"We are trying too hard to appease to the tourism that we are destroying our culture in the process. It prevents culture from growing."
2018 is coming to an end and 2019 is on the horizon. Although 2018 was a year full of heartbreak in regards to racism and dehumanization of people trying to find a better life, people need to be reminded that the United States, like many other countries were and are made up of immigrants. We are all immigrants. Through all that heartbreak there has been a surge of upcoming businesses, artists, and even musicians that are embracing their Latinx roots and are making their voices heard louder than ever.
Usually when one thinks of active Latinx artists one thinks of places like California, New York, Texas, and several other states, but not Nevada especially not Las Vegas, a city often characterized by colorful lights and abundance of booze and casinos. That is a very wrong concept. Some might not know that there are artists like Jess Vanessa, which I interviewed a few weeks ago, who are breaking through these stereotypes. Breaking away from the Elvis' and Monroe's and doing art that embraces the Latinx culture whether it's an altar or depicting a Quinceañera which are both very symbolic in Mexican culture.
Jess and I met at a local match shop where we discussed art, Las Vegas, real support for the Chicanx/Latinx movement and those that just want to profit from it.
Jess, a second generation living in the Las Vegas, clearly proud of her roots said that her story starts with her grandpa, who was from Chihuahua and started coming to the U.S during the Bracero Era. His journey started first through Texas and then California and eventually ended in Vegas due to the train tracks. “He was the first Latino to have a key to one of the boxes that operate, and he was super proud of this when he was alive. We still have it somewhere around the house.”
She continued by mentioning that her father also grew up in Las Vegas and he can recall a time to when it was a small city and how it has grown to what it is today. "He basically knows everyone. My mom came from Durango and she met my dad and I was born!" Jess mentioned that from growing up in Las Vegas she can recall a lot of building and casinos that are no longer in place in. "It's sad because many of these places were rich in history. One that they tore down was the Moulin Rouge, which was literally on the other side of the tracks on Freemont. That was the first integrated casino. People here don't really address that segregation. It totally existed. That was one of the casinos my grandpa and family used to go to back in the day. They tore it down instead of preserving it."
The conversation then continued and we talked about the very transient culture that Vegas has. "We are trying too hard to appease to the tourism that we are destroying our culture in the process. It prevents culture from growing." No truer words have been spoken. She mentioned that she was lucky to have a family that preserved their culture, including speaking Spanish at home.
That is one of the biggest reasons that Jess decided to do the art she does. She is trying to showcase her roots and her culture! "For example when you have a person walk up to your painting and it has nopales, to a Latinx person a nopal means growth. It invokes imageries of self-protection, medicine, food, jokes and so on. There is so much symbolism and cultural meaning in them that when a person who is not Latinix walks up to me and says, "that is a cactus, I don't get it."" She mentioned that many times they walk away because they think it's just another "Latino thing".
Jess and I then began to talk about this resurgence in embracing the Chicanx culture and how there are great companies with a great cause, but there are also companies that want to take advantage of it. I asked Jess if this has hurt or helped her art and she said it has definitely helped her, especially in connecting to other artists. "However, it does suck to talk to someone who is just in on it for the hype."
After she finished saying that, I followed up by asking her whether she has any Latinx/Chicanx heroes that she looks up to and that influence her art. "Lately in my installation work, what I try to do is to depict a person in my life or someone in the community. The one piece I really started getting into that was El Tejido de la Vida. In that one I focused on the matriarchy of Latinx families." She said that a lot of this stemmed from teaching herself abut Chicansimo because she never had good Chicanx professors. "It's throughout that leaning that made me want to do this piece. I wanted to show something that strays away from the patriarchy. I took influences from Dia De Los Muertos. I painting my grandma tejiendo. I chose my grandma because in most Latino families, the matriarchy starts from the grandma. I chose her to break away from the typical machismo." Jess depicted her grandma knitting a life from birth to death focusing on the life of a male. "It's even ground within the culture. From there I incorporated color symbolism and flowers to symbolize more about life and how people affect you. This piece is tying a community at the end of the day." Jess added that this piece connected both Latinx people and non-Latinx people.
Another amazing piece that Jess made, shown below, is her Quinceañera piece. She said that she reached out to several women via social media. "I use social media a lot because it's easy to connect to several people and artists." Jess ended up asking women across several states, "write about a moment that you realized you became a woman. I am not asking for anything biological or loose-your-virginity stories. I am looking for something emotional. You don't have to put your real name if you don't want to." She need up getting around eighteen letters and some were intense and while others were relatable. "I ended up putting them around the girl's dress. I also asked a girl that was turning fifteen to pose for me and she was all for it." Jess added that the butterflies around her represented change. Besides some people crying, she mentioned that, "a lot of people came up to me and said, "I didn't know Quinceañeras are so profound.""
Overall, Jess Vanessa is a "Chicana, illustrator, artist, story teller, and desert valley dweller" as put in her own words. I want to thank her for this opportunity and make sure to keep up with her on Instagram @jessvanessa. I am elated that she is doing something wonderful in the Las Vegas art community.