This blog series features the 2022 recipients of the AFC’s Community Collections Grants program, highlighting their cultural documentation projects over the course of this first, grant-period year. The Community Collections Grants program is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path initiative, which seeks to create new opportunities for more Americans to engage with the Library of Congress and to add their perspectives to the Library’s collections, allowing the national library to share a more inclusive American story. Read more about the AFC’s Community Collections Grants program here, and check out the 2022 recipients here.
The following is an interview with artist, documentarian, and Community Collections Grant recipient Jorge Félix about 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.
Yes, your project facilitates community “Sofrito Conversations” on food traditions and practices, among other important issues, in several neighborhoods on the West side of Chicago. How did this idea first come about?
Sofrito Conversations came about when I found myself for the first time alone. All my family is in Puerto Rico, and I was a young artist working on my graduate MFA, with a slim food budget and fast food as nourishment. But there is a nuggets and fries limit to any Caribbean soul. Soon I found myself calling my mother and grandmother asking how they make their rice and beans, how to make an empanada, and how to cook root vegetables. But more importantly, I learned to make my own sofrito and adobo. In Puerto Rico, we call sofrito the blend of spices and herbs that gives Puerto Rican food its distinct and traditional flavor, and adobo is the mix of spices we use in meats and fish either in the form of a rub or a vinegar marinade. Slowly I discovered that I enjoyed cooking. I had a keen sense of taste and was good at experimenting with great results. After time, I started preparing special holiday meals for my Puerto Rican and other international student colleagues who were away from their home countries: lechón asado, arroz con gandules, escabeche de guineos verdes, guayaba y queso de entremés, y flan de postre (roasted pork, rice with pigeon peas, pickled green bananas, guava and gouda cheese appetizers, and flan dessert).
After graduate school and after I decided to settle in Chicago, my newly found skills became known by friends and colleagues. With the advent of social media, I developed a growing following who asked questions and requested recipes. Soon I felt I was known more for my “sofrito” making than for my studio artwork and my practice as a community worker. I’ve been active as an artist exhibiting my painting installations that addressed gender and sexual transgression. Also, after settling my home in Chicago’s West side Hermosa neighborhood, I became active as a community leader addressing gentrification, police bias, neighborhood segregation, school deterioration, and the blatant disregard for the voice of the predominantly Black and Brown residents.
It is this way that during the planning of a community art fair, a colleague artist suggested doing a live sofrito-making demonstration. With hesitation, I said yes. I was nervous because cooking live in front a crowd is very different from cooking behind a camera and with the editing of things that didn’t work. That demonstration was so well attended and liked by the community that soon after I started getting invitations from organizations, cultural centers, and libraries to present demonstrations and hands-on workshops. It was the attention and access to this population that made me think about how I could engage their attention toward issues relevant to the West side community.
I continued making public sofrito making presentations, but now I was very intentional in intersecting my food presentation with relevant issues important to the Puerto Rican diaspora, Latin@s, and the Black community. Colonialism, cross-cultural connections, race relations, racism and colorism, food deserts, and police brutality are among the topics I address through public exchange and while making sofrito or other food. This is how Sofrito Conversations began. I have exhibited my studio work in many galleries and arts centers, but it was a Sofrito Conversation that got me invited to perform at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
So, tell us how you have envisioned your 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.
It is clear that Sofrito Conversations requires considerable planning and trust-building; how is it going?
I have had to adapt and strategize the next steps of the project, as it was more difficult than expected to gain the trust of restaurant owners, for instance, to let me into their kitchens, and harder to get to answer and comment on the community politics of race. But I am moving forward and getting some beautiful images so far. And I am happy to share the recipe below (and accompanying photos) for “Coquito,” a Puerto Rican holiday drink, as prepared by project participant Doña Luz María Resto in her home.
The 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.
Thank you, Jorge, for taking the time to share more about you and your project, and for the Coquito recipe!
~Recipe for Coquito, a Puerto Rican holiday drink~
Coquito can be enjoyed with or without rum and served in shot glasses, because usually people make it with a high rum content. People in Puerto Rico keep bottles in the fridge to serve to guests when visiting during the holidays.
1) Ingredients (double the ingredients for more)
1 can coconut milk (better if is homemade coconut milk)
1 can evaporated milk
1 can condensed milk
1 cup of Puerto Rican Rum (the recommended rum is Don Q)
Cinnamon or nutmeg powder
2 empty wine or rum bottles with caps
- In a saucepan put 2 to 3 three cinnamon sticks, 2 or 3 cloves, and 2 or 3 star anise pods in two cups of water and bring to boil and turn off. Let it cool completely. (You can add more depending on how much spice you want)
- In a pan or mixing bowl put the 3 milks and mix well. Be sure to dissolve well the evaporated milk.
- Add one cup of the already cold spice tea (more if you want spicier, but not too much because will water down the milks)
- Add rum to taste
- Pour in bottles to keep refrigerated.
- When served garnish with a light dusting of cinnamon or nutmeg powder, or just a cinnamon stick.