In a recent Taller Boricua exhibition curated by Nitza Tufiño entitled Women of Puerto Rico: Boricua Essence 1920-1950, Puerto Rico-born, New York-based artist Emma Gonzalez explores the collective unconscious through a Puerto Rican lens, blending the Jungian theory of female archetypes with universal symbols of Puerto Rican history and culture. But beyond the imagery such as the sweet, soothing, evening call of the coqui; the daily morning ritual of colando café, while fiery red hibiscus flowers rustle in the tropical breeze; each painting tells a story, typically a female narrative, that in some cases conveys how women can take on traditionally “masculine” roles.
In “Las Tabaqueras,” Gonzalez depicts a woman reading a letter while rows of tabaqueras in the background sit rolling cigars, with a tobacco plant looming over them. A portion of the painting zooms in on a pair of well manicured hands, fortifying the role reversal of women performing manual labor typically associated with men, during a period in which the labor of women played a crucial role on the island and in migratory destinations like New York City.
Lectoras were often hired to read as the factory workers worked. This arrangement not only kept the workers up to date on current events and issues affecting the community, but also served as a stepping stone for women to engage in critical discourse and to become involved in progressive movements and organizing throughout the first half of the 20th century.
Within the collective unconscious, a theory proposed by Swiss psychologist Carl Jung to explain universal images, patterns, and symbols imprinted and shared in every individual’s mind, which are then expressed and could be observed in behavior, religion, literature and art, “animus” is the masculine component of a woman, while “anima” is the feminine component of a man. Utilizing this concept, Gonzalez plays with gender roles by painting in row after row of women both young and old, colorfully dressed, working alongside one another.
One famous lectora who appears in Gonzalez’s exhibition is none other than revolutionary hero Dominga de la Cruz Becerril, known for bravely protecting la bandera during the Ponce Massacre of 1937. Dominga also prepared women to serve in the Nationalist Party and is believed to have given the party’s leader, Pedro Albizu Campos, his famous nickname, “El Maestro.” Admired for her resilience, determination and inner strength, Dominga is a prime example of breaking away from the traditional gender role as a female, and embracing the role of shero.
Gonzalez’ piece “Fertilidad” is another take on the essence of womanhood, though it also hints at the power that comes with each role a woman assumes. In the painting, an olla filled with flowers and herbs sits at the womb of a nude young woman. Reminiscent of the tarot, specifically her male counterpart the Magician (or Curandero), she embodies fertility, creation, as well as nurturement. At times, she is the Healer, and at other times the Creator, or the Great Mother. Quizas ella es todo a la vez. The olla, which can be construed as a cauldron, is also where life and spiritual energy grows alongside the archetypal images of the psyche. Gonzalez’ message is clear: strength and courage are vital ingredients for rebirth and change.
Throughout several of her art pieces, Gonzalez includes what some may consider her signature motif, la amapola. When asked why the flower, which is also known as la flor de maga, is so relevant in her paints and what it’s symbolism means, the artist replied “I wanted show how life is delicate and full of passion. Although they [amapola] grow in abundance, once you cut them you can’t expect to keep them in a vase for a day or two. They’re beautiful, full of passion and life, but very fragile.” Gonzalez, who holds a PhD in Education, continued, “What bring us together, what separates us, how do we overcome oppression, how do we see ourselves as contributors to a better world.”
About the author: A graduate from Hostos Community College with a degree in Criminal Justice, Melanie Latorre, also a published poet, now majors in Creative Writing at Hunter College. She spends her time combining her acquired knowledge and passion for reading and writing to promote literacy.