Federico Cuatlacuatl and Revisiting His Roots Through Rasquache
At a time when the immigration debates in our country are dominated by talk of walls, Federico Cuatlacuatl has chosen to spend his time and energy on transnational bridges and lenses...
These bridges and lenses come in the form of Rasquache, a unique artist residency the Assistant Professor in the Studio Art Department launched in 2016 to share the artistic and cultural riches of his rural hometown of San Francisco Coapan, Cholula, Puebla, Mexico. Cuatlacuatl and his brother left the town for the United States in 1999, settling in Indiana where he grew up as an undocumented immigrant, estranged from his homeland and its culture.
The pull of that culture never left him. It wasn’t until he received DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) in 2013, Cuatlacuatl said, that he was able to truly chase his artistic dreams by going to graduate school and seeking a career. The newfound status also allowed him to finally go home. “My brother and I wanted to go through that experience of rediscovering and reuniting with our family, but also our culture and our roots,” he said. “But more than that, we wanted to make something bigger out of that experience, and also to acknowledge that my parents’ home had been sitting there unoccupied for 20 years.”
That home, which his parents had been actively keeping up from afar over the years, became the focal point of his efforts. “We had the idea to go back to the house and fix it up, clean it up, and give it an artistic life by inviting artists to go and work there, to, in a sense, re-contextualize the space and honor my parents’ efforts over those two decades to keep it alive.” The house has now become an arts and cultural center. One of our goals is to have the doors open for people to come in and do workshops, projects, lectures, and performances. We now have a dedicated gallery space for exhibitions and events, and I think the community is already identifying with the house.”
The other goal of the effort was to open up an opportunity for artists who are interested in community-based work. The unconventional nature of the site brought its share of challenges, Cuatlacuatl said. “Most artists are looking to work in a traditional studio setting. There are no studio spaces there, so we were basically breaking the conventions of an artists’ residency, and trying to think in a radical way. We were really pushing and encouraging artists to build relationships, to get to know the community, and to identify the urgencies and needs there in a way that allowed them to respond artistically to answer those needs. It was really about developing something that shows exactly what it means to live and work and make art in rural Mexico.”
The name Rasquache was chosen to represent the program’s idealism in taking a term with historically and culturally negative connotations and reclaim it. “Rasquache is a Meso-American term which describes someone uneducated,” Cuatlacuatl said, “someone of low taste and of low class. We are in essence turning the term around in the same way the Chicano artists did in the 1960s. We are also embracing, as artists, the fact that we don’t need to always have the finest facilities, but we can use other values already in place to be super resourceful, like the culture and the community. One of the main things we are embracing in these programs is the idea of making the most from the least.”
The approach has made Cuatlacuatl and his team members careful in their artist recruitment. “Rather than opening this to artists to apply for the program, we are inviting artists that we are identifying as potentially being helpful in advancing our agenda. At this point, we have a beautiful network of artists that have worked with us, or that are connected to the region through other people’s networks, so there is this contribution of ideas and proposals that can move our program forward.”
The artists traveling in for the residency benefit greatly from experiencing the “real” Mexico, he said, “Many artists have gone to Mexico, but often just to the tourist areas or cities. What we embrace is a reality that tourists never see; the opportunity to experience that, for so many artists, becomes quite resourceful.”
From the moment he stepped foot back on his home soil, Cuatlacuatl has been focused on making sure the project honors the place and the people in it. “To me, it is such an emotional and personal journey to highlight my town, but I am always keeping myself in check,” he said. “Am I doing it the right way? To me, it is self-empowering to work toward valuing this culture and this history.”
The chance to tell the stories there is made even more important, he said, due to the fact that so many of the voices are now gone. “More than half of my town has migrated to the United States, so the town feels empty. It feels lonely. It feels sad. You have parents who have not seen their kids for close to 30 years. And you have kids who have been waiting for their parents for that long too. You can feel that. What we are working towards, as well, is for the younger generation to feel proud of their place being an indigenous community, especially after so many years of feeling oppressed. We would like to work closer with the youth and generate more interest in higher education that can serve back to their own community.”
A critical step in this process has been trust building and communication with the community. “The first year, it was a bit of a challenge,” Cuatlacuatl said, “it was this ongoing process of relationship building and making everyone feel comfortable while being completely transparent about what we were doing. At first, everyone thought we were just tourists. The attitude was almost like, ‘What are you guys doing here? This is just a rural town, there is nothing of value here.’ It was beautiful to see them acknowledge over time that while Coapan may not be a capitalist resource tourist site, there are these other cultural, historical, and artistic resources that are so valuable. In a way, our project has helped the community and artists to look inward, and to realize that through our collective efforts, internal relevancy is highly valued.”
Cuatlacuatl’s passion for the project grew even greater when a tragic car accident took the life of his brother David Cuatlacuatl in August 2017. “I think his passing gives this project even more fuel,” he said, “and even more reason to be, both for the fact that it is done in memory and love of him and because of the agenda items that we developed together.”
The support of the University of Virginia has been integral to the continuity of the program so far, Cuatlacuatl said. Last summer, the Art Department funded and supported a week-long retreat at Blandy Farm where artists, sociologists, and students from Mexico and around the United States came together to talk and share ideas about where the residency is today and where it needs to go in the future. “It was an intense week of presentations, brainstorming, and proposing, all in an effort to develop a clearer path. Ideas included someday expanding the residency beyond the realm of visual art, and perhaps launching sister residencies in the U.S. How do we start these binational relationships and conversations to build a bridge, especially given the current climate around immigration? One goal would be to have internships on both sides, where students from the U.S. and Mexico could travel and build those relationships and that understanding in a way that allows us to ease tensions and antagonizing of immigrants.”
Future plans also include the creation of a transnational experiential library that could benefit people on both sides of the border, and that could serve as a vehicle to circulate and activate communities. The retreat is just one aspect of the extensive support UVA has given the project, Cuatlacuatl said. “The Department of Art is supporting the residency in Mexico during the 3-5 years of transnational research and production. I am also really excited about integrating students into the program as interns and sharing with them this unique experience of Rasquache. Helping to run any residency is a great experience for students, but in this particular residency they will learn so much about this culture, and they will get to be a part of how the residency evolves. It’s the kind of experience I wish I had as an undergraduate, and the fact that these students will bring their experience back to UVA allows for transnational relationships between UVA and Puebla, Mexico as well as a broader and more conscious discourse on immigration issues.”