Read more about the episode here.

MARIA: This is Latino USA. The radio journal of news and cultura. 

It’s Latino USA. Welcome to Latino USA. 

I’m Maria Hinojosa.

We bring you stories that are underreported, but that matter to you. 

Overlooked by the rest of the media. 

And while the country is struggling to deal with these problems. We listen to the stories of black and Latino students.

A united Latino front, a cultural renaissance. Organizing at the forefront of the movement. 

I’m Maria Hinojosa. 

¡No se vayan! 

PEPON: Objects, whether we wanted it to admit it or not, have great importance in our lives. 

MARIA: From Futuro Media and PRX, it’s Latino USA. I’m Maria Hinojosa. 

Today, Puerto Rican visual artist Pepón Osorio and the accumulation of memory.

The art that Pepón Osorio makes, it’s not something that you just see, you actually experience it.

Because his work is big installations full of objects, full of sounds of images that take over entire rooms. Full of layers of Latino culture and memorabilia. 

Each Pepónpon Osorio’s installations can take him three to four years to build. 

And it’s in part because of the intricacy of his creations that his work is rarely on view in museums or galleries.

In 2023 though, the new museum in New York City hosted the most comprehensive exhibition from the Puerto Rican artists to date. 

Though Pepón doesn’t like to call it a retrospective. 

PEPON: Immediately what comes to mind, it’s like, okay, I must be dying and nobody’s telling me because like, why will I get a retrospective now?

It’s way too early. 

MARIA: Born in Santurce, the home of several art museums in Puerto Rico, Pepón Osorio’s artistic career followed a pretty unconventional path. He was 19 years old when he moved to New York City. 

PEPON: The Republic of the South Bronx, I call, not even New York City. 

MARIA: And he studied sociology at Lehman College in the Bronx.

In terms of his art, Pepón’s life experiences accumulate in the spaces that he decides to build. From a barbershop, where he got his very first haircut. 

PEPON: My father was next to me, and it was a traumatic experience. 

MARIA: To the scene of a crime. Like the many he witnessed as a caseworker for Child Protective Services.

PEPON: And I could stand at the doorframe and I could tell you exactly what was going on in the home. 

MARIA: Latino USA Senior Producer, Marta Martinez, toured the exhibition. “Mi corazón latiente”, My beating heart, with Pepón and talk to him about his childhood in Puerto Rico, how he decided to become an artist and his love for collecting objects.

PEPON: I’m Pepón Osorio. I’m the artist and I also teach at Tyler School of Art. 

We are in My beating heart. at the New Museum in New York City. 

What we’re experiencing, it’s the exhibition of my work from the 1990s and some from the present. It’s a survey. And a mostly large installation, big work, that has to do with the development of my practice in connection with the Latinx community.

So this is State of Preservation, and it’s a collection of a couple of dozen knick-knacks, all of the same color. And it is that idea of the preserving. All the pieces are covered in plastic, placed on a shelf, and the shelf has this mantle that sets embroidered the word “State of preservation”.

I was born in Santurce, it’s a town in Puerto Rico, and I was born in 1955. 

Puerto Nuevo, which is specifically the place where I live, is an urbanization. An urbanization is just basically an urban setting that started, it was almost like an experiment in Puerto Rico. 

I remember vividly that my family were the only dark skinned people in the neighborhood.

My father worked in a North American company and he was a stalker. He had the build of a body of a working man. He just stalked the warehouse. It was an oil refinery.

My uncle was a policeman. Then my grandfather had a stroke. And I remember him after the stroke. I don’t remember him before that. And so this is like a wounded man.

And those were the main figures. 

I really wanted to believe that I didn’t have That “macho” experience, although my father took me to the barber for the first time and I sat in one of those chairs that it’s like a little support for little kids. I remember sitting there and feeling that I was initiated into something.

It was, it felt like a ritual to me and they were older men around. And the barber, he started to begin the process of cutting my hair and I felt very uncomfortable because I also felt in a way that I had been strangled by that cloth that they put around your neck. 

And then I stood there and I can see myself in the mirrors, in the front mirror, and all I saw was my head.

My father was next to me. And then the guy started with the clippers and the sound of the buzzer and the clippers and electricity and all that stuff. I said, just wait a second. This is way too much for me. 

And I started to cry. My father, he was disappointed, but he wasn’t necessarily judgmental. They did finish the haircut, but it wasn’t a good job.

When I looked at the guy and I just thought there is something wrong here and this guy doesn’t know how to cut hair. 

It wasn’t until much later that I realized that he didn’t know how to cut kinky hair because I am of African descent. More so than anything else, and that’s what I was crying, but also it was a little bit of a shame for my father because he expected me at age five to to take pain and I was not totally into that.

My father.

It was very dark skin and with almost like straight hair. So there was also that idea that my father somehow, somewhere, never admitted that he was black because he has straight hair. 

My mother was a light skin, very light skin. And so we were in a family that race was not an issue. Luckily enough, I grew up in the 60s.

So I started to realize that my sense of self, as a person of African descent, was very different from my family in terms of hair texture. I never questioned that they were not of African descent. I knew that somehow, somewhere, they weren’t the other. And so you see the combination of the intersection of class and race and all those mixed signals, that I received both from my parents.

I was surrounded by women. The landscape of the memory that I have of the women in my family were very strong women, which actually overpowered the presence of men. My sister, my mother, my aunt, my grandmother; it was a very strong woman, very strong. And so I remember that a lot of the men who were in the neighborhood will make fun of other women and I had such respect for them.

The interesting thing is that the majority of the men that I grew up, used that as a power tool, to overimpose their beliefs into another gender. And I never bought that. Deep inside they know that there’s something wrong with that. 

But I think that what happens is that once you get to the place where you overimpose, or you feel powerful, because of your gender assignment, or I don’t know, then it’s hard to move back and try to retract yourself from that belief. So then it becomes an exaggeration, it becomes a living in false belief reality. And it’s really hard to undo that.

My father had an extreme inclination for the arts. My father did some really beautiful drawings that I still have, and portraits mostly of my mother. 

My mother was a baker, and she bakes cakes for everyone in the community. So my mother was the one who, if you were having a wedding, my mother was a place to go to, and the production of cake baking, was a celebration in the family, and one that I was looking forward.

These things lasted for like about a weekend, so it started like on Thursday, I’ll see my mother baking, that I still have her mixer, and my father will then build this amazing structures that were part of the thing. 

I was actually the one working with the decorations of the cake. And so it was a big celebration.

The cakes were gigantic. Gigantic. And we had to take them out. Imagine in a small house what it meant to take a cake out. 

I was always interested in surfaces and transforming surfaces. That, that I remember, which is basically what we did with the cake. I wouldn’t, I’d never, I can’t even bake a cake these days, but I can decorate them.

So that in itself, that’s just for me, which is basically sculpture one on one and painting one on one in academic sense. And that experience when I came to New York City, served me as the foundation for the work that I wanted to do.

I wanted it to create a space, where the architecture was somehow, dissolved, by the presence of the artwork. 

That when you, when you were standing in front of the work, somehow, somewhere you forget that you’re in a museum. And so as you move in through the exhibition, there is this sense of standing there and collectively experiencing this, and witnessing something, in front of all the people or next to all the people. 

“La barbería no se llora”, it’s where we are standing right now. It’s a barbershop. You see the walls are in pink, which goes back to this idea of the assignment of color based on gender. Photograph of my father. It’s smack in the middle of the whole thing, and it’s the vulnerability of the body, the wounded man.

MARTHA: On the wall. It says, “Perdóname madre”, “Forgive me, mother”. 

PEPON: It’s a tattoo, a large format tattoo, and goes back again to this idea of forgive me mother, in a form of a mural. But it’s really a tattoo that I see in a lot of men. 

There is a big pool table and there’s also an empty chair that was used for haircuts during the opening.

And also haircuts during community day that we celebrated here. So we brought barbers for real and gave free haircuts here. 

If we look at the work, we understand the strength that men have, but also we need to look at the vulnerability of men. 

All the work that you see around here, it’s paying attention to individual stories of men that I came across in the making of this work.

Images of men all over in different places; hop caps, because I always said that men pay more attention to cars, than they pay to their families. 

MARTHA: What about the mirrors? 

PEPON: The mirrors in the exhibition is basically a way of seeing yourself, but also seeing yourself in a very distorted way. You know, it’s almost like a funhouse, kind of a mirror position.

So I left Puerto Rico in 1975. I left Puerto Rico because I felt that as a working class person, my future was somehow, somewhere designed. 

I had this idea that I wanted it to do more than it was expected of me, and I knew that I could, but the limitations in the island were pretty big.

I was 18 at that time. And this progressive thinking that I had as a citizen was somehow not fitting with the rest of the neighborhood and the rest of things were going on. 

And so I convinced my parents that I wanted to come to school to New York City. I didn’t come with the idea that I was going to become an artist.

I basically went for sociology. 

And my parents were reluctant, but I think that somehow, somewhere, they realized that Puerto Rico wasn’t the place for me. And it had nothing to do with the American dream. I didn’t come for any of that stuff. I came here to expand and to liberate myself from that colonization, from the sense of being colonized.

And so, I began to have a conversation with my aunt, that I wanted her to come here, just for a summer, and test and see what this was like. 

And by the way, I only spoke English in the present tense. It wasn’t until three years later that I started using the past and the future tense. You know, it was like, I go now, that kind of a language.

But I was just like, I’m going to go to college, I don’t care. And that was also the time of affirmative action, which would never, ever happen now. 

There was a lot of support for students, and I got a scholarship from the South Bronx agency. I basically went for sociology. I got admitted, and then I finished my degree in Lehman College.

1978, 1979, I began to create associations with African Americans, and all my friends were African American. Imagine me. present tense, with African Americans, we had a great time. It was the, the group of people that I felt that somehow I have some real parallels and connections.

My experience working in the United States, basically in New York City, in the South Bronx, was what I call born again New Yorican. I saw the people, I realized what it meant, and I began to notice that history was written by Puerto Ricans in the island, and Puerto Ricans in the South Bronx and the United States were forcing their way in, because it was very difficult.

When I came to Manhattan, I always felt like a tourist. I never felt like I belonged there. Always, I felt like I just went to these places to see and to acquire information, and then I would go back to the South Bronx on the train, on the D train, and that, for me, was like, yeah, this is home. This is where I fit.

I’m in Philadelphia, and I don’t feel like at home. And it’s been 23 years, and I just still don’t feel like I’m home. This is my place, the Bronx.

I was a caseworker. I worked for many years with the Department of Human Services, called Special Services for Children, which dealt with child abuse and neglect. And I visited a lot of homes doing investigations about child abuse and neglect. 

And I’m saying that I visited a lot of homes because this exhibition and my work from then on as an artist, it’s all about homes.

At that time. I was able to stand in on the doorframe, which I find it so amazing in New York City, that people shuts immediately after they walk in, for whatever reason, but when you leave that door open, there is something that is happening on the outside, in the hallway and something that is happening in the inside, that there is a tension and a beautiful composition of two worlds coming together.

You see, when you walk in a neighborhood, you know, the exterior, I know the interior of all those homes. 

It was important to me, but then I realized that social work doesn’t work, at that time. It just simply doesn’t work. And in retrospect, I realized that the institution was the problem for me. I had ideas, I saw realities, but the alternative to those realities were very much filtered and controlled by institutions and by the court. 

When I saw possibilities, the court gave us very few options to resolve those possibilities. And, I was constantly fighting back to the point that I just thought, this is just a place that I’m not going to win the fight, and I left.

And I became a full time artist. 

How did I do it? I have no idea. But what I remember from the very beginning of this transition was that I come from a family that have a really strong work ethics and it doesn’t matter what happens, you’ll find your way out of it. 

I was able to get a lot of support from people.

I did a lot of art residencies, I did a lot of odd jobs, I did a lot of stuff, but my sense of curiosity never died.

“The scene of a crime” it’s 1993 and it is my interpretation, of a crime scene as I saw it, I worked with two detectives from New York City, on East Harlem, and it really became the denominator of a lot of crime scenes that I saw while I was visiting with the detectives. 

It’s also a Hollywood film set. And it really speaks about how we see ourselves and how others sees us.

It is a piece that is fairly large. It’s about 12 feet wide by 10 feet deep. And it’s a family environment with lots and lots of different imagery that it’s commonly seen in some Latinos homes. There is a, there’s a welcome mat that says, “Welcome”. Only if you can understand that it has taken years of pain to gather into our homes, our most valuable possessions.

But the greater pain is to see, how in the movies, others make fun of the way that we live. 

I always begin to collect things, but I collect them only when I have an idea of where they’re going to be placed. 

And from that experience as a caseworker, a lot of the objects that were around, told me stories, people tells me stories, and I begin to translate those stories in a way that visually makes sense, pero also they create a dialogue with the work. 

This is nothing new. This is the tradition and the practice of my grandmother, the practice of my mother and my father with all his tools, in the cabinets and all this stuff.

What I really wanted to do was to bring that into the work. And somehow, make a case of home, for us. Objects, whether we wanted it to admit it or not, have great importance in our lives. When we go to our parents house, if they live in a traditional home, those are signifiers that constantly pop up, and reminds us of our childhood and our place in the environment that, that we grew up and I think that it’s extremely important in order to, to process your life, but also process your past and what I call the landscape of memory in your life. 

I’m also have to say that I’m, I was always ashamed of my mother’s knick-knacks. I was always ashamed of my grandmother’s knick-knacks.

And I always hid them in the house. Every time my friends come in, I will open the drawers and I put all the kinds of knick-knacks and my mother will get really upset. And I’ll say, please, when they leave, I’ll take them back, and I put them exactly the same way. And little by little, I realized the place of my mother’s memory and the importance of her memory through saving evidence of the process in which his family went through.

New Yoricans save a lot of objects. Because it’s the way of connecting to the past, but it’s also connecting to the island, and all the things that are important to them. And then I realized that, and I just thought, I undermined my mom’s philosophy on life. And that’s when I started to work with objects.

For me, seeing all this work, on the one roof, reminds me of the accumulation of memory, accumulation of objects. 

The idea is that I wanted the people to experience the objects in a collective way, and the objects, also, in a very intimate way. 

And I was with art students and they were crying. A lot of them were literally sobbing in front of the installation.

And that’s a great responsibility that I have. And I started to talk to them and what had occurred to me is that when you see this exhibition, it really summons the spirits of your ancestors, right? And in a way it goes back again to this tradition, this African tradition, but you standing there and you feel, that grandmother, great grandmother, and great grandfathers are coming with you, because it’s in the work. 

It is this accumulation, it’s all the tradition that they used to have, and how that moves forward, and somehow whether you wanted to admit it or not, they are part of your reality today.

What I love about this exhibition it is so many Latinos coming in.

MARTHA: While we’re standing in the installation called “En la barbería no se llora”, or “You don’t cry at the barbershop”, a young artist approaches Pepón. 

YOUNG ARTIST: Muchísimas gracias por esto. Mi papá acaba de morir. 

MARTHA: The young woman tells Pepón that her father recently passed away.

Pepón says he’s sorry about her loss and asks whether he can do anything to help. “You helped”, she says, by making this installation. 

PEPON: Esto me pasa y  yo no nunca estoy listo, esto me pasa todo el tiempo y no se qué pasa con la exhibición, que mucha gente saca lágrimas… 

MARTHA: Pepón tells her he’s surprised about people’s reaction to the exhibition. “A lot of them cry. And I don’t know why”, he says. 

PEPON: No sé por qué, pero hay una conexión que toca a la gente y yo no lo sé ni explicar.

YOUNG ARTIST: Porque nos vemos… Mm-Hmm. 

MARTHA: I do know why the young woman says, because we see ourselves in it. We see our history, we see our culture, we see ourselves.

YOUNG ARTIST: Vemos esta historia, vemos nuestra cultura, nos vemos. 

PEPON: Qué bonito y en sitios donde no esperamos vernos. 

Coming in and participating and it’s, it is the reason why I began to create work,  outside of the museum setting. Because I feel that my people were not represented.

And I feel that when I went to museums, I didn’t see myself. 

People that looked like me in the process of all this. And now, I’m standing here and I see, so many coming in and being curious. Kind of a rewarding and convincing at the same time.

MARIA: That was Puerto Rican artist, Pepón Osorio, speaking about his career and his latest exhibition, “Mi Corazón Latiente”, “My Beating Heart”, at the New Museum in New York City.

This episode was produced by Marta Martinez. It was edited by Andrea López Cruzado, and it was mixed by Julia Caruso. 

The Latino USA team also includes Victoria Estrada, Reynaldo Leaños Jr. Glorimar Marquez, Mike Sargent, Nour Saudi, and Nancy Trujillo. Peniley Ramírez is our co-executive producer. Our director of engineering is Stephanie Lebow.

Additional engineering support by Gabriela Baez and JJ Carubin. Our marketing manager is Luis Luna. Our theme music was composed by Xenia Rubinos.

I’m your host and co-executive producer, Maria Hinojosa. Join us again on our next episode. In the meantime, look for us on social media and remember. 

¡No te vayas! 

Latino USA is made possible in part by the Ford Foundation, working with visionaries on the front lines of social change worldwide.

The John D and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Agnes Gund.[00:26:00] 

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