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(ep 12) Exploring Race & Femininity in Caribbean & Mexican Cultures with Curator María Elena Ortiz

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

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(ep 12) Exploring Race and Femininity in Caribbean and Mexican Cultures with Perez Art Museum Miami’s Curator, María Elena Ortiz

Click HERE to make sure that you get our upcoming episodes!

What is it like being the only woman in the workplace? What is Classism vs. Racism like in Latin America? How does race impact art? Why should artists be funded by the government? What is it like being an Afro Latina in Mexico? How does surrounding yourself with a positive company affect you? What is it like to live in Mexico?

In this interview with María Elena Ortiz, a curator at the Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM), we learned so much about Afro Caribbean art and culture. She shared her adventures around the English speaking Caribbean; growing up in a progressive Puerto Rican household; living in Mexico and Miami, and what it’s like for her to be a Black Puerto Rican woman in the art world.

This episode is sponsored by the Knight Foundation on behalf of PAMM’s Fund for African American Art. CLICK HERE to learn more.

Please note that this episode was recorded prior to the Coronavirus pandemic and the current fight for valuing Black lives in America and the world. However, it is timely as we had a great discussion on the dynamics of race in the Caribbean and art.

María Elena is originally from Puerto Rico, born in San Juan and raised in Carolina by her mother and father. She’s lived in Mexico City, Mexico and currently resides in Miami, FL, USA. María Elena has spent an extensive amount of time in the Caribbean Islands conducting research on Afro Caribbean Art for her book and PAMM exhibition both titled “The Other Side of Now”.

Despite being in the Caribbean, growing up she didn’t have a lot of exposure to other Caribbean cultures. So, when she won the Colección Patricia Phelps de Cisneros (CPPC) and Independent Curators International (ICI) Travel Award for Central America and the Caribbean for research, the first thing María Elena did was finally travel throughout the regions of the Caribbean. Her first impulse was to go to the non-Spanish speaking Caribbean. So, she set out on a journey and traveled to Martinique, which is a French Caribbean island, then Aruba, the Bahamas, and Trinidad.

Among the places she travelled to María Elena found Martinique beautiful but also racial tension. According to her, it is very European but also has a connection to Africa as there's a lot of Senegalese culture. She met a Martiniquen photographer there, who told her how his white mother used to teach him how to dislike Black people, which was quite painful for him. This made María Elena reflect on how race oppression can also hurt people being taught to hate. A commanding piece of art that reflects the history of slavery and racism in Martinique is the beheaded statue and red paint blood like splattered statue of Napolean’s wife Josephine. Josephine was originally from Martinique and is said to have been a key figure in reestablishing slavery in the Caribbean. It was quite symbolic. Other than that, there's a beautiful old Rum facility called Habitation Clément which is amazing, that María Elena recommends you visit.

Onto Aruba, it is quite desert-like and it is a Dutch settlement. Something unique about Aruba was that almost everyone there speaks four languages. The Dutch operated slave trade through islands like Bon Air, Aruba, Curacao, and didn’t have plantations in Aruba; therefore, Aruba didn’t have the institutionalized slavery that America experienced. Hence, María Elena didn’t notice a culture of racism in current day Aruba. From their María Elena and I began comparing and contrasting racism and classism in the United States and Latin America. Maria noted that especially in Latin America and also Europe, the classism economy is really what's determining power. That the racial discourse in the US hides classism and vice versa in Latin America.

So, what does it mean to be a Puerto Rican woman, to María Elena? Referencing “Atrévete-te-te” one of the band Calle 13’s first singles line “remember you’re like a street fighter, you're from the streets”, María Elena thinks that Puerto Rican women are very strong and they know how to maneuver themselves. They've been raised to stand up for themselves while still managing feminine tasks like cooking, dancing, etc. She believes that every woman should stand up for herself because doing so is a part of her nature and not something that she should be highlighted for. And that there shouldn’t be negative connotations for being this way. Also, she believes that like the American culture is more money-oriented, the Puerto Rican culture is family-oriented. Every other Puerto Rican is a part of your family. You're all cousins!

Regarding family, María Elena grew up in a majority-woman household. Her mother and grandmother played a very important role in who she currently is though. Her mother was a pediatric radiologist. She was modest and smart yet quite introverted. Due to her nature, she always taught her daughters to be extroverted and to be strong. Due to her mother’s job, María Elena’s homely mother figure was taken up by her grandmother, who cared for her at home.

María Elena loved living and working in Mexico. She learned how to work within it’s “machismo” culture from her boss, who was a Cuban woman. María Elena was taught to dress up and put on makeup when meeting with men and sometimes had to send a man to negotiate on her behalf. But she also noted that male dominance in the workforce is something that we experience in American culture as well, we just have to navigate it differently. With that, Maria truly appreciates being able to connect with other women that have had similar experiences to learn best practices.

Especially the fact that it was very inexpensive. Everyone over there was resourceful and did not dwell on worldly things. The best part about Mexico was that the government uses its funds to fund their artists. You could be an artist and the government would help you pursue your art. Some artists used to get paid from eight to ten thousand dollars a year, which was quite a lot. This gave rise to better art. María Elena says, “for the quality of art there's something very enriching that can happen when an artist is not solely focused on selling artwork. Then they can experiment which is I think it's good for the art practice”. When an artist is not pushed to create something, when they’re not focused on selling their art, their mind is free to run around and create beauty from their imagination. This freedom of expression and openness of mind is what gives rise to a better quality of art. Mexico’s art ecosystem is superb, thanks to the art communities, galleries, and the art museums, the artists get to express themselves. Thus this small investment on the behalf of the government pays a long way.

If someone was planning on going to Mexico, María Elena would want them to always book their restaurants in advance! Some restaurants like Pujol (a must-try!) are pre-booked up to 3 months, that’s why it’s always better to decide what restaurant you want to go to, earlier. Contramar is amazing for seafood. Apart from that, visiting the Anthropology Museum and Frida Kahlo Museum (Blue House) in Coyoacán is a must! María Elena also recommends visiting art galleries that she has worked at like Kurimanzutto, Labor, and Galeria Agustina Ferreyra.

Also, to avoid getting Montezuma's revenge, try your best to avoid any kind of water when in Mexico! You can go for juices, salads, and soups though.

Apart from Mexico city, you should visit Chiapas, Puerto Escondido, and just pick your town.

According to María Elena, if you’re into arts then you must visit Guadalajara. For relaxation, Tulum is pretty good. And finally, Oaxaca has the best food in Mexico!

María Elena’s overall best experiences in Mexico were going to Oaxaca and Puerto Escondido with her family, and befriending a foreigner from Columbia who was an artist with whom María Elena traveled around the city on her motorcycle. Women in Mexico are quite strong, friendly, elegant, and smiley according to María Elena.

Apart from Mexico and Puerto Rico, María Elena really likes São Paulo. São Paulo has a great art scene, great fashion, and great sushi. Another place she likes is Seville in Spain, she’s a fan of the food and wine there.

Why did María Elena choose to live in Miami? Her old boss asked her to come work in Miami at PAMM. And considering that Miami was closer to Puerto Rico, María Elena agreed to move. Working at PAMM allows her to work with everything she loves, including Black culture, Latin American culture, Caribbean culture, and identity. She encourages everyone to contribute to PAMM’s Fund for African American Art. All donations go towards an endowment for purchasing art from the African Diaspora! (Link down below).

María Elena felt a lot more comfortable walking around on the street in Miami as opposed to in Mexico. In a place like Mexico City, "you're like an exotic animal". While living in Mexico City she didn't see anyone that looked like her on the street. So she feels more comfortable within the diverse culture of Miami. And this was definitely a good decision for María Elena, because she soon fell in love in Miami and that made her stay even longer.

To relax, María Elena enjoys gardening, meditation, and getting massages for self-care. She saw a shift in herself within the first yoga class and after a month of practicing meditation. Her husband was very supportive of her decision to practice yoga and still is. Her grandmother used to say that be with a guy who loves you the most. María Elena believes that you should always choose to be with someone who expands your universe and helps you achieve the next level of being you.

Click HERE to make sure that you get our upcoming episodes!

So, what is a question María Elena would ask other women?

“How do you feel today?”

How does María Elena define a woman?

“To be powerful, and to own our power and use it.”

Make a donation for Perez Art Museum Miami Fund for African American Art (All donations go towards an endowment for purchasing art from the African Diaspora):

Where to find Maria

Where to find Erica and Collective Drift

Places mentioned in the interview



Mexico locations

Mexico: Culture

National Museum of Anthropology

Frida Kahlo Museum - Blue House

Mexico: Restaurants

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The Collective Drift platform was created by Erica Knowles to celebrate all women, the beauty of their cultures, and international travel experiences. I believe that women possess magic, that gives them strength and grace to change the world. We learn how to tap into our power in various ways based on our cultural backgrounds and our journeys. Join me and an amazing collective of multicultural, multiethnic, and multigenerational women that are artists, cultural leaders and travel enthusiasts as they tell their stories about their culture, their tribe of women, their passions, their art, and their favorite international experiences. Welcome to Collective Drift.

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