertile exchanges remind us of that.
Roy G. Guzmán is a Honduran-American poet whose work has appeared in The Acentos Review, BorderSenses, Compose, Drunken Boat, NonBinary Review, and Red Savina Review.
He received his BA from the University of Chicago and his MA from Dartmouth. A Florida resident, he will be pursuing his MFA this fall at the University of Minnesota.