There is enormous room for improvement in the broken system that we have now. I believe that there has been no political will to take on a block of voters that is coming up. Both parties believe they will lose the Latino vote if they take on the immigration reform that needs to happen. The immigration reform that needs to happen is very simple: it has to be orderly and backed by data. We have big data, we should be using our best minds in technology to put a solution forth that is more palatable to everybody. I think technological advances should yield orderly and logical advances in immigration. The US is the market economics vortex of the world. We should be able to match our labor and skillset needs with the visa programs abroad. Once people are here, performing and on solid immigration ground, there should be a pathway to stay longer, to a green card, and eventually to citizenship. This is all feasible, but what is lacking is the political will. Instead we continue in this unbelievable disregard of humanity. We can enact immigration reform that is data-driven and technology-based, for the benefit of all people.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Geraldina Interiano Wise. Geraldina is an acclaimed contemporary Latina artist whose avant-garde work explores themes of connectivity and coexistence. She paints from Houston, Texas about the vast intellectual heritage of her native El Salvador. Geraldina was recently featured at the first-ever Houston New American Festival. Founded by bipartisan immigration research and advocacy group New American Economy, the New American Festival is a groundbreaking celebration of immigration contributions to American culture in cities across the United States. The Festival seeks to transform the conversation around immigration by promoting cultural influencers’ work to convey the shared American experience. At the Festival, Geraldina collaborated with Dr. Jose Contreras-Vidal of the University of Houston to present a fully immersive neuroaesthetics live painting performance. While connected to cutting-edge mobile brain imaging technology, Geraldina painted to her sonnified brain waves, which was projected onto a screen. She then painted on a canvas using house paints and tools used by her fellow Salvadoran workers. Together this constituted her NAHUAL, or Mayan mirror spirit.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit more about your background growing up in El Salvador?
When I was one to five years old, I was actually in New York and Washington. My father was in the foreign service in El Salvador. I was little, I was here, I was in a household of Salvadorans, and in a world outside that was not diverse. It was all Spanish in my house and all English outside. In essence, I did not speak a word of anything for five years. And then from five to seventeen (those were my formative years), I was in El Salvador and immersed in a very complex world. A world that seems to repeat itself in many countries. A world where society is separated into the haves and have nots. It was that dichotomy that I lived in, and I was particularly sensitive to it, particularly sensitive to children. I lived in the San Salvador volcano, which as you can imagine has ravines and big crevices. We lived up in the volcano and in the ravines lived the children of poverty. They were right there. Every mealtime, our windows were open to the outside, and every mealtime, the children from the ravines would come and put their little fingers through the window and watch us eat. That is indelibly marked in my brain, and what that meant was that since I was little, I was asking: why can’t they come sit here? Why can’t they eat what we’re eating? Who’s not feeding them? Why can’t we feed them? The answers were complex, as those societies are complex. I lived in that complexity every day, and that was a different type of growing up.
What made you decide to come to the U.S.?
Because we had had our start here. My older sister was born with severe cerebral palsy, and the reason why we came to the United States was because my father said, let’s go looking for the best doctors. The family returned to El Salvador after the doctors made it clear there was nothing left to do but to give her the best possible care. The best possible care was going to be in El Salvador, where we had extended family and people who could help take care of her. But going back, there was a deep understanding by my parents that the land of opportunity was here, in the United States. My parents knew then that we’d better study English, we’d better prepare, because we were going to come back here to study. Well, I returned as foreign student in college. I came here in the spring semester of ’78, when I had finished my international baccalaureate.
Can you share with us what it was like when you first arrived in the U.S.?
When we went back to El Salvador, it was a good time, it was a very productive time. But things were brewing. My father was the economic minister of El Salvador, so we got to see up close and personal and hear the backstory of what was brewing. Most people couldn’t see what was brewing, but we knew it. My father’s mantra was that we had to prepare and educate ourselves to be able to make a difference. He felt that we needed to go to the bigger arenas; El Salvador was too small an arena. What was in my heart was that I needed to go back to fix something. Given that the lens through which I saw El Salvador was one of the built environment, I came to study architecture to learn about low-income housing so I could go back and make a difference.
What made you choose your career path as an artist?
I like to say that my entire life was in preparation for this. I’ve been doing art since I was eight years old. My parents had heard that there was a new artist who had just arrived back from Mexico. Her name was Violeta Bonilla, and she was a student of Diego Rivera. She was Salvadoran, she had gone searching for the master, he became her mentor, and then she came back to El Salvador. She lived at the edge of the ravine in the volcano, and my mother went searching for her. She determined that for me to spend Saturdays being taught by this artist was the right thing to do given the talent I had. I was studying under Violeta Bonilla until I left to come to college. At that point, you don’t just leave art. Art and architecture are seamlessly related. It was easy for me to take history of art, history of architecture, and then studio art, studio architecture. They informed each other. I found that to be the case in real life… It was one, curiosity about the world, and two, how to make impactful spaces for humans.
In terms of performance art, it was also almost a seamless type of situation. I got the idea of collaborating first with music, then with the new frontier, which is the brain. I told you about my sister. The brain was always that differentiator between my sister and me, and it was always something that I’ve been attuned to. My quest for science has always been there. Doing the performance that I do now with the mobile EEG technology in a closed loop of the brain is a big step forward in putting all of these things together. But it wasn’t that far a reach given the educational trajectory I’ve taken and my intellectual curiosity.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
My curiosity has taken me to a really, really important project that I have sitting in my studio. I intend, when the time is right, to take it forth into the larger scale, into the larger world. It’s a series that I call One. Our racial divide was at its highest a few years ago, and it was taking up our collective energy and our empathy and our collective space. Mothers were crying because their sons were at risk just for existing. And I went down that empathy path, and understood that if I was one of those women, I would be the loudest of those mothers. Realizing that there was no degree of separation between me and those mothers, I asked then what separates us really. I went Googling what was the provenance of white skin. It was really surprising to me that most people haven’t done that yet. It was a genetic aberration that’s six thousand years old that a geneticist at Duke discovered in 2006. African man started emigrating to Europe about 80,000 years ago, and yet only 6,000 years ago, Europe became white. That’s like a drop in the space-time continuum. Science tells us that we really are one race, and that’s why I called that project One. This is something that I have very quietly but very strongly in my possession, and I will look for the right venue and the right avenue to be able to bring it forth, to bring through art the science behind us being one race, and hopefully break down the barriers of racism. Everybody that I talk to, when they come out of that room, I ask them, are you the same person, and they say no, I now know something I needed to know. It’s that powerful.
How have you used your success as an artist to bring good to the world?
I’m going to paraphrase Darren Walker, who is the head of the Ford Foundation, who spoke in Houston earlier this year. One of the things he said was that the Ford Foundation was investing in art heavily because research has yielded that art breaks barriers in producing empathy, and that empathetic people will enact social justice. That’s exactly what New American Economy is all about, and that’s why I did what I did with New American Economy and the New American Festival. I just told you about my art, of the series One, and I truly believe it’s going to break barriers. If we could get it in front of every high school student, if every eighth-grader gets to be immersed in that, and understand that we really are one, how differently would they behave, how could they make new relationships and see people through a different lens. The transformative nature of art is real. I love doing art that is based in science because I believe it’s that confluence of art and science that is going to open minds and break open the heart.
You have first-hand experience of the U.S. immigration system. In your opinion what do you think should be done to improve the immigration system?
There is enormous room for improvement in the broken system that we have now. I believe that there has been no political will to take on a block of voters that is coming up. Both parties believe they will lose the Latino vote if they take on the immigration reform that needs to happen. The immigration reform that needs to happen is very simple: it has to be orderly and backed by data. We have big data, we should be using our best minds in technology to put a solution forth that is more palatable to everybody. I think technological advances should yield orderly and logical advances in immigration.
The US is the market economics vortex of the world. We should be able to match our labor and skillset needs with the visa programs abroad. Once people are here, performing and on solid immigration ground, there should be a pathway to stay longer, to a green card, and eventually to citizenship. This is all feasible, but what is lacking is the political will. Instead we continue in this unbelievable disregard of humanity. We can enact immigration reform that is data-driven and technology-based, for the benefit of all people.
Thank you again for taking the time to join us. This was a very stimulating conversation.