Afrolatinidad: Art & Identity in D.C. is an interview series highlighting the vitality of the local Afro-Latinx community. Before the term Afro-Latinx entered popular discourse, Latin Americans of the Diaspora have been sharing their stories through artistic manifestations online and in community spaces throughout the district. Their perspectives are intersectional in nature, existing in between spaces of Blackness and Latinidad.
Abstract painter Ramón Menocal was born in Havana, Cuba, at the turn of the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s. Now a resident of Maryland and a long-time artist in the Washington, D.C., area, his artistic visions are embedded in the physical landscape of the region. He’s participated in public art commissions by the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, contributing to the commission’s Art Bank Collection and the City Hall Art Collection. Before moving to Maryland, Ramón lived in Southwest D.C., where he held exhibitions and community gatherings for local artists at his home studio.
As an immigrant, Ramón employs his artistic talents to form connections that extend beyond race and class. When he left Cuba in 1992, he took with him a rich history of personal experiences: memories of his childhood in historic Havana, the architecture, the spirituality, and the thinkers who contributed to his critical understanding of Afro-Cubanity.
“I remember that when I was little, I always liked to draw and read, although the environment where I was raised was quite humble,” Ramón told me back in February over coffee and cookies at his home in Bethesda, Maryland. “My mother raised my brother and me. We were always studying, working, until I finished my secondary education. I studied visual arts at the Academy of Fine Arts in Havana with all the possibilities that the revolution gave to study, including people like me.”
In 1982, UNESCO named the city of Havana a World Heritage Site, jumpstarting the architectural restoration movement. During that time, Ramón had the opportunity to work restoring murals on historic buildings. As he honed the craft of restoration, he became enchanted with the ways colors and textures appeared superimposed on the buildings.
“I noticed how these buildings were painted in layers, one on top of the other. I was inspired to use this technique in my own paintings. I think that part of my painting technique still comes from that work of superimposing things, layers in my art that are also located in my way of thinking. I think that life is this. It is a way of thinking, like a palimpsest.”
As an abstract expressionist painter, Ramón continues to draw inspiration from the colors of Havana’s streets and his cultural heritage as an Afro-descendant.
“I had my little studio in old Havana, where in addition to painting, I began to read and discover cultural theories that brought me a deeper understanding of my identity. I read works by Fernando Ortiz, who some call the third discoverer of Cuba. He researched about race and Cubanity and published many books about our island. As an artist and creator, I got the idea to bring his theories into my paintings. Also, to reflect on my identity.”
Ortiz coined the term “transculturation”: an antidote to acculturation, the process of assimilation that some argue took place in the United States. While his contemporaries used the metaphor of the “melting pot” to describe the history of U.S. immigration, where identities meld into one cohesive society, Ortiz argued that transculturation was a complex system of exchange where languages, identities, religious practices, and histories remained intact, much like the ingredients in the Cuban soup, ajiaco. Ortiz introduced this concept in his most famous ethnography Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar. Ramón dedicated several painting series to Ortiz and his conceptualization of Cuban identity.
Like Ramón, I also found resonance in the philosophy of cultural theorists. I remember reading Homi Bhabha’s theory on “the third space” in college, when I was coming into my own as a musician and a writer with a Brazilian German American multi-hyphenate identity. In simple terms, Bhabha argued that in the realm of postcolonial theory, a third space—a hybrid ambivalent space—is created when two individual cultures interact. Like transculturation, it goes against the homogenization of colonized cultures. Along with the community of local Afro-Latinx artists, Ramón and I pull from concepts like these to help us understand our place in society, as changemakers and storytellers. Art holds the power to rename and reclaim the consequences of the oppressor on the colonized.
As an immigrant in a new society, Ramón’s work shifted to focus on identity in a multicultural and global world. He was interested in depicting solitude and loneliness, relationships, and the architecture of feelings in his works. But his positionality allowed him to be perceptive to the differences and resonances between Afro-Latino and African American experience in D.C.
“When I moved to D.C., I started comparing my experience as an Afro-Latino to the afroamericano. I understood how different the stories are, because the history of the African American identity is another story. It has another formation. I think the African American identity has been permeated by the whole hard history of the United States. Cruel racism, in the case of the African American, did not allow mixing. The separation was brutal.
“In many ways, I think segregation still exists today. I believe that when I left Cuba and came to New York and Washington, D.C., I didn’t lose interest in the afrocubano, but I believe that seeing another world in Europe and America opened my vision. But what remains of your identity manifests itself in another way. Sometimes it’s a little imperceptible, but it’s there. The identity is not lost, but the artist is in another world.”
As a visual artist living through a global pandemic, Ramón is resting creatively. But he is sure the current situation will be reflected in his next creations. He is also using this time of respite to plan the design and logistics of his future studio, where he plans to host open studios and exhibitions.
Carolina Meurkens is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Goucher College and a fellow in the Smithsonian’s Internship to Fellowship (I2F) program at the Center of Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She is a musician and writer, taking inspiration from the sounds and stories of the African diaspora across the Americas and beyond.