Saturday, February 27, 2010

Candido Veras, the Underdog, or, I Wanna Be Your Dog

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.


Cliff said...

Hey Grisel,

Great post... First of all, I really dig that painting! I'd be interested in learning a bit more about where I might be able to see Candido's work.

Interesting observation about self-perceptions of being "the flavor" vs. "the substance" that one's still rattling around in my brain... can't say I disagree.

And I had no idea that Kravitz and Gudmansdottir ghost-did stuff for Madge... Vincent may be the librarian, but you're a damn fine pop-culture DJ my friend :-)

Grisel said...

Thanks, Cliff! Actually, I wasn't finished with the blog, but I'm glad you liked the 1st draft. There were a couple of items I wanted to put in, namely the section on Tato Laviera and Julia de Burgos. Gosh, I should just create a list of all the amazingly talented people who we've learned from but haven't taken care of. Edgar Allen Poe, Van Gogh, Pedro Pietri, La Lupe, goes on and on. So sad.

Grisel said...

Oh, and Cliff, you can see more of Candido's work if you click on the highlighted "excellent" link within the paragraph that describes him.

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Veras said...

Mi hermana, thank you so much for writing your thoughts and sentiments. It's been a difficult journey which we have endured in the past eight months without my brother. Everything you wrote is true. I am starting to make phone calls and make arrangements. I promised Candido a retrospective of his works and I will not stop until my promise este cumplida. He gave a lot to the latino comunity here in San Antonio. He wanted his voice to be heard, he wanted for Art to thrive in the Latin community and above all to share his vision and colors and his passion for life. Muchos besos a ti y a Vincent.

Anonymous said...

Lovely sharp post. Never thought that it was this easy. Extolment to you!

frenchdomini05 said...

hey my name is julien vincent , candido was my tio,my mother is his sister,i really enjoyed reading this

Daphne Strassmann said...

Wow. It is a sad day for me. I had no idea Cándido had died. I am two years too late. I lost touch with him after my mom died. He was there in the aftermath trying to dream up some event to commemorate her memory. Cándido was a great friend, a lovable, handsome, and energetic soul. If anyone does put a retrospective together, please contact me. I own several of his pieces. My family and I were fortunate to have Cándido in and out of our lives for many years... and yes, during the Blue Star newborn days. I took it for granted that he would appear again mysteriously, just like he did one day, almost twenty years ago. Imaginate... otro Dominicano en San Antonio? What were the chances?

Gary D. Gant said...

I had no idea that Candido had passed. i first met Candido in 1981when I lived in San Antonio and later reconnected with him via phone and mail in 1990. I was fortunate enough to have purchased four pieces of his artwork in the early 1990's and they adorn my home to this very day. He was such a positive and upbeat man who loved his family, especially his daughters. He was one of the most talented artists to have graced the San Antonio arts scene in decades; his legacy and his spirit will live forever. What a great man and a great friend.

rob dizo said...

How sad to hear about Candido's passing. I saw and spoke with him just before his passing and I remember him being quite full of life. In fact, I interviewed him and at no time did he indicate he was afflicted with anything life-threatening. That was Candido - always so full of life. May he rest in peace and God bless you all who keep his memory alive.

Abraham De La Torre said...

I was his apprentice during the late 80's. I remember working on some of his paintings and helping him prepare the canvas and other duties around the studio, at Blue Star. I use to enjoy the watermelon paintings and rounded body figures. He had a unique technique to painting that I've never seen but at that time there was allot of labor that was put into those paintings.. Guess that why he accepted me in. I was glad to be a part of that process even though it was just for a short time.
I just found out he died too. I wish I could of have met him again to show him my body of work and accomplishments through the past years.
-Abraham De La Torre
Artist Website-

Gary Gant said...

I did not realize that Candido had passed away until after his death. he was a great human being who was passionate about his art. It is sad that there wasn't a celebration of his life after his passing. I met him in 1981 and last spoke with him in 2009. I had not seen him since 1982, but we seemed to reconnect via phone every 6 to 7 years. I have four of his paintings; he was an artistic genius.

Buck said...

I found this blog because I am having a day of remembering Candido, and it does my heart good to see that numerous people remember his genius, not only as an artist, but as vivacious person that expressed his life in many ways. He was the life of the party, and his life was filled with the reasons to have a party. His art on canvas was as brilliant as his art in the kitchen, where he cooked the best Dominican food I have tasted. His art could be seen on the dance floor, where he shined, and made the difference on how successful a party turned out. I still remember his smile, very easy and genuine, with just a hint of mischief hiding in it. Thank you for writing this blog, and the comments as well. Meeting Candido was a reason to remember him.