Stereotypes. They are everywhere. They lurk in TV shows and permeate even within next door neighbors. Be a Puerto Rican woman in an inner city community who reads and is interested in the arts and, according to Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz, you run the risk of being labeled “A wanna be white girl.”
Wanda, who is known by many as Wepa Woman (more on this later), shared her journey from neighborhood outcast to artist known around the world. The two personas are almost symbiotic in Wanda’s humanity. She felt like an outsider in her Bronx community because she didn’t hang out on the block and didn’t usually speak slang. Being something other than what she assumes was the “norm” amongst her peers, she became known as “a book worm/nerd/new wave chick.” The stigma stuck all the way to high school. She remained a foreigner as “the artsy girl from the hood” in a highly competitive NYC arts school where even today almost half of the student body is classified as white.
This origin story gave Wanda much material for her work. In a spoken word piece she conceived years later, she describes herself as rare and misplaced in her hood but rough and on the outskirts out of her hood. She’s lived in an in-between that is not so unfamiliar to other Puerto Ricans and other Latinos who exist in this space that has been captured in Nuyorican poetry and by academics such as Juan Flores.
Wanda came into her own when she found other creative kids in her neighborhood, “like me, [they] stood out. That's where I found my safe space.” That sense of belonging enhanced the artistic gift that Wanda says she always had. As a child, Wanda was always found drawing, and with the support of her family, she confidently continued to draw and draw closer to the consciousness that today allows her to use her art as a tool for evaluating herself and everything around her.
As a constantly marginalized Puerto Rican, a creative woman raised near the Bronx River Projects, she feels like she has an advantage. She writes on her website, “I have built my artistic career by creating works that investigate notions of otherness as a Latina in the US. Starting from personal experiences, I set out to dissect aspects of my heritage from varying points of entry- from within my own family, home, neighborhood, intersecting Latino cultures. These investigations in turn, became larger studies on otherness as a whole in American culture.”
One of those efforts became the series she is best known for—Wepa Woman. The mural series is set on the (mis)adventures of a Puerto Rican super heroine motivated with sustaining the “moral code” of the Puerto Rican community. In one of the pieces, a comic art painting covering an entire wall, Wepa Woman defies machista inclinations by teaching a lesson to a street hoodlum who disrespects her for rejecting his advances. He introduces himself to the heroine with a “Ma let me holla at ya…,” which she dismisses by telling him to “stimulate a woman’s mind.” Maybe it’s that she spoke back to him. Maybe it’s that he wasn’t used to getting what he wanted but the scorned man had no other words but a few curses in response. With a quick 1, 2 combo of sazón and achiote, Wepa Woman leaves the thug repeatedly writing, “I will respect women” on a wall like Bart in the opening credits of The Simpsons. In a theme that comes up in many of her works, Wepa Woman consistently challenges the accepted relations and interactions between men and women and cultural norms.
While Wanda advocates for her people, both men and women, to rise up and be better, that’s not all her art stands for. Nothing shows this better than the piece Wepa Woman flees PR. The wall painting, which was shown at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, finds Wepa Woman experiencing the dilemma of being “ni de aca, ni de alla.” Living an “in between” existence that other Puerto Ricans in the United States may relate to, she runs from the island scared away by negative stereotypes of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. as thugs. The painting reads, “Esto no puede quedar asi. I don’t bust my ass defending Puerto Rico for nothing.”
Wanda’s work reads like her every day experiences. “I firmly believe that it is important to work from a place that you know intimately and that you are passionate about,” she says. “Imagine a pressure cooker...the things I struggle with are the things that make it into the studio. That pressure to understand or resolve is where I draw inspiration.” Through her inspirations, Wanda fulfills on her commitment to exalting her people today and also yesterday. She honors her roots in some of her works by portraying the sacrifice and resilience of those who came before. She feels the responsibility to not let that history go to waste like when she asks, “Am I to forget how I came to be?” but struggles when she feels obligated to have to prove her Puerto Ricanness. In her spoken word piece “100 Blocks” she has to affirm “si soy Boricua” with elongated pronunciation of vowels and accents after a bodeguero gives her a confused looked when she asks if he carries soy milk.
All of Wanda’s pieces possess an educational yet transgressive elements. She praises her people while also challenging stereotypes about them and by them. One of the other ways in which she does that beyond the Wepa Woman series is through her web series, Ask Chuleta. In this series, Wanda plays Chuleta, a Puerto Rican girl who used to be “gangsta” but started going to museums and studying art. She dons a doobie (well before Rihanna made it fashionable at the 2013 American Music Awards) and huge hoop earrings. The character, and one can imagine the artist herself, talks about issues in contemporary art. She teaches her viewers, who she says are people like her, about artists they should know like Pollock and Frida Kahlo as well as terms such as post-modernism and appropriation. Her ensemble itself defies predetermined ideas of who is and isn’t allowed to talk and know about art. Artist and character meld into one, as Wanda speaks her intentions through Chuleta, saying that she aims “to bridge the gap between the art world and everyday people.”
Wanda’s social comments are headstrong and unapologetic. In fact, on her website, she says, “[t]he work I make isn’t exactly for everyone. Or maybe it is. Maybe it’s just the idea that the “everyone” that I’m talking about is not the “everyone” that is counted as important. Maybe it’s because I’ve made work about the folks we don’t see…”
This theme of exposing the unseen shines bright in her most recent work, Reinas. Both a performance and a series of photographs, Reinas provides a new outlet for Wanda to expose and explore her personal fears and anxieties. Suited up as a “Warrior Queen,” and sometimes as a porcelain doll, the majestic prototypes she creates represent her internal psyche. In one photograph, the Warrior Queen is alone in the woods charging forward with a protective shield although there is no visible threat. She has also performed as a pregnant porcelain doll at the Museum of Contemporary Art North Miami. In bubble wrap, she was taken care of by women who on their hands and knees served her food and even bowed to her. The series depicts her efforts to comprehend the qualms of her mind and her attempts to respect their existence.
Click on the photo for additional images
No matter what detractors may say though, it’s evident that Wanda’s art appeals to many and not just Puerto Ricans. Her story and that of many Latinas in the United States is reaching audiences across the nation and the globe. Wanda has shown her work at the PS1/MoMa, the North Carolina Museum of Art and the HYBRIDARTS/FUSE BOX Festival in Austin, Texas. It has also been exhibited across the globe, from South Korea, to Egypt, to Australia. (And those are just a few.)
Wanda’s adventures in New York and around the world have allowed the artist to not tell a one dimensional story but a transnational narrative. She took a leap of faith when the opportunity to teach as a professor in the School of Visual Arts & Design at the University of Central Florida came knocking on her door. Today she says that the move has allowed her to escape the chaotic nature of New York and to really think and reflect on her work more deeply, “I realized that living in New York City and creating works that are supposed to speak to a national Latina experience was nearly impossible to do, because New York City is an entity unto itself and unlike any other experience in the country. This is not to say that the Nuyorican latina experience isn't ripe with things to draw from, but my time in Florida and, subsequently, around the nation, suggests a very different experience- one that is, at times, lonelier, more isolated culturally. I am still working it all out among my motley crew of Pan Latina colleagues.”
Each year as the winters get colder and living expenses rise higher, Wanda comments that Florida is appealing more and more Puerto Ricans in New York and the mainland to make the move. It tells one background story as to why the number of Puerto Ricans in Florida is expected to exceed the number of Cubans in Florida by the end of 2020. As of now Orlando has the biggest Puerto Rican community, “It's an exciting time to be in Orlando. There IS an art scene beginning to flesh itself out here and Atlantic Center for the Arts is pretty close, so there are nuggets of goodness for professional artists to enjoy. “
All of Wanda’s projects are ongoing and the status of her Wepa Woman series is “TOP SECRET,” but she is currently working on expanding her Reinas’ performances and looks forward to one day turning it into a collaborative piece. Wanda declares “I still have a few chapters left in me!”
The Arts Section of the New York Times reviewed Wanda once declaring, “You’ve got to admire Wanda Raimundi-Ortiz…she continues to make angry, difficult but also poignant and occasionally riotously funny works about being a Latina in the United States. Hers is art with something to say…This is a quality anyone, of any background or education, can appreciate.” But Wanda makes more than just a statement. She ignites her audiences and her people to listen, to think, and then to re-invent expectations, make themselves seen, and to be more than anyone could ever imagine of them. Not bad for a Nuyorican book worm, “When the work is finally coming together, it’s a very restful place,” says Wanda, “The vision that I have for the work and watching them crystallize is very rewarding.”
© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 8 May 2015.
Hero Image from the Reinas Series by the artist.