At the 2010 Latino Art Now! conference in Los Angeles it hit me — the nagging feeling that Latino artists and poets aren’t meaningfully aware of one another, or of the canvases and poems that flourish in their respective fields. It left me wondering: How might we aspire to bridge this gap?
A year later, a potential opportunity emerged when I learned that the next Latino Art Now! would convene in Washington DC in the fall of 2013. The conference, which brings together scholars, historians, collectors, and artists, would intentionally coincide with the opening of Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art, a major exhibit featuring seventy-two artists, with artworks spanning from the fifties to the present. Guided by the vision of E. Carmen Ramos, curator of Latino art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, sixty-three of the exhibit’s ninety-two pieces were added to the permanent collection expressly for the show. Ramos would prove to be an instrumental advocate and ally for the project I had in mind.
“PINTURA : PALABRA, a project in ekphrasis” is a multi-year initiative overseen by Letras Latinas, the literary program of the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies, and partially supported by the generosity of the Weissberg Foundation. A panel I moderated on poetry and art at the aforementioned DC conference served as the initiative’s official launch in November 2013. Since then, the initiative has evolved into a range of related activities to encourage the creation of art-inspired poetry: curated workshops at the traveling exhibit’s host museums; self-directed on-site residencies with the exhibit serving as a prompt; and invitations to selected writers to respond to the exhibit remotely, via its gorgeously produced catalog.
The principal “outcomes,” if you will, have consisted of portfolios published in partnering journals. Two have appeared thus far in Poet Lore and Notre Dame Review. Another three are in the works and forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review, The Packinghouse Review, and Western Humanities Review. With twenty poems by twelve poets, this is the lone portfolio of the PINTURA : PALABRA initiative that includes reproductions of the artworks alongside the poems, thanks to the generosity of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
In the pages that follow, readers will experience how rich and unpredictable Latino poetry can be. For example, the portfolio includes poems by three Chicano/a elders: Juan Felipe Herrera, Lorna Dee Cervantes, and Tino Villanueva. Anyone familiar with the history of Chicano poetry might consider those terms (“Chicano/a” and “elder”) and expect a poem about, say, Frank Romero’s The Death of Rubén Salazar. (One of the exhibit’s major pieces, it is a large canvas that depicts an iconic and tragic moment during the National Chicano Moratorium march in Los Angeles in 1970.) Instead, our current US poet laureate riffs off of Olga Albizu’s abstract work, Radiante, an image that graced, as did other color-rich Albizu images in the sixties, the covers of various jazz albums. Villanueva’s poem, “Field of Moving Colors Layered,” is a reflective monologue about Alberto Valdés’s abstract Untitled. Cervantes, for her part, invokes Lorca’s rhythms with her trance-inducing repetition of “blue” in her particular take on Carlos Almaraz’s neo-expressionist work, Night Magic (Blue Jester).
I highlight these poets and artworks to demonstrate that where one might expect a more explicitly political poetry, that expectation is thwarted. This is not to say there aren’t any political works here — there certainly are — but Latino art and poetry are too often assumed to be exclusively political. The images presented in this portfolio showcase the variety of mediums and themes within modern and contemporary Latino art. Likewise, this selection of poems underscores multiplicity as a mirror of what Latino poetry is today.
Poet, translator, essayist, editor, and San Francisco native Francisco Aragón studied Spanish at the University of California at Berkeley and New York University. He earned an MA from the University of California at Davis and an MFA from the University of Notre Dame. Exploring how language and genre both connect and...