Artepaño Dispatches From the US Carceral System

In my time presenting Chicano/Latino/Latinx prisoner art in museums, visitors have expressed enthusiasm that is frequently coupled with confusion over the symbolism they encounter. Many find the signage impenetrable or fear that their personal interpretations might draw on offensive stereotypes. Their impasse regarding this iconography stems from respectful anxiety.

However, willful myopia permeates the interpretation of Latinx prison art among members of law enforcement. Predictably, every discernible symbol references gangs, drugs, violence, and illicit activity. Their purported cipher allows prison guards to punish artists by way of confiscation on mere suspicion. Patrolmen can harass innocent citizens with questionable tattoos. Questionable procedure facilities trample their right to self-expression.

This project aims to build understanding and combat pernicious readings of artwork by Latinx artists in the American penal system. Specifically, this online exhibition presents a tiny sampling of paños, ink drawings on cotton handkerchiefs. Each example represents recurring themes in the tradition of artepaño: pride of culture, love of family, fear of abandonment, hope for redemption.

Entries are accompanied by fictional correspondences based on scores of factual letters, conversations, and experiences with friends and family who endured incarceration in America. I hope they will help bridge that gap between artist and audience. —Álvaro Ibarra, curator

Orgullo / Pride

Oye Carnalillo!

Amá told me you been getting in trouble at school. That’s no good bro.

I’m sorry me and Apá are not there to help you learn to be a man. My problem was that I never heard his wisdom. And that’s how I ended up enjaulado.

Carnal, now it is YOUR TURN to listen and heed my words.

A professor from Sam Houston State volunteers here. He’s Chicano, so he teaches all the Mexicans about our history and culture whenever he can. He really opened my eyes. School taught us to hate ourselves. Mexicans were the bad guys at the Battle of the Alamo. Our native ancestors were bloodthirsty savages. Puro pedo! The TRUTH is way more complicated.

Mr. Quesada — that’s his name — says Chicanos have a lot to be proud of. And pride will help us succeed through education. Apá used to say you can’t do nothing without school in this country. He was right, but I was too much of a burro. I believed all the BS and I stopped searching for the TRUTH.

But you’re a smart kid. Super smart! Get good grades. Go to college. Be a doctor, lawyer, or whatever you want. Get into politics and maybe help us all do better. Inspire raza to take pride in our present and fight for a brighter tomorrow.

I love you. Say hey to everybody.

Your brother,

Tirando Tiempo / Wasted Time

Fanatismo / Fandom

Hey girl!

Remember when we went to see Selena at the Livestock Show in Houston for your birthday? I think there was more raza there for her than Garth Brooks. It was crazy! You know I didn’t like her back then, right? You made me a fan by singing us a bunch of her tunes over and over. Or maybe I just wanted you to shut up.

Just kidding!!

I felt sad when she died and that I couldn’t be there for you. Its like whenever we have something special it gets taken away from us. Believe it or not some of the guys in here were real broken up. Vatos a chille y chille, for real! I started paying more attention after that tragic day. We don’t get a lot of music, but sometimes the guys in the kitchen get to tune it to the Tejano station.

Did you get the Selena artwork I sent? I’m no artist, but one dude I know in here is very talented. He only had a picture of esa Jennifer López from the new movie in his copias. I hope that’s okay. Let me know if the movie was any good. Maybe take Silvana to see it at the Cinemark or get it at Blockbuster.

Speaking of your little cousin, I hope you can do me a favor. Her mom told me she wants to sing and do music. Lupina don’t know about that stuff but you do. You did band. You were in the choir. I’m not asking for much. Just encourage her. I don’t want that special thing to be taken from her.

Take care. I love you.

Tu tío feo,
Dear Dad,

Thanks for the awesome Raiders drawing! I was going to put it up in my room. Mom has it right now. She said we’ll get a fancy frame for it soon.

From the address you can tell we already moved to San Marcos. It’s not so exciting as SanAnto, but I like my school better. Everything is smaller and more “country”. I don’t mind. Mom said the rent is smaller.

Guess what? The kids are smaller too. We had spring training for junior high football. I’m still in Pee-Wee League, but a bunch of the school district coaches had an event at the high school stadium for those that want to play next year. We ran a bunch of drills. It was fun. Even though I was not the biggest or the fastest in my age group, I was still pretty good. And you always tell me it’s the size of fight in the dog. Grandpa said I could play for the Aggies if I keep growing. Don’t worry. I still like the Raiders and NOT the Cowboys.

I hope being in San Marcos means we can visit you more. Mom says we’ll see. I really miss you Dad. I know you are working hard to be with us soon. Love you!

Your son,
Eddie Jr.

Fe y Familia / Faith & Family

Dear babe,

Remember that guy Rudy I told you about? From Laredo. Works in the commissary and hooks me up sometimes. So the dude was all agüitado cause his old lady left him. No marriage so no divorcio. Two grown kids. Youngest turned 18 a couple months ago. Just like that. ¡Vamonos!

You wouldn’t do that to me babe. Right? Haha.

Anyways, he asked me to do a paño for him. He gave me this beat up polaroid from the 80s of him and his vieja. Probably from a quinceañera back in the day. Rudy looks super young. I blew it up to hankie size and I even did it in full color. Since you can’t see no background in that old foto I put like a flaming diseño behind. I told Rudy it was a symbol of their love. I said he would get out and they would get back together. I think he liked that.

So why am I telling you? Well you always told me I needed to practice doing good deeds like Jesus taught us. Just letting you know I’m working toward being the righteous man you and our daughter deserve for when I get out. You know how much I love you but I will tell you again. I LOVE YOU! and I miss you and Chuyita very much.

Yours always,
Querida Madre,

Yo se que era mal hijo y mal hombre.

Nunca aprecié sus sacrificios y todo lo que me enseño de la vida. Pero de tantos años ser preso, aprendi el respeto y la humildad. Auque ya sea muy tarde, quiero decirle quanto la quiero. Lamentablemente no puedo dejar de ser su hijo, mama. Solo le ruego a Dios que algún día me pueda perdonar. Ojalá me concide una oración en estos últimos días.

Tu hijo,

The messaging in artepaño is primarily about the concerns of imprisoned artists: their families, their passions, and their faith. Paños are visual lamentations of regret, heartbreak, and loneliness; they are ex-votos advocating for peace, redemption, and forgiveness. Even artwork displaying prideful or unrepentant attitudes functions to bolster recipients falling into despair.

My thanks to Reno Leplat-Torti for the generous access to his collection, for his enthusiasm for artepaño, and for his activism regarding prisoner rights and prison reform. I would also like to acknowledge Hrag Vartanian and Lakshmi Amin at Hyperallergic for their support and encouragement.

Editor’s Note: This online exhibition is part of the 2023/24 Emily Hall Tremaine Journalism Fellowship for Curators and follows two posts by the author.

Álvaro Ibarra will discuss his work and research in an online event moderated by Editor-in-Chief Hrag Vartanian on Tuesday, February 26, at 6pm (EST). RSVP to attend.

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