Original painting in acrylics. Current version in oils.


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Puerto Rico -hoy ayer y para siempre [-today, yesterday and forever]

The first painting of this design was done in 1976 during an art class at the Humacao Regional Campus of the University of Puerto Rico. Without intending to, I got my first lesson on how an image can push all the right buttons, inflame inner passions and incite a riot. With this painting -and absolutely no political inclinations, I became a "pro-independence" radical.

I was in the middle of my first year of college and was enrolled in the only painting class in the entire campus. It fulfilled my art requirement for the year. The class was made up of students from mostly business and science majors. The classroom was secluded at the edge of the campus sports field, not fitted as an art room, just a space to do something relaxing... and get "an easy A."

Like most art teachers, our instructor was a working artist and he took his job seriously. The class was an affable place to spend a couple of days a week away from the hot Puerto Rican sun. Compared to the people of other countries I've visited, I find Puerto Ricans to be very good with their hands and very comfortable working in groups. Perhaps this is so because most of our activities seem to be communal or family centred.

While formal art training is Puerto Rican schools was (and still is) woefully lacking, students in grade schools packed classes with anything relating to any kind of art -painting, music, poetry, industrial arts, crafts, drafting, sewing, culinary arts, and the theatre. Still, come to think of it, we had ten times more art in our schools than children today have in the Cleveland Public School System!

But there was hardly any regular planned instruction about art history, studio techniques and aesthetics. Anyone with life aspirations of being a painter learned more or less on his or her own from whatever books one could find (which is exactly what I did). For the time being, art was experienced in school by doing any sort of project that allowed some measure of personal creativity.

And so, I found myself in a class with students happy to be doing some kind of art project without getting into serious art. But soon I was bored. The assigned exercises consisted of making versions of a still life by reproducing the objects as geometric shapes. An orange became a circle; a bowl became a triangle or a square, and so on. Then each area within a confined outline was painted with a different colour, resulting in something that looked like a composition of stained glass -with a modern geometric twist.

At the end of the course the class put on a group exhibit. This would have been my first. But I was not happy with my in-class creations. Instead I did a painting at home and brought if for the show. The first inkling that something was amiss happened during the class of Professor Pablo Ruiz Orozco -a member of the La Real Academia de la Lengua Española (the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, based in Madrid, in Spain) and a celebrated scholar in the world of Spanish literature.

Dr. Orozco (who we treated with the reverence one gives to a deity) made a pause in his 'cathedra', walked up to me and –to my complete surprise, shook my hand warmly. He had seen the painting already on display (though the show was two days away from its opening) and recognized me as one of his students. He congratulated me in front of the class, told everyone what a great colourist I was, and that I had the makings of a great artist.

After the class I had to go and see the painting for myself to see what I had missed. The campus had been in an uproar and I steered clear of the marchers and protesters holding political banners as I made my way. The exhibition had been set at the lobby of the auditorium and there was a crowd around my painting, an experience that was both pleasing and disconcerting.

Then I recognised some of the faces and it dawned on me who most of these people were. From that point on things escalated and that day I became -in everyone's estimation: "one of them". Before I could speak or decide my next action, a classmate pointed me out and I suffered back slaps and congratulations in earnest. Then one of the known leaders of the group asked me in wonder: -How can you ever do something less after doing this?


My Political Awakening

The 1970's was a time of political turmoil in Puerto Rico. The political party for independence had gained considerable influence in the island and the universities and colleges were their battle ground. The minuscule Socialist party also garnered a great deal of media attention because of their inflammatory rhetoric. While the fight over civil rights and the Vietnam war were centre stage in the United States, American influence in the Caribbean and Latin America had reached an all time low due in part to Nixon's intervention in Chile -and a continued American policy of backing dictatorial regimes.

Nixon's use of the CIA to help topple the democratically elected Chilean presidency of Salvador Allende (September 11, 1973), which resulted in the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, was the last drop that spilled the cup of mistrust and vocal discontent. The FBI, the federal local watchdog, began flexing its political muscle in the island and anyone advocating independence, socialism or nationalistic ideals was marked as a potential terrorist. Even high school students who protested the Vietnam War were being investigated. There was both an atmosphere of fear and one of national defiance.

This was then the political cauldron of strikes, marches, demonstrations and violence that greeted the showing of my painting. I had glaringly used the greatest symbol of Puerto Rican nationhood -the Puerto Rican flag, and placed it on a background of green -the colour that represented independence; and then I reinforced these symbols with native musical instruments of he who was the soul of the Puerto Rican people -the ‘jíbaro’, [the mountain peasant farmer] our national symbol for facing privation and adversity with dignity, quiet humility, and pride
.

Without intending to do so, I had done an extremely powerful piece for propaganda. The painting was sold the very next day -it never made it in the show. Several people wanted it. Even my painting instructor expressed an interest. Ultimately, after taking photographs and making a tracing, I sold it to a pro-independence college professor on campus. Over time I eventually did three more copies and sold many more in print form. But what was my intention in creating the painting? A very simple one: I wanted to make a genuine piece of Puerto Rican art.

But my motivations were cultural, not political. I firmly believed that the culture of a people -regardess of who they may be, is contained within its music. Consequently, the musical instruments in the composition -the percussion sticks, the 'güiro' and its scratching fork, the maracas, and the 'cuatro', are native instruments to our jíbaro songs that sing the tales of our lives, our loves, our joys and our tribulations. The flag signified the people we have become; the green background the fertile land of our rich cultural heritage.

Nowadays it’s very hard for me to separate the two interpretations since my thinking has evolved. What's more, my artistic specialty became propaganda art. The incident of the painting was the catalyst that initiated my search of who I am. Am I a Puerto Rican? Am I an American? And what have been the historical antecedents that brought about those turbulent days of my early youth, which still continue to divide the friendly and hospitable people of my peaceful island?

I wrote an essay which is the third most downloaded page in this website by people in over twenty countries. The title of the essay is -American Propaganda: controlling public opinion in Puerto Rico (click here for link). This is the result of my quest for answers. As to what I am –Puerto Rican or American… well, I’m still wrestling with this one because, when I put these two together, all I still get… is me.


Note: to see another one of John's "Puerto Rican" theme artworks, enter the following link to Current Works: Mural History of the Puerto Rican People.

Special Offer:

A Puert Rico print -is available at the Store page.


    

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