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Latina artists in St. Louis use art to express shared connections with Black Americans

Luisa Otero Prada can’t forget how she felt in 2018, watching images of U.S. immigration agents taking children away from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Seeing children in distress moved Otero Prada, Aleida Ruelas Hertel, Carol Lara and Eliana Cristancho — and made them want to portray Latinos in a different light.

Otero Prada suggested they pour their pain into creating art.

“Of course, we knew it wasn’t going to be something that was going to solve the situation at the border at that time, but we were touched by that,” said Otero Prada, a Colombian painter who has lived in St. Louis for 17 years.

The women, all visual artists, decided to create a mural project to spark conversations about the shared African experience in the Americas.

Otero Prada searched for a building to showcase the artwork. Eventually, she found the perfect spot along Delmar Boulevard — the Loop Trolley Building. In July 2020, the group worked with the Latinx Arts Network STL group to secure a $10,000 innovation grant from Mid-America Arts Alliance.

While brainstorming and sketching ideas, Otero Prada proposed they center the project around an Afro Latina.

Luisa Otero Prada
St. Louisan Adaliris Amaya looks at a painting of herself on the side of the Loop Trolley Building. Amaya's mother is close friends with artist Luisa Otero Prada. She wanted Amaya on the mural because of her heritage — Caribbean, Colombian and Mexican.

“Since the beginning, it was clear that we wanted to have a child,” said Otero Prada, whose husband and stepson are Black Americans. "We wanted a child in the mural because the child is a symbol of hope.”

In the 912-square-foot mural “Building Bridges”, the girl gazes into a blue sky. Surrounding her are flowers, a papel picado, African baskets and orange monarchs, which represent migration stories of Latin Americans and Black people in the U.S.

The women want to call attention to Afro Latinos who are an underrepresented group among Latin American immigrants to the U.S. and how their struggles are similar to those of Black Americans.

“I know that we have to represent Black Latinos,” said Carol Lara, a St. Louis photographer. "They are a huge part of us. … It's just a part of our culture that is not represented.”

Lara, whose family is from Peru, hopes the painting helps bridge the gap between Latinos and Black St. Louisans by highlighting their similarities.

"Building Bridges"
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Eliana Cristancho and Luisa Otero Prada paint sealant on the mural to protect the wall from the elements and graffiti.

“They'll find out that the Latino community is so much more diverse than what we see on mainstream media and that we are a lot more alike and intertwined,” Lara said.

Black Americans and Afro Latinos have a shared history of slavery, racism and discrimination and the struggle for equality, Mexican artist Aleida Ruelas Hertel said.

Luisa Otero Prada
Colombian artist Eliana Cristancho paints white circles along the butterfly wings this summer. The artists say the monarch represents migration patterns of Latinos and Black people throughout the Americas.

“It's important to have that lens of critical thinking and critical analysis towards our own historical segregation and the importance to continue to empower the Afro Latinos whether in our country or in the U.S,” Hertel said.

During the transatlantic slave trade, most Africans were sent to Latin American countries, which explains the large Black populations in those countries. Many other Latin Americans have African, Spanish and Indigenous ancestry.

Many Afro Latinos in the U.S. are doubly marginalized, said Karma Frierson, an assistant professor of African American studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

“When you think about Black Latinos there is this language barrier, especially for people who aren't fluent in English, so you see a lot of narratives of Afro Latino people who say that they feel distant from both sides of themselves,” Frierson said.

Colombian artist Eliana Cristancho, who has been living in St. Louis for 22 years, said she wants Black people in St. Louis to see themselves in the mural.

“What we want is that the community make the mural theirs. It represents hope and love,” Cristancho said.

Follow Andrea on Twitter: @drebjournalist

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.

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