Though only two years old, the Latinx Student Alliance feels as if it’s been around for years. A typical meeting, which is held weekly every other Tuesday and Thursday on Zoom, is full of camaraderie, even in the digital void. People come and go throughout the hour, saying hello to peers and commenting on the term's workload. They cook dinner in their respective homes and say hello from walks outside.
Current president Yessenia Sanchez utilizes the club's time to catch up with students, talk about Latinx artists/creatives and cultivate a community as we move through a socially-distanced semester.
“It’s always reassuring to find people who identify similarly to you,” Sanchez said in a recent interview. “I’m just trying to make it easier for all the incoming Latinx students to find one another and connect.”
Founded by Sanchez and former student Emma Vitoria in 2018, the LSA has been a source of solace for many students seeking out a Latinx community at Pratt. The current pandemic has made connecting with others challenging, and, like most clubs, the LSA has had to get creative to combat this. Last month was Latinx Heritage Month, and the club celebrated by using their Instagram to elevate art by Latinx-identifying students. Throughout the four weeks, they shared paintings, drawings and photographs in a successful media campaign. The artwork was later shared by Pratt Institute’s main Instagram account, as well as other departments, organizations and students campus-wide through stories and shoutouts.
“It’s important to uplift and show our support for one another, especially as upcoming artists of color,” Sanchez said. “Giving them the acknowledgement they deserve was the least we could do, and we plan to continue supporting them as much as we can throughout the year.”
Though Latinx Heritage Month is technically now over, these artists are still creating and still adamant about the importance of representation all year round. We had the chance to talk with a few featured students about their work, process and perspective on being a Latinx artist at Pratt.
Maribel Marmolejo, a third year BFA film major, is savvy in recording the moments many people would walk right past. Originally from Brooklyn, Marmolejo first became interested in film through her family.
“My brother and I would beg my mother to buy the bootleg DVDs by Flushing Broadway so we [could] watch them all day,” she recalled “Our family bonded through movies. No one [was] arguing when we were watching a movie.”
Though she cultivated an interest early on, it wasn’t until high school that Marmolejo realized her true passion for filmmaking. She attended the Downtown Community Television Center in Manhattan as a student, and worked under the guidance of professors who motivated her to share her work with the world. Since arriving at Pratt, however, Marmolejo has found many differences between New York public schools and the institution.
“I would see people that looked and spoke like me every morning [in high school, in] schools that were predominantly Black and Latinx,” Marmelojo said. “I felt like a complete outsider [at Pratt]...it felt like I had to be better, [that] I had to try twice as hard. It still feels like this.” She also stresses the importance of hiring more BIPOC professors, which would help other students as much as it has helped her.
This sense of isolation has stirred Marmelojo’s need to capture the world as she experiences it. Her work focuses on sharing her perspectives of her own life, both in her family or beyond. Photography is a favorite medium to explore. The subjects of Marmelojo’s photos range from relatives at home parties to people she meets around her Brooklyn neighborhood. A recent series showcases residents around the city in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Genuinity is a crucial ascent of her mission, especially when it pertains to current political and social issues.
“My community is currently being displaced and that plays a huge role in my photography [and] the people I chose to capture pictures of,” Marmelojo said. “Gentrification is deadly...it’s taking over Bushwick. Sometimes I can’t even recognize it. With my camera, I have proof that we are, in fact, still here.” Capturing this now is essential in making sure these stories don’t get erased.
Marmolejo is hard at work as the semester wears on. One of her upcoming projects is a documentary about the daily struggles of New York City street vendors during the pandemic. Despite being a crucial component of local economies, these workers never seem to achieve basic rights to work, to paraphrase Marmolejos’s mission statement. The film will focus on obstacles like harsh working conditions and police brutality.
More than anything, though, Marmolejo is dedicated to uplifting the voices of those who have been silenced for too long.
“I am proud of my roots, how I speak, my history, my hardworking family, where I came from and the countless stories I come with,” she said. “I am getting there slowly, but it's the best feeling in the world.”
Quincy Kmetz, a senior BFA painting major, had always considered art to be nothing more than a hobby, something that she never believed she could pursue professionally. Despite praise from teachers and friends regarding her work, Kmetz took the office job route before attending Pratt. It was only later that she realized art was the right path for her.
“I had a natural tendency to do the opposite of what people told me,” she said. “[But] I realized what the rest of my life could look like if I didn’t make a decision. It’s probably the best decision I’ve made for myself.”
Kmetz’ work features a wide range of topics, from isolation to the experience of living in an ever-expanding digital world. While she is primarioy an oil painter, Kmetz also experiments with different mediums. A charcoal series entitled “Lovers” tackles connection in the modern age, while other pieces focus on solitude and feeling separated from others.
“I’m thinking about friendship, I’m thinking about love,” Kmetz said. “Loneliness often goes hand in hand with that, [as] does rage and resentment. Sometimes it’s rage against others...rage against an unseeable force [or] true self-aggression.”
Kmetz’ most recent collection, “I Hear Rumors,” is a series of paintings that speaks current voter challenges, like misinformation and a loss of individuality. Ever since learning of the Facebook-Cambridge Analytical scandal, Kmetz has become interested in exploring digitally spread lies in a visual way. The political climate today is divisive, and Kmetz understands that there can be an “endless search for an enemy” in people. "I Hear Rumors," along with an upcoming collection of comic-book inspired paintings about data manipulation, are a more approachable way of conversing about this topic.
“I’m using this scale to humble the audience, [to say] ‘Listen up, this is important,” Kmetz said. “I don’t believe it’s my job as an artist to have answers. It’s my job to ask questions.”
Kmetz feels she can’t speak to the experiences of every Latinx student at Pratt, and instead remarks that she is victimized by the institution as much as the next student. Nonetheless, Kmetz is adamant about making art school academics more inclusive and representative of its entire student body.
“A place to start is with the academic catalog for History of Art and Design,” she said. “The 2020-2021 catalog does not have any Latin American or South American-specific history of art and design course(s). The power of education, especially access to history, can’t be underestimated in value.”
Kmetz is looking forward to sharing her work with people in a physical space again someday. In the meantime, as long as the work is true to her beliefs, sharing via the internet will suffice.
“I’ve been thinking about the place painting has as an antiquated medium in an expanding digital world,” she said. “I want to continue making work that engages my audience, and work that fulfills me.”
As a first year Communications Design student, Vivian Vazquez has been thrown into a strange situation for sure. Pratt's new virtual mode of education hasn’t stopped her artistic motivations, however.
Raised in an artistic family, Vazquez was always drawn to creativity, in one form or another.
“My mom's side consists of musical artists. Everyone from my abuelito down plays musical instruments, [and] were constantly singing and dancing every time I visited Mexico,” Vazquez said. Her mother, who studied architecture in college, heavily inspired Vazquez to pursue the visual arts, the only career field the latter could imagine for herself. (Her musical genes still remain, though. Vazquez said, “If times were more normal, you would hear me playing the ukulele or whatever instrument I could find around campus!”)
Working primarily with ink and marbling, Vazquez has since used her work to relay an important message. As someone who suffers from depression and anxiety, she began to notice how people within her community reacted to mental health problems a negative way, perpetuating harmful stigma.
“I realized that for students of color/Latinx students with mental illnesses, we also have to deal with parents from a culture where mental illness doesn't really ‘exist,’” Vazquez said. “Unless they could see the injury or illness, you were making it all up. It's become important to me to help other students in similar situations.”
Though Vazquez feels she hasn’t worked on a large-scale level to resolve these issues, her art portrays an insider’s view into mental illness in a way that feels monumental. She portrays her struggles accurately. and yet, Vazquez views each piece with a sense of hope in the distance. Normalizing the experience is the only way to move forward, both in the Latinx community and beyond.
Her upcoming work continues to work with these ideas. Vazquez feels they are a visual way to describe her mental headspace during particularly rough moments in her life.
“Just by looking at them, I am reminded of where I once was and how far I have come,” she said. “I want to create work that evokes the unexplainable emotions those of us with mental illnesses feel but cannot express in words, and that inspires young people to pursue their hopes and motivations in spite of [them.]”
Though her first year at Pratt is anything but typical, Vazquez feels there is much potential for students to learn about cultures outside of their own, whether in a physical or digital classroom.
“I would enjoy having projects and courses that directly ask you to create work influenced by your own and each other's cultures and identities,” Vazquez said. “[One could] learn more than just general information about other countries in the world.”
Challenging our understanding of one another is a staple of Vazquez’s mission. With these ideas, it’s clear that she has a promising road ahead.
To keep in touch with the Latinx Student Alliance, follow them on Instagram (@prattlatinx) or email them (email@example.com) to be added to the club’s mailing list.
Header image by Quincy Kmetz.