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AFC’s Community Collections Grants: Foodways in Chicago with Jorge Félix

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Spices in a bowl for making Coquito a Puerto Rican holiday rum drink
Spices used for making Coquito, a Puerto Rican holiday drink, as documented in the Chicago home of Doña Luz María Resto. Photo by Jorge Félix. See the full interview on the Library’s Of the People blog for a Coquito recipe.

Below is an excerpt from a post on the Library’s Of the People blog highlighting artist, documentarian, and AFC Community Collections Grant recipient Jorge Félix and his project, Sofrito Conversations: Bridging the North and West of Chicago.

Congratulations on the grant, Jorge! First, tell us a bit about you and your work.

Thanks! It is truly exciting to be part of this important project initiated by the LOC and AFC. I am privileged to join this amazing group of artists and community documentarians preserving contemporary narratives that are unknown to many.

I am a proud Afro-Boricua gay man from the town of Caguas in Puerto Rico. I am Black through the heritage of my father whose line I traced to enslaved Black people working in tobacco haciendas in the mountains of Cayey, Puerto Rico, and all the way back to the Mbenzele people of east Cameroon. And through my mother’s heritage, I am half Indigenous Caribbean Taino nation that populated the large islands of the Caribbean and Florida. Boricua comes from Boriquén, which is the Indigenous name of the colonial territory of Puerto Rico. I make a point to stress that I am a Black, Indigenous, gay man because I was raised in a fundamentalist evangelical Christian home that hid the fact we had Black heritage (our brown skin was explained to us as Indigenous, which was more accepted), and where I had to suppress my sexual identity. All of these traits form the artist I am today, nurturing and helping to evolve my practice.

It is the dynamic of race in Puerto Rico that moves my art-community-work today. The George Zimmerman case and the Trump administration accentuated the race divide amongst Latin@s, its troublesome disengagement, and silence on the resonant crimes against Black people that had occurred in the last decade. It is said that Puerto Ricans are ethnicities racially formed through the colonial intermix of the white European, the Indigenous American, and the import of enslaved Black people. The reality is that yes, there are mixed people, the mulatos and mestizos, in Puerto Rico and Latino America, but colorism is a persistent issue and through the upcoming Sofrito Conversations, community a(r)tivism intends to address it.

How have you envisioned your Sofrito Conversations project unfolding?

The goal of my project is to document food culture on the West side of Chicago, including communities like Austin, Belmont Cragin, Hermosa, Humboldt Park, Montclare, and West Garfield Park, which were separate from Chicago and once annexed into the city, they were neglected and fell into disinvestment and decay. The West side is known for its African American population, but in the last 20 years, gentrification had pushed Puerto Ricans and Latin@s west. Now the social and cultural dynamics of the West side shift again. I had seen the ups and down in violence, lack of business development opportunities, emerging food deserts, displacement or residents, increased police surveillance, drugs, and the loss of homes affecting the northwest of the city. Also, there has been an increase in newly created borders demarking Latin@ and Black areas. Racial divisions and economic disparities force neighbors on the West side to fight for city resources. As such, there is a need for a Latin@-African American coalition building. Together the West side could move forward, benefitting all residents.

As a Black and Latino man, these community dynamics are striking. And in turn, the political and socioeconomic circumstances of the West side are the ones challenging and fueling my community art practice. There are more things in common between African Americans and Latin@s than differences. And it is my intent to address some of these thoughts through my fieldwork. During my home-kitchen visits, a core activity of the project, I am meeting a selection of residents in their kitchen, and I will document the making of a recipe or dish that is significant to them. During cooking documentations, I will pose questions about these issues.

Food is culture and culture evolves. As an artist, it is important to grasp this opportunity to document these shifts, but also it is my hope that through Sofrito Conversations I could create bonds between Black and Latin@ residents.

Two bottles of Coquito a Puerto Rican holiday rum drink
Coquito, a Puerto Rican holiday drink, ready for serving or chilling, as documented in the Chicago home of Doña Luz María Resto. Photo by Jorge Félix. See the full interview for a recipe for making your own Coquito.

The project documentation you generate will be safeguarded by the Library, in the AFC archives. Why is this important, and what are the lasting impacts of this work?

As a resident of the West side and as an artist-documentarian, the fact that this moment in history is captured and preserved at LOC is an honor. Narratives of Black and Brown communities are scarce. Sofrito Conversations in the West side of Chicago, and my fellow documentarians’ Community Collections Grants projects, are bringing an insider’s perspective to the telling of our own community narratives. The story about the West side of Chicago is told by residents of the West side and not by an outsider. We need more institutions to forge initiatives that follow the LOC-AFC’s community empowerment approach. It is my hope that the collection will shed insight into a historical moment that reflects a despairing national reality, and will serve to find hope. Perhaps I am naïve to think that a political conversation during the making of dinner will solve social divides, but it serves to better leave us with a full belly and the memory of a good taste in the mouth.

Click on over to the Library’s Of the People blog for the full interview on this important project, as well as for a recipe Jorge shared for making Coquito, a Puerto Rican holiday drink.

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