ANTONIO MARTORELL: I am Antonio Martorell, an artist from Puerto Rico, and this image shown at the Smithsonian American Art Museum of “La Presencia Latina,” “the Latino presence” goes back to my childhood memories of when we received, wrapped in carefully folded envelopes, photographs of our fellow Puerto Ricans, lucky, we thought, migrants who came to New York. Then, in this black-and-white photograph showed off their winter garments, sitting literally on top of the world, smiling at us, making us believe they were so successful, while we were sweating it out in the tropics. But later on when I came to New York many, many years later, I learned the other bitter truth, which it wasn’t so successful, and the lady who posed in that gorgeous fur coat in the 1920s slaved away actually 10 hours a day six days a week in a sewing sweat shop in New York, in Manhattan. So, I decided I would make images, woodblock prints, of two very different attitudes. One, the one for exploration, which is the luxurious appearances, and then the actual lady sewing away. The third character showed up in the corner, which is the photographer with all those old-time flashes flashing at us.
Now, there’s a ribbon on top that goes and says “La Playa Negra,” “Tar Beach” because Americans called the rooftops “Tar Beach” because they are covered with tar, but Puerto Ricans call it “Playa Negra,” literally “black beach” because it’s black. On one side is “Ponce, Puerto Rico,” which is the city where the immigrants came from, and the other one is “New York, USA.” Here they are staring at us, proud and defiantly in their gorgeous garments this supposedly rich relatives living away and flaunting their wealth, although it was not true to our innocent eyes.
But what is a beach, be it tar, be it black or be it whatever, without a wave, so I borrowed Hokusai’s famous wave and made it a tsunami climbing to the top of the New York tenement houses. This is part of a series of four, and it’s the four seasons, and it’s also for decades of the main influx of migration from Puerto Rico, which is the ‘20s, ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. This is actually the very first one of that series. This one is number two, number one and number two corresponding to winter and fall, and I’m very happy they chose this one because it’s the first one I did. Its showing brought me back very fond memories, and actually my mother was a seamstress – although she never went away, she remained at home sewing for us – but I relate to the labors, to the working. Being an artist myself I work with my hands, so I feel a kindred spirit to anyone who works with their hands and makes or tries to make a living out of it.
Our America: The Latino Presence in American Art presents the rich and varied contributions of Latino artists in the United States since the mid-twentieth century, when the concept of a collective Latino identity began to emerge.