At USF Tampa, ‘Arroz con Frijoles’ invites art fans to experience a different side of Hispanic culture

An artist reception happens on September 13.

click to enlarge (L-R) Natalie Casco, Christian Carmelino, Alejandro Gómez Hernández, Marty De la Cruz, Ellie Arias and William Omar Valdes. - Courtesy
(L-R) Natalie Casco, Christian Carmelino, Alejandro Gómez Hernández, Marty De la Cruz, Ellie Arias and William Omar Valdes.

Arroz Con Frijoles takes on new flavor this weekend at USF’s Carolyn M. Wilson Gallery when six Hispanic/Latinx artists come together to immerse viewers into their culture by educating and sharing their experiences as Latino people.

As a diverse group of artists, Ellie Arias, Christian Carmelino, Natalie Casco, Marty De la Cruz, Alejandro Gómez Hernández & William Omar Valdes speak on the topics of gender, stereotyping, queer identity and immigration in relation to Hispanic culture. 

Some of the stereotypes confronted in this exhibition are that of the “machismo,” hyper-dominant masculine figure and the exoticization of Latina females and their “feisty” personas as presented in the media. Casco’s photographic work “Real Latina” especially speaks on the image of women.

“I want to educate people on what Hispanic women actually look like,” Casco said. “Not all of us have dark brown hair and brown eyes, there’s so much more diversity than that.” 

Included in this diversity is the increasing presence of queer identities within Latinx culture. While it is still difficult for many people to be “out” with their families, there are many advocates for change in younger generations and communities. Seeing that over half of the artists involved in this exhibition identity as queer, I was able to sit down and talk with the artists to see what it means to be Hispanic in relation to their identity. 

"My identity as a queer person often butts heads with the reality of my experience with Hispanic customs. Queer ideologies aren't as accessible or often completely to the Hispanic population,” Valdes explained, adding that the queer points of view is are often showcased in a very stigmatized and stereotypical manner (like on Telemundo program "Caso Cerrado").

“However, I've noticed a recent change in trend with Hispanic media where they are acknowledging different queer identities, like when they show Bad Bunny with his acrylic nails and matching pedicure or mention something about Juan Gabriel's sexuality,” Valdes said. “They're baby steps, but it's some progress.”

Hernández sees the relationship as very complicated. Being a queer individual has never been easy in any culture, but Hernández feels that the Hispanic community can be especially harsh towards members of the queer community.

 "I feel like in recent times big steps have been taken towards normalizing queer identity in many Hispanic countries,” Hernández said. “While it’s still not a perfect relationship, it is one we need to keep fighting for.”

That being said, De la Cruz believes that “any divergence from the norm is usually met with negativity… even tattoos, piercings and unnatural hair color can be shocking to our families,” and she confronts some of these stereotypes through her work, “Mi Pajion.”

Through “Arroz Con Frijoles,” these artists hope to not only share their individual experiences of living within a more traditional family environment but also work together to cultivate a community for those who are working to help change the way that traditional Hispanic communities approach the subjects of gender and identity.

“We’re not looking to completely change Hispanic values,” Casco said. “We hope to offer new ways in which the community can interact with people who might not align with their values.”

Regardless of their sexual orientation or gender, there is a common thread that brings everyone with a Hispanic background together: immigration. Whether they immigrated to the U.S. themselves or were raised by first-generation immigrants, all of these artists find unity through their experiences with immigration and the displacement that has occurred as a result.

“Once you leave your country and go back, the people there see you completely differently,” Hernández, who immigrated from Cuba said. “They no longer view me as Cuban, yet the U.S. doesn’t quite see me as American either. It’s a difficult and interesting place to find myself.”

This sentiment is widespread throughout Hispanic culture in the U.S., but through an understanding of this experience, different Latinx cultures can come together and remind each other of their open-arm familial values and offer mutual support and understanding.

“Whenever one leaves their country and comes back, you are expected to bring gifts and share your story,'' said Carmelino. “It’s a way of bringing the family together to share your experiences, and feast on good food.” 

Carmelino’s “El Arte de la Comida Latina” focuses on creating an environment in which Latino people can be comfortable being themselves while celebrating their culture together. 

It was through the communication of various, yet familiar experiences that the six artists came to title the exhibition Arroz Con Frijoles. 

“It was a very organic decision,” says De La Cruz explained. “Although we’re all from different Latin American countries, we bonded over our experiences eating the dish, which led to us choosing the name.” 

The artists behind Arroz con Frijoles invite viewers to experience Hispanic culture in a phenomenological way, involving all of the five senses.

By presenting a performance piece on the night of the reception, Valdes said, “We intend to bring a sense of unity when faced with adversity and showcase our incredible adaptability as a community- how we have, and will continue, to persevere.”

This performance relies on participation, and entices viewers to take part in Hispanic culture for themselves; it brings them into the Hispanic family, if only for just one night. 

As Hernandez said, “We want to open our doors to the public and invite them into our home and culture.”

‘Arroz Con Frijoles’ hangs until September 19. Artist reception on Fri., Sept. 13, 7 p.m. No cover. Carolyn M. Wilson Gallery at University of South Florida School of Art & Art History, Tampa. INFO.