Identity, Migration, and the Arts: Three Case Studies of Translocal Communities

Academic Writing Sample

Identity, Migration, and the Arts: Three Case Studies of Translocal Communities

Laura Smith, Brieahn DeMeo, and Sunny Widmann
American University, Washington, District of Columbia

For marginalized populations separated from their homelands, the arts are one of the most effective ways by which groups negotiate their identities at the crossroads of various cultures and influences. Through both hybridized and traditional artistic presentations, translocal and transnational communities engage the issues of iden-tity in ways that renegotiate, challenge, and define the unique characteristics that make them who they are. This article examines three distinct cases of translocal populations as well as the ways by which the groups’ artistic activities help to inform a larger reconstruction of community presence and solidarity. Specifically, these three models focus on theater performances by Sudanese “Lost Boys” living in Syracuse, New York; visual art representations by Cuban exiles in Miami; and flamenco musical initiatives by Gitanos in southern Spain. While such examples are not meant to provide a formula by which translocal populations adapt and engage artistic representations, they nonetheless serve to inform a critical discussion on the ways in which the arts—music, dance, theater, and visual arts—are inherently linked to conceptualizations and representations of ourselves and of others.

(The following excerpt is by Brieahn J. DeMeo)” CUBAN ART IN MIAMI”

The case of Cuban art represents the way in which professional artists contribute to a new definition of identity within the context of exiled communities. Developed in an era of political and social upheaval, the paintings of early twentieth- century Cuban artists reflect a national inclination for change, both thematically and stylistically (Sicre 1987). Each subsequent generation of painters grew from this inventive adaptation of artistic traditions. What distinguishes Cuban visual art and allows it to be utilized by transnational communities, therefore, is its exploration and exemplification of national identity (Gracia, Bosch, and Borland 2008, 2). Cuba maintains a long history of political, economic, and social unrest, which generations of artists have sought to explore through a variety of mediums, especially visual art.

La Vanguardia, considered to be the forefathers of Cuban art, engaged in discovering and defining national identity (Martinez 1994, 2). This exploration allowed future generations to examine their identities outside Cuba’s geographic borders. Exiles that relocated to the United States during the 1960’s were forced to negotiate a balance between maintaining their national identity and incorporating a new American self. Although there are many circumstances under which Cubans left their home country, the result has been the creation of an artistic mode of discourse through which migrants explore and express the experience of exile.

La Vanguardia used their art as a tool for the development of cultural identity and the advancement of Cuban society, and “their art grew out of the turmoil of a country in the midst of reconstruction” (Martinez 1994, 2). The works of this generation sought to create symbolic representations of Cuba, to identify what it meant to be Cuban. By constructing a visual narrative they could bring the awareness and cohesion of a national cultural identity into the public realm of reality (41). Trained in European traditions, these Cuban artists took the styles learned abroad and adapted them to create an artistic codex that would come to define Cuban art. These artists were able to view the country through the eyes of a foreigner as well as a native and to understand the importance of creating communicative subjects, which allowed for the production of a common artistic language.

Whereas La Vanguardia laid the foundation for future generations of Cuban artists and codified the essence of Cuban culture through art, the first generation of Cuban artists to leave Cuba en mass was La Vieja Guardia (The Old Guard). These artists were born in Cuba and developed their skills on the island. As Cuba’s political climate began to change and many individuals were forced to leave their homes, such artists were forced to confront the realities of displacement by creating art in response to the phenomenon of being Cuban outside of Cuba.

As social and political unrest within the country continued through the 1960s, Cubans in the United States were presented with the task of rebuilding the lives they had left behind and maintaining a connection to their shared heritage (Bosch 2004, 23). These exiles invested in the artwork of their community, thereby completing necessary steps to help counter experiences of “culture shock” in their new home (Weaver 2000, 178). As the Cubans developed an art market in Miami, art became the way by which relocated Cuban individuals could remember and retain the lives they had lived in Cuba. This market grew into a thriving environment for artists and collectors alike. Gatherings allowed Cubans to create a space to discuss art, culture, music, literature, religion, and spirituality, all of which are important aspects to Cuban society. The community was able to reclaim the pieces of culture that had been left behind, simultaneously creating a venue for artists to meet with fellow Cubans in Miami (Bosch 2004, 36).

While the themes and styles of La Vieja Guardia reflect those linked with the experiences of exile, they remain within the visual vocabulary established by La Vanguardia. Having developed their identities fully within Cuban societal contexts, La Vieja Guardia’s connection to the homeland was much stronger than that of subsequent generations (Bosch 2004, 159). Consequently, La Vieja Guardia provided a base upon which younger artists and later arrivals would create their own artistic modes of expression.

Arriving in conjunction with this first wave of immigrants were the “Peter Pan Children” who were born in Cuba but whose families sent them to the United States alone. The artists that grew out of this group faced the challenge of negotiating a dual identity: they are the one-and-a-half generation, having been born in Cuba but raised in the United States (Gracia, Bosch, and Borland 2008, 3). As such, their identities were partially formed in Cuba, but since they lost their cultural context during their youth, acculturation into American society also became a significant component of their growth. The art produced by this generation is reflective of the memories retained from Cuban life along with their experiences as exiles in the U.S. For them, exile represents the “rupture and trauma present as cultural continuity and self-definition is disrupted” (Bosch 2004, 64). Similar to the DiDinga living in Syracuse, those living on “the hyphen” of a Cuban-American existence are forced to navigate between what it means to be Cuban and what it means to be American (Gracia, Bosch, and Borland 2008, 4). This dichotomy of identity produces emotionally charged works representing the difficulty of coming to terms with a split sense of self.

Another aspect of Cuban migration that aided identity consolidation in the United States was the fact that all socio-economic levels were ultimately represented in the various waves of migration, thereby allowing the development of a microcosm of Cuban society on U.S. soil. “This provided the artists with a climate of cultural continuity, an environment through which they could retain and renew their Cuban identity along with the acquisition of an American self” (Bosch 2004, 28). Against a new American landscape, these artists could renegotiate their national and cultural identities in a way that many displaced populations cannot.

The tradition of Cuban art was thus established within a climate of change that allowed for the formation of a movement devoted to the identification and maintenance of a national identity by visually representing, challenging, and trans- forming what it meant to be Cuban. In the case of artistic practices among Cuban exiles, the art itself served as the unifying element in forming identity outside of the homeland. The art of the Cuban exile, therefore, establishes a national identity that transcends the island borders and brings new perspectives to the negotiation of identity outside of the homeland.


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