When Lorena Salcedo-Watson was first asked to participate in SOMOS Latinx Artists of Long Island exhibition at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook, she was a little reluctant.
It’s a thought that had been in the back of her mind since emigrating with her family to America from Guatemala as a four-year-old, and struggling with trying to find her place in two separate communities. Her participation in a current exhibition at the Long Island Museum has given her a unique opportunity to do just that.
The SOMOS exhibition, which runs at the Long Island Museum through December 17, celebrates the rich cultural heritage and artistic contributions of Long Island’s Latinx community. It includes historic, established, and contemporary works by 80 participating artists, and offers a unique opportunity to explore their diverse styles, media, compelling personal stories, and familial national origins. SOMOS showcases the works of creators who have grappled with questions of identity, history, and the many meanings of what it means to be a member of the Latinx community.
“I was invited by the exhibition’s curator, Kelynn Alder, an artist who is part Mexican,” she said. “Carlos Morales, one of the exhibiting artists, is a former student of mine from a printmaking workshop at Gallery North, a local art gallery. We’ve had conversations about what it felt like to be an immigrant coming to America. I came from Guatemala when I was four, he came from Mexico when he was a teenager, and we both reached the point where we really didn’t feel like we belonged in either place.”
Salcedo’s parents were 27 when they emigrated, literally dropping everything to come to America.
“They said ‘there’s a future in the United States,’ and my dad always talked about the educational opportunities, especially for women,” she said. “My destiny was going to be to be a teacher or a secretary. And it really looked like that at the time.”
Salcedo-Watson grew up in a primarily Greek and Chinese neighborhood in Astoria, Queens with not many fellow Latin Americans.
“My parents were really worried that we would be treated like outsiders so they were in a big hurry to assimilate,” she said. “My mom would take classes at a local high school in English and they had us watch TV to learn English. And we weren’t allowed to speak Spanish at home. We needed to get rolling because there was no space for us.”
Though she picked up English quickly and her family kept their customs, she had no relatives in this country. A sense of isolation set in, and she felt that she had let go of her Latin American family. The trajectory of her life would change during high school when an art teacher encouraged her to apply to a summer school for visual arts at Fredonia.
“That was when I realized that I belonged to a special tribe,” she said.
In the SOMOS exhibition, Salcedo-Watson joins a group of fellow Latinx artists who have similarly struggled with their identity. Her drawing, “Child’s Pose,” reflects her efforts to come to terms with her heritage and the loss of her parents, a relationship that was further complicated by divorce.
“It’s a drawing done with Conté crayon, a sanguine-colored pastel similar to the reddish pastel crayons used in Renaissance drawings,” she said. “It was done during a heartbreaking time when my father was dying of a brain tumor, and there was nothing anyone could do. Working on that drawing was brutal, but I needed to do it. If you don’t let things go, you keep carrying them around. So in a certain sense, my mourning for my parents has been vomited out in my artwork. And nobody could say ‘aren’t you done with that yet?’ I’m not done till I’m done. But I think I’m done now, and I’m trying to make sense of it on a different level.”
Salcedo-Watson said she realized the extent of her own ancestral isolation after her daughter attended college at Northwestern University.
“She ended up taking Latinx studies, and I thought that was interesting,” she said. “I asked her to share her reading list with me and she shared a book titled Finding Latinx: In Search of the Voices Redefining Latino Identity, which is about women coming to terms with their Latin identities, having been immigrants and going through a lot of difficult journeys. And the book broke my heart. I’ve never had anybody to talk to about this, because there was never a conversation about how we feel. Nobody cared how we felt. We were in the United States. We had to make it work somehow.”
The exhibition gave Salcedo-Watson an opportunity to experience a kinship that is both ethnic and artistic.
“When I was asked to join them, I felt like I was an imposter,” she said. “But when I was in the show there was a sense that we’re all in this together. Everybody was invited, everybody was worthy of a little conversation. It was a rich experience.”
Salcedo-Watson said that the SOMOS show was the “beginning of a conversation,” and brought together a community of people that needed to have the conversation.
“A lot of it is just that we haven’t had the people to have the exchange with,” said Salcedo-Watson. “It was a conversation I just carried around, and probably all those artists did too. So it’s cool to bring it all together and give them first a sense of community that had similar weights being carried around, and then an outlet to kind of let it go. I always ask my students, ‘What’s your wish to put out into the universe?’ I may not be able to help you or guide you, but I might know somebody else who might. Don’t keep it in. And I think that that’s basically what happened with this show. It’s like everybody knew somebody that should be in this place. They should have the opportunity to have a seat at the table. And that was really what it felt like. It was awesome.”
— Robert Emproto