On Houston, Cultura and the work of Maureen Penders
(Article by Reyes Ramirez was originally published by Glasstire. Extended version provided by the author.)
I’m a result of a diaspora. My father came to America in the 80s to escape the Guerra Civil. However, my mother is a Mexican immigrant. The question often comes up: will I ever be Salvadoreño enough? Such is the case with newer generations of Salvadoran Americans, removed from El Salvador but no doubt a product of its history. Salvadoran Americans often don’t see themselves much in art institutions in Houston. Thus, can Salvadoreño American artists have an identity? What do you need to be part of a culture? Houston based artist Maureen Penders prods this question with her photography collection titled Cultura, previously featured at Alabama Song, which presents photos of objetos unmistakably Salvadoreñx, such as pristine pictures of pupusas, Izote leaves, corn husks, etc. Penders and her photography are goddamn gems and, in many ways, a reckoning.
Photography has historically been a tool of journalism on Salvadoreñxs, neo-conservative voyeurism even, that displays Salvadoreñx pain, suffering and gang culture, emphasizing everything wrong with El Salvador in the media. However, Penders subverts these images of Salvadoreñxs as only being miserable, but instead as a people of vibrancy, sustenance and leisure. What happens are thoughts and questions and revelations that go beyond the images.
El Salvador has mostly, if not only, been seen through the white gaze in mainstream American art and media, presented as a country in constant turmoil in need of saving or rescue or pity because of the horrors or barbarism or backwardness there. In literature, the most rumblings you’ll get about El Salvador is Carolyn Forche and her book of poetry The Country Between Us, where El Salvador is an exotic locale juxtaposed with awful, evil shit (it received the 1981 Lamont Poetry Prize, now the James Laughlin Award, which to my knowledge has never been awarded to a poet of Central American descent. I hope I’m wrong on that.) In film, you got Salvador (1986), nominated for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay at the 59th Academy Awards, which is about a mediocre, off-kilter white dude who takes pictures of the atrocities in El Salvador while saving a Salvadoran woman, not played by a Salvadoran actor, and her child. Yes, awful and horrific things happened in El Salvador during its Guerra Civil, but the victims, mainly, were Salvadorans (though the four Catholic missionaries, all white, are vastly remembered. This is not to erase them, but rather, mention that many, many more Salvadoran women suffered the same fate, but to no American chorus; quite the opposite happened, really).
It’s the details, I tell you. Penders makes clear that not all things present in her photos are inherently Salvadoreñx in her exhibition description:
“[The photos] showcase[ ] material culture specific to a Central American identity, yet which appears in many Latin American countries. The Salvadoran identity of the objects becomes apparent only when the subtleties of their articulation are made clearer: the names and uses specific to El Salvador. The objects are linked to their homeland not by their visual appearance but by the language surrounding their usage.”
- Maureen Penders
All of the images in this exhibition can be boiled down to: an object set upon a pitch-black surface. So simple, yet so effective. One photo shows five vainas of tamarindo on said black surface. Each seems to be broken or incomplete, strands of the pod’s frame jutting out to hold together what was once there. They resemble veins, capillaries that feed into nothing at all. Each vaina of tamarindo is a broken heart. Tamarindo is indigenous to Africa, brought over to the Americas by colonizers. A staple of Latin American cuisine is African. This is not new or rare, no matter how many Latinx’s remain ignorant or contemptuous of this fact. Thus, there’s a presence of pan-Latinidad in this lone image, one that envelops more than one continent. The tamarindo is synecdoche. Each broken heart could be yours, hermanx.
Another photo shows the blades of a machete and a sickle. The machete’s blade seems to fit perfectly into the curve of the sickle, not unlike a lover’s face into neck of the beloved. Can two things perceived as violent be capable of love? The machete bears some brown rust on its blade. Is it useless now? Can we appreciate things that aren’t useful to us anymore? Can ‘useless’ things be beautiful? Is an object’s practicality and fitness for labor a prerequisite for love? If you’re willing to apply this logic to objects, why not people? The sickle boasts scrapes and scratches from wear and tear. The blade’s edge is a lighter silver than the rest as a result of repeated sharpening. The scrapes and scratches appear to float near the blade’s edge, like stars surrounding the luminous line of a galaxy. Again, is this inherently Salvadoreñx? No. Many peoples have different relations to the machete. Ask Dominicanxs and Haitians, Puerto Ricans. But there’s something larger being built here in this exhibition.
So why do white perspectives take precedence over Salvadoreñx/Salvadoran American lives over and over again in all realms, including the political, educational, and artistic? I mean, fuck, Jennifer Connelly played Salvadoran American Alicia Nash in A Beautiful Mind (2001) and was showered with accolades. The white gaze demands that its perspective and involvement be inherent in the art itself. Pity is a form of involvement that requires no action, as are disgust and contempt. Art can provide those channels for people to feel disgust and contempt and pity without having to actually do anything about it. The question becomes: can you appreciate art that does not favor your gaze? Can you let something exist without your involvement or approval or it having to thank you? The answer I’ve seen, thus far, is no.
If you find this assessment unbelievable or ridiculous, the POTUS not only called El Salvador a shithole, but also ended TPS for Salvadoreñx immigrants, putting 200,000 lives in peril. MS-13 seems to be El Salvador’s greatest export, according to Washington D.C. and American media. Not to mention, there is still the matter of the indefinite detainment and separation of Central American children that is akin to a cultural genocide, one in which generations of trauma and pain will have to be healed from as a result thereof. All this, even though the United States participated and prolonged the Guerra Civil in El Salvador, directly funding the killing, displacement, and oppression of Salvadoreñx’s, thus helping cause the immigration of Salvadoreñx’s to the US. I don’t see any major Houston art institution or publication uplift contemporary Central American art to counteract these narratives. But shit, Houston loved when immigrants helped rebuild the city. Believe it or not, we can love and have hope and create stuff.
Again, this is not to erase Salvadoreñx/Salvadoran American writers, artists, filmmakers, etc. Rather, this is to highlight that I have to fucking dig for them, Houston. We boast the fourth largest concentration of Salvadoran born immigrants and the fifth highest concentration of Latinxs in major American cities. Where are we in your self-portrait? Last I checked, Houston’s major art institutions have not specially featured our homegrown Central American artists, much less Salvadoreñx/Salvadoran American artists; thus, no publications really cover the fecund, burgeoning, and incredibly talented pool of Latinx artists, other than the occasional Dia de los Muertos party that tend to heavily focus Mexican/Mexican American perspectives. If a publication were to focus on Latinx art, again, it is usually through a white lens. Museums, non-profits, and universities in Houston regularly host diversity talks or panels on artists of color, but the speakers tend to be white and/or European scholars. Maureen Penders is just one out of many Salvadoreñx/Central American artists in Houston that prove this is a deliberate or absurdly ignorant issue.
My favorite from this series is a photo of two pupusas, one stacked on top the other; in the exhibition, there is also a sculpture form of the image: a literal pupusa laid atop a pitch-black panel on the floor. Pupusas are perhaps the most famous metonyms of ‘Salvadoraness’, a most delicious invention of the indigenous Pipil; however, Hondureños, amongst others, are also known to enjoy the dish as the Pipil tribes and their influence aren’t solely enclosed to El Salvador, which goes to show how incomplete and uncomprehensive the concept of a nation can be. In the photo, the two pupusas bear black spots from burns. The roundness of the pupusas are oblong and profound, the best example of Penders’ use of the black background to highlight the thing itself. The pupusas appear to be two portraits of alternate earths, the burns: land and the bright dough: sea. They float in space, orbiting each other.
I see pieces of me that are not me, brightly mingling in an abyss. Is that a void? Am I a void? Perhaps. Can things simply exist in a void? I’m not sure. Will I be ever enough? Yes, no. Maybe it’s that displacement I feel sometimes that serves as an extension of my parent’s participation in a diaspora, that feeling of wandering and not knowing what surrounds you. I know that I am here. I am now. All of these images are me, yet not. They don’t belong to me, but they do. As I said before, my father is Salvadoran and my mother is Mexican. I was raised by my mother and thus was imbued with Mexican-ness. But I cannot exist without my Salvadoran-ness. The history of El Salvador is a part of me, just as much as Mexico and the US. I didn’t grow up in El Salvador or face the atrocities, or use every object in Maureen’s photos, but I am a product of them, no? Cultura shows me parts of myself that I didn’t know were me. I don’t know. Maybe that’s presumptuous. Many other Salvadoreñx/Salvadoran Americans feel unambiguously Salvadoran and are even marked as such by others; they may look at my perspective and wonder. That’s okay. That’s my point. Obviously, I am one experience. There’s no one way to be something, but we won’t know until we talk about it and share, Houston.
Maureen Penders and her photographs, for me, represents the multitudes that form an ambitious wave of Salvadoreñx/Salvadoran American art that both participates in and establishes a conversation for a Salvadoran American such as myself. Other Salvadoran Americans are/will be creators, writers, artists. Maybe we’re creating something new with all this? Can a cultura be both old and new? Both ancient and evolutionary? These photos are. We are.
Reyes Ramirez is a Houstonian. In addition to having an MFA in Fiction, Reyes won the 2017 Blue Mesa Review Nonfiction Contest, 2014 riverSedge Poetry Prize, and has poems, stories, essays, and reviews (and/or forthcoming) in: Queen Mob's Teahouse, december magazine, Texas Review, TRACK//FOUR, FIVE:2:ONE Magazine, Houston Noir, Southwestern American Literature, Gulf Coast Journal, Origins Journal, The Acentos Review, Cimarron Review, and elsewhere. You can read more of his work at reyesvramirez.com.
To see more of Maureen Penders follow the link below