Nestor Armando Gil: 'Cubans alone, we are nothing. We have to act like a swarm”
AL DÍA News spoke with Nestor Armando Gil, a Cuban-American artist who explores Latino cultural heritage through his installations and performances. His work will be exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia beginning June 30.
Nestor Armando Gil was born in 1971 in a residential suburb of North Florida near a military base where his father, a Cuban immigrant, had been assigned. When he left the island, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and fought in Vietnam.
"I suppose that if I had grown up in Miami surrounded by Cubans, my childhood would have been different, easier. In my city, there were hardly Latinos. You could breathe a culture more similar to the south of the United States, more closed,” explained this Cuban-American artist, who on June 30 will exhibit his work at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art (PAFA) as a part of the SWARM exhibition.
Born to Cuban parents - his mother left the island in the 1960s and lived in Barcelona, Spain, for seven years before emigrating to the United States to marry Gil's father - Gil and his brothers were brought up in an environment marked by the cultural duality that they lived inside and outside of the house.
"Our house was like a national embassy: inside we lived with all possible Cubanness: food, language, music... And when you went out the door, you entered United States territory," recalled the artist, who lived his childhood and youth in North Florida.
It was outside the house where the life of Gil and his brothers was particularly hard. "There was a group of young people our age who were messing with us when they heard us speaking in Spanish among us, especially with my grandmother. We were forbidden to speak in English in front of her," he said in fluent Spanish. "It was the 80s. The Mariel boatlift crisis (the Cuban Rafters Crisis) was all over the news, on every TV. Many Americans thought, 'Why don’t these Cubans go away now?’” he added.
For Nestor, this type of situation made him feel ashamed, but above all, he said "Those children pissed me off. I didn’t like the way they talked about my family." With time, bravery became a huge point of pride," he said. "I went from feeling ashamed to feeling proud of being Cuban, or rather, son of Cubans, because when I go to Cuba I feel American," he laughed.
This double identity, the feeling of "being at home away from home," of feeling delocalized, has always been the protagonist of his artistic work, which began as a hobby for writing.
"When I was young I liked to compose and recite poems," said the author, who studied humanities at the New College of Florida and worked as an English teacher for several years.
It was after getting married and having to stay at home for awhile, looking after the children while his wife was working, when he discovered his true passion for audiovisual art and performances: "I set up my art workshop at home and started exploring,” the artist recalled, who was then more than 30 years old.
However, age was not an impediment for him to decide to turn his career around and he applied for a master's degree in Plastic Arts at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
He was accepted, and in 2009 the Gil family moved north so that Nestor could develop his vocation.
"As an artist, I'm interested in the idea of the diaspora, of the trip. That idea of carrying within oneself its origins, as something elastic that is transmitted between generations. At least that has been my experience,“ said the Cuban-American artist that works today as a sculpture teacher at Lafayette University in Easton, Pa.
One of his first artistic projects was to move to Barcelona to explore the life of his mother, Carmencita Carmona. He spent seven years in that Spanish city before immigrating to the United States.
"My grandfather wanted to get my mother and my aunt off the island, and he sent them to study and work in Barcelona, in the care of some Catholic nuns," he said. One of his pieces, inspired by this part of his family’s history, is a tourist map of the city, where the artist marks the places his mother frequented in the Barcelona of the late 1960s, then under the dictator Franco. On the reverse, there is a chronology of the historical moments that occurred in Spain, Cuba and the United States from the moment his mother left the island in 1967.
"My parents were writing letters to each other during all these years until they got together in Florida to get married," he recalled, echoing the idea of the trip and the separation that weighs on his roots.
In Barcelona, Gil also began to use bread as the protagonist of his work. One of his installations, entitled "Barcos: Refu(g/s)e," represents a herd of boats on Havana's Malecón, whose candles are slices of bread nailed on stones. In a performance recorded on video, the artist walks through the Ramblas in Barcelona dressed as a Cuban baker, singing, "Baker, I give bread" and giving loaves made by him to passers-by.
The idea was to raise awareness about the reality and contradictions of being a Cuban immigrant in the United States, explains the artist, who appears in the video carrying the loaves in the typical bags of Cuban bread that can be seen in Miami. But instead of reading "Cuban bread," it reads "Cubano bread," a word game between "Cuba-no-bread" (in reference to the poverty of the island), and bread "of a Cuban's son,” he explained.
Today Nestor continues to bake bread at his home in Easton at least twice a week and then goes out to give them to his neighbors, students and coworkers. "I'm always giving away bread to establish community," he said.
Another of his star performances was the one that caught the attention of the PAFA curators: "Boca (Your Memories are My Myths)," where the artist begins to fill his mouth with sugar, beach sand, coffee and tobacco – characteristic products of Cuba - until his mouth is full. "It's a bit violent because sometimes I run out of breath," he said. "But it serves to understand that as children they fill us with stories about our origins, but we can’t swallow everything. We (the children of immigrants) have to understand our heritage as a story because you can’t assume everything," he added.
This effort to understand his Cuban-American identity through art is what he wants to expose at the SWARM exhibition, which opens on June 30 at PAFA. The exhibition will feature a selection of works by Gil, including the “Boca” live, along with the work of the Haitian-American artist Didier William, who works with the idea of colonialism and cultural heritage.
"'Swarm' means something like 'hive,' to move in a pack," said Gil. "On the one hand, it reflects the idea of Latino immigrants entering the herd, like a swarm, into the United States, and that creates fear. But it is also a way of saying 'come on, come on, all at once, let's make ourselves visible, we're not going to hide anymore,'" he said.
The artist admits that it has nothing to do with being Mexican, Venezuelan or Cuban - "but in the U.S. they see us all as a monolithic group. It is better to organize ourselves to have a more powerful voice. Cubans alone, we are nothing," he said, stressing the importance of embracing Latino identity as a political identity, beyond the nationality of your parents, or grandparents, or whether they know how to speak Spanish or not.
In fact, Gil’s children don’t speak Spanish well. "It has been my mistake," he admitted. His wife is American and they speak English at home. However, he is proud that his oldest son, who will now start college, will check the "Latino" box on the registration form. "Maybe he has not lived an experience like mine, he has had less problems because he is of Hispanic origin. But now, with Trump, it is still important to act like a swarm."