Saturday, February 27, 2010
I once had a student tell me that he didn't care to know about Caribbean history, that the way the culture in the Caribbean had influenced U.S. culture was not too important, not like the way Latin, for example, had been such a strong influence. He was a young fraternity pledge and drew no connection between the Latin he was learning in his frat to the concept of Latinidad. By the end of the semester, he seemed to have changed his tune, having worked on a group project with a very wise Latina student, but I never forgot the initial stance he had. I never forgot his initial stance because I encounter it all the time, not from the young and inexperienced, but from adults, adults who see the Caribbean as a backdrop to the U.S., not the place that has provided us with food and culture that has influenced everything from jazz to hip hop to how we dance, not the place that provided the first European settlers in the Americas with a sugar economy that allowed countries like the U.S. to grow. To such folks, the Caribbean is a vacation, a colorful backdrop, like a painting in our work environment that we pass by but hardly look at.
The painting you see posted here is much larger than the electronic version implies. It is about 15 feet across and six feet tall. It hangs within the winding staircase that leads to the John Peace Library at the University of Texas at San Antonio. It was created by Candido Veras, an amazing San Antonio artist who also happened to be Dominicano. He died last year with very little fanfare.
I first met Candido on the day Vincent and I moved into the Blue Star Arts complex. As soon as he and his sister saw us, they knew we were Caribbean and we were met with smiles and squeals of welcome. I noticed the Dominican flag in his window and immediately felt at home. Candido treated us like family. When I got sick, he had a special tea for me. At Christmas, he made us pasteles. He showed us all his art and photos he had taken with the mayor and other local dignitaries. He came to our parties and made sure everyone was smiling and laughing. However, our friendship was short-lived because Blue Star management pretty much kicked him out of his space, even though he had lived there since the property opened. Candido had become sick with cancer after having been exposed to asbestos on the property and he implied that management wanted him out for that reason. The last time Vincent and I saw him, he was living in a cold-water loft, kiddie corner from the Alamo. The space was enormous, cool, with neon lettering from the front of the building shining through the curved windows, but the plumbing was bad and there wasn't any heat or proper circulation. It was painful to see him living that way, and I didn't know what to do.
Soon, Vincent and I moved out of the Blue Star and we lost touch with Candido. I found out he was ill because someone posted something here on the blog about it. Shortly after that, I found out he had passed away. How is it that someone who has their work of art in a government-sponsored institution can simply be forgotten in such a way? His work was excellent and he was always working on new paintings. Candido could not be called a lazy man - dude was always hustling, and doing it with a smile, no matter how sick he was. It is attitudes like the one I referred to at the beginning of this blog that allow this to happen. Candido was not just a talented Caribbean man, he was also a talented American, San Antonian, Texan. Dig? His language, colors, voice, affect the students at UTSA every time they pass by his painting, whether they notice it or not.
And this brings me to my point. I know exactly why Candido was allowed to pass away unnoticed. It was because he lived an alternative lifestyle, he was eccentric and strange, but most importantly, he was a Black Latino who was eccentric and living an alternative lifestyle. Era Caribeno, and we still refuse to see how the people who we have had an intimate relationship with since 1492 continue to influence and inspire us, feed us and provide us with economic opportunity, change the way we think and live. La influencia de los Caribenos. Caribbeans have been placed in the position of flavoring. That is, we add to the mix a bit of spice, but we are not the true substance. At least, that's what people convince themselves.
However, lest you think I'm just on a racial/ethnic tip, let me point out that this is a tendency we all have, regardless of race. For example, it is well known that David Bowie stole/bought ideas from Iggy Pop, Joey Arias, Peter Murphy and Klaus Nomi, but those other guys were never allowed the power of Bowie. It is also well known that Madonna has amazed the world with her brilliance by using ideas from young Black and Latino dancers in NYC, Bjork, and Lenny Kravitz, to name just a few. Bjork and Kravitz have attained their own glory, but they had to allow Madonna to pass their work off as her own (collaboration, my ass). Close to my heart, the punk movement was started by poor kids in England, including the Caribbean ska movement that was popularized there by multiple young Black artists; now, that has been absorbed by watered down acts like Green Day (on Broadway, for heaven's sake) and No Doubt, which stand for the exact opposite of what punk originally intended. I cannot lie - this kind of stuff makes me a hater, hater, hater. I cannot stand when the smaller guy influences the bigger guy and gets no credit. It makes my blood boil thick. I cannot stand that we, at UTSA, get to enjoy Candido's art, yet most of us who pass by it have no idea who he was or why who he was might be important to us. Perhaps, this is why I married Vincent, who always takes the time to find out names and history. There is a reason I call him the librarian.
There are those of us who will never get a ticker tape parade, or accepted into an MFA program, or an Academy Award, or even a memorial event, after we die, at the school where our work hangs. Iggy Pop isn't getting invited to the White House (although, I really think it's a shame cuz I'd pay to see that). But even Iggy Pop has international fame and gets some perks. There are people right now who have international fame but are considered so unimportant by some, that they are homeless. Tato Laviera is considered one of the U.S.'s most important authors, for his poetic descriptions of what it is like to be from more than one place. He is revered in Europe and Africa, to name a few continents. Just a few weeks ago the New York Times ran an article about his homelessness. Luckily, the Latino/a population of writers and family in New York has been holding fundraisers to counteract what has been happening to Laviera, but he has come dangerously close to the fate of Julia de Burgos, the Puerto Rican poet who died unknown in Harlem. She has been called Puerto Rico's greatest poet, by the way, and she forged an honesty in her poetry that few Latinas allowed themselves in her day. For her honesty, she was repaid with poverty and obscurity. How can we do this to these people who have taught us so much?
There should be something, something for the person who was badass, did his/her own thing, didn't kiss anyone's ass to get the grant, always worked hard to be creative without any thanks (or without pay or dignity, in the case of the slaves in the sugarcane fields), who created beauty while being ignored (until the beauty was appropriated for someone else's use), who fed and cared for the unappreciative, whose history was buried or discarded, who found the missing history and brought it to life, regardless.
What is that something, I wonder. It should not be in the afterlife because that's just b.s. We need to tell these folks here and now that they are valuable. I guess that's about all we can do.