Art As Protest: Preserving Latinx Culture through Murals
"The mural at Duke was defaced...because it made people aware that there is a vibrant and powerful Latinx community in the university and the area," notes Dr. Márquez, a Romance Studies Professor at UNC. Duke Arts explores how Duke students and community members used visual art to protest the defacement of a Latinx Heritage mural on East Campus.
A Mural Defaced Amidst Celebration
National Hispanic Heritage month is from September 15 to October 15 and is a special time to commemorate and appreciate the rich culture of Latinx communities locally, nationally, and globally. To celebrate the month, students of Duke’s Mi Gente (Latinx Students Association) gathered to paint a mural on the bridge tunnel, only to return less than a day after the mural’s completion to find black spray paint covering their artwork.
In this article, Duke Arts hears from Mi Gente members Benny Romero (Class of 2021) and Susana Gutiérrez (Class of 2022) for their thoughts on the event and the community’s response. Dr. Alejandra Márquez, a Romance Studies Professor at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, also offers her thoughts on the role of the arts in responding to acts of hate and in furthering a deeper understanding of complex Latinx identities.
Read on to meet Dr. Márquez, Benny, and Susana through an interview by Creative Arts Student Team Member, Casey Pettiford (Class of 2020).
A Turn of Events After Months of Planning
“A lot of planning went into this,” says Benny Romero, a Mexican-American student who serves as Publicity Chair for Duke Mi Gente. Susana Gutiérrez, who also identifies as Mexican-American and works closely with Mi Gente’s political action and community engagement committees, added: “The mural was supposed to be the start of this celebratory month.” The mural, which was completed the Saturday afternoon of Duke Homecoming 2018, was a success as both a community-building event and as a visual representation of the Latinx Heritage month kick-off.
The next day, both Romero and Gutiérrez received notification from members in their group that a co-president had driven by the mural that afternoon and found, to her horror and dismay, the student’s work scratched out with black graffiti lines. No one could pinpoint the culprit. “For maybe a week, we were in the dark in terms of a lead. iIn the meantime, we had a bunch of different news teams and organizations cover our story, including The Chronicle and Huffington Post,” noted Romero.
Protest and Paint: Mi Gente Responds
Romero and Gutiérrez note the Mi Gente members regrouped and strategized the best way to create a new mural that still honored the Heritage month while responding to the implicit defamation of the original mural. The students ultimately decided to paint two murals next to each other: one mural would include a phrase signifying resilience painted over the black spray paint marks, while the other would clear some of the wall by being painted in white, signifying a blank canvas. According to Romero and Gutiérrez, the phrase signifying resilience that the students chose comes from an old Mexican proverb, which reads, in its English translation: “They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.” Romero notes: “They literally tried burying our mural with their black spray paint and we came back stronger than before, which was the perfect poetic justice.” When asked about the message behind the phrase, Gutiérrez explained:
“We’re still here and we’re going to continue to be here.”
That Sunday, Mi Gente continued with their programming and held a barbecue on East Campus, with many alumni, Durham community members, and Duke students and faculty coming out to show their support, including President Price. Before the end of the barbecue, students returned to the unfinished white canvas and finished painting the new commemorative Latinx Heritage Month mural. Standing side by side with even more community members ready to support the new painting encouraged Romero, Gutiérrez, and other members of Mi Gente to find unity and empowerment in the midst of a tumultuous three-day period.
Looking Forward: Latinx Identities and Artistic Resistance
When asked how Latinx communities at Duke continue to use art as signals of resilience and unity, Gutiérrez noted: “We make art that reflects our hopes, our anxieties and our experiences; Latinx students creating art is very much a way of translating their existence as a highly politicized body in the United States right now and turning those experiences into something tangible that other people can understand and that other people can appreciate.” Romero added: “In terms of art, art is a very popular way to preserve culture or display culture. It’s one of the most beautiful ways. In terms of being a minority at Duke, there will be people who are inspired by you and your story, and there will also be people who probably judge you or look down on you for that. My best advice is just keep on doing you.”
“We make art that reflects our hopes, our anxieties and our experiences.”
Dr. Alejandra Márquez, whose research explores how other art forms such as film and literature shape knowledge production surrounding Latin American and Mexican identities, defined art as “an ideal medium for understanding, questioning, and depicting identity.” She noted that this is why artists such as Frida Kahlo are so important for Latinx visibility. Not only can art “capture and convey feelings”, says Márquez, but it is “important for visibility.” This notion of visibility is why Márquez believes the mural at Duke was defaced; she also highlights that acts that attempt to silence artistic voices can bring “out the worst in some people.” She notes that “art can be a very powerful political statement and an ideal way to fight back. We are living in a very politically-charged time, where we see racism, homophobia, and misogyny being normalized daily and disguised as freedom of speech.” She concluded:
“I think that what students did in response to the mural being defaced was exactly what needed to be done.”
Casey Pettiford (Class of 2020) is majoring in International Comparative Studies with a focus on Latin America. Upon graduation, she plans to use her love of Spanish and global cultures to promote the performing arts globally and to incorporate her interests in theater, writing, and mixed media to create opportunities for minority communities to share their diverse stories. Casey is currently a member of the Duke Creative Arts Student Team (CAST).