In the lecture space of a museum in North Miami Wednesday evening, a group of academics and community members will explore stereotypes, idealized beauty standards and images of Latin women in art and film and the larger pop cultural landscape.
Think cultural salon; an introspective moment analyzing self-identity, self-worth, sexuality and the vexing question of race — ultimately, what it means to be a Hispanic woman.
In celebration of October’s Hispanic Heritage Month, the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Women on the Rise! education program has partnered with Florida International University to present a three-part lecture series, “Latina Women and the Body.”
The series is a community conversation, running from the first roles of Hispanic women in silent films to the “Chonga” pop culture phenomenon to Sophia Vergara’s curvaceous, over-the-top-accented caricature turn in the popular television series Modern Family.
“The hope is to engage the community on the images represented and what it means and how we absorb them,’’ says Jillian Hernandez, MOCA’s Education Outreach Coordinator. “It’s not necessarily an easy conversation but one we need to have, and with the diversity of cultures here, it makes sense to have it in Miami.”
The series was born out of scholarly studies on gender and race but also through personal experiences. Those participating include Hernandez; Dionne Stephens, an assistant professor at Florida International University; Crystal Pearl, a visual artist and MOCA educator; Anya Wallace a Penn State doctoral student and Myra Mendible,a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University.
“At the same time you see the rise of the Latina in pop culture, you also see a certain stereotype. We want to see how all these images are playing themselves out and how it relates back to society,” said Hernandez, a doctoral candidate in Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. “We had each done some research or work that looked at the body and sexual representation and we all found there were broader questions that we wanted to explore. We want people to come out and talk about some areas we don’t typically address publicly. This will be an exchange.”
The series opens at 7 p.m. Wednesday with “Ni Pardo, Ni Prieto: Presentations of Skin Color Influencing Hispanic Women’s Self Identity.”
“Much of the research on this issue as it relates to color shows Hispanics often didn’t want to be viewed as white or black, but the color in between. Tan was tied to a sense of feeling attractive, and attractive to men,” said Stephens, an assistant professor in FIU’s Department of Psychology whose work was published in the Hispanic Journal of Behavioral Sciences.
Similar to issues of colorism within the African diaspora, Stephens’ research found that people preferred the lighter complexion of the spectrum.
“There still seems to be a shame in discussing and critiquing blackness,” Stephens said. “But we need to go there.”
On Oct. 10, the series will explore Latina styles and sexuality through two presentations: “A Chonga Manifesto” and “Cuban Beauties.”
“Often people think of the Chonga as vulgar or tacky or cheap, but we are actually going to be looking at how this is a creative way for a marginalized group to express themselves,” Hernandez said of the Chonga, a Miami cultural symbol depicting a flamboyant young Hispanic girl. “This is really about a particular self-assuredness and confidence.”
In addition, in the Cuban beauty segment, artist Pearl will show new work from her series Then Again, which celebrates the visual excess that is often characterized and critiqued in Latin culture.
The final presentation, on Oct. 17, explores the images of Hispanic women in popular culture, a narrative that has seen the portrayal of Latin women focus on her body — from Carmen Miranda and her iconic fruit head gear to the famous posterior of Jennifer Lopez.
“Today we celebrate the Latina,” said Mendible, author of From Bananas to Buttocks: The Latina Body in Popular Film and Culture, “but it’s important to understand the long history.”