Hispanic Heritage Through an Artist’s Eyes

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Orlando Caraballo uses his art to explore his family’s history, legacy and Puerto Rican culture.

The Cleveland-based artist’s exhibition, “Capicú,” explores the effects that love, death, grief and time have had on his family’s legacy. It opened Sept. 12 and runs through Oct. 7 in the Judith Rae Solomon Gallery, on the second floor of Bliss Hall on the Youngstown State University campus.

Caraballo has been named the emerging artist for the fall semester at YSU’s McDonough Museum of Art. His work reflects the complexities of his personal, familial and cultural systems, peeling back the layers of generational progress and highlighting the power of choice, strategy and intention amid generational and personal challenges.

Orlando Caraballo’s “Dos Lados.”

“I searched through and archived Polaroid and Kodak photographs that belonged to my parents and grandparents, setting aside images that made my spirit move, my mind run amok, my heart skip a beat,” Caraballo wrote in his artist’s statement. “These images range from the early ’40s and ’50s to the mid-aughts, allowing me to pull back the curtain on our family history; to see myself in my ancestors and reveal their influence in me.”

Capicú, a term from the Puerto Rican game of dominos, is in essence a win-win: the game-ending product of team-based strategy and careful observation that leaves a single player with the ability to choose how they are going to claim victory.

Caraballo says that his work is his strategy, “my careful attempt at claiming victory for both my people and myself, if even for just this chapter.  After all, there are more manos [hands] to play.”

Orlando Caraballo’s “Almost August.”

The exhibit uses drawings, photographs and written reflections to share consejos, a Spanish word that translates to wisdoms, that Caraballo and his family have inherited throughout the years.

McDonough director Claudia Berlinksi says that Caraballo’s work is “very strong and very interesting and it’s something that our students and our art department can really latch on to.” She adds that his exhibit is emotionally charged and visually striking. “I think it has a large emotional quality and it’s really, strikingly beautiful to look at as well. So, I think it’ll be an interesting combination of this ephemera that he’s bringing in combined with his digital images.”

Caraballo’s exhibition coincides with Hispanic Heritage Month, but Berlinksi says it was selected for its quality and strength, not because of the artist’s Puerto Rican heritage. She says that museums and galleries tend to cherrypick Latino artists to showcase during Hispanic Heritage Month but multicultural artists like Caraballo deserve to have their work celebrated and shown year-round. While his work is part of the Hispanic Heritage exhibit, she says it can stand on its own.

“The idea of Hispanic Heritage Month particularly for artists is a blessing and a curse,” Berlinksi says. “It does sometimes pigeonhole them as that’s the only time of year that Hispanic artists get exposure, and it should not be. It is important to have that exposure, but a good artist should have exposure all year.”

Artists Reynier Llanes and Alisa Henriquez will also have their art featured as part of YSU’s Hispanic Heritage celebration. Llanes’ exhibit will run through Oct. 9 at the Butler Institute of American Art. Henriquez will have her exhibit shown at the McDonough through Oct. 29.

Artist Reynier Llanes at work on his canvas.

Llanes’ exhibition of large-scale paintings, “What is Essential Is Invisible to the Eye,” transmutes the raw emotion of life experience into visual imagery that beckons the viewer to look deeper into the relationships. Inspired by the children’s book “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the exhibition embodies the idea of childlike adventures while it also touches on serious social issues. Llanes will give an artist talk Sept. 20 at 2 p.m. at The Butler.

Henriquez hopes to capture the ongoing internal negotiation with media fragments and societal constructions of identity and beauty through her artwork. Recurring motifs such as heavily mascaraed eyes, glossed lips, hair and images of the body tap on encoded meanings and myths, conjuring ideas of female fertility, sexuality and desire, albeit through an often media-biased lens.

The exhibits are part of a larger, campuswide celebration of the various cultures that fall under the Hispanic and Latinx umbrella.

Alisa Henriquez’s art piece is titled Makeover Culture Disfigured No. 5”

Ana Torres, member of YSU’s Hispanic Heritage Month planning committees, says that YSU has a long history of celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month and the importance of the celebration has increased as the Hispanic and Latinx population grows both on and off campus.

“We’ve been doing this for a long time to try to put various events together to highlight the contribution of the Hispanics in this area, the students and the faculty, and the impact that they have made in the community,” Torres says.

Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs Sept. 15 through Oct. 15, has been recognized nationally since 1988. YSU has celebrated the month for the last 15 years. This year’s theme is “Inspiración: Celebrating LatinX and Hispanic Identities.”

The monthlong celebration will kick off with the opening ceremony Sept. 15, which will take place this year at OCCHA to also celebrate that organization’s 50th anniversary. The event will feature a flag ceremony representing the 22 Hispanic countries. Other events throughout the month include a movie night, bilingual story time, a Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration and more. The variety of the events reflects the diversity in the Hispanic and Latino community, according to Torres.

“It is important that we celebrate and embrace that and we try to educate not only our campus but the community about the diversity of the Hispanic cultures,” Torres says. “A lot of people think that it’s only one language, Spanish, but it’s not. There are a lot of dialects and so much diversity in the languages, but also in the customs, traditions, music, food and everything else.”

The event will end on Oct. 15 with a public festival featuring music and dance performances, cultural displays, vendors, resource tables, children’s activities, dancing and light refreshments.

All events are free and Torres encourages the public to attend and get a glimpse of the rich diversity the Youngstown area has to offer.

“They are put together so that we can celebrate and honor this month together. And we encourage the community to visit our campus and be part of these celebrations with us,” she says.

A full list of events can be found at YSU.edu/hispanicheritage.

Pictured at top: Spanish teacher Paulina Montaldo dances at a previous Hispanic Heritage Celebration.