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Revolutionary Love: The Art and Life of Jessy DeSantis

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The phrase, “the Latino community is not a monolith,” gets thrown around with some frequency. We hear it every election cycle, as politicians realize that people who trace their ancestry to the countries of Latin America have a range of different concerns and priorities–healthcare, jobs, education–and are not only interested in immigration issues. But maybe nothing encapsulates the anti-monolith of Latino identity so much as Jessy DeSantis’ formative years in Miami. Here, a personal and political history lesson is necessary.

Jessy’s father, a white American electrical engineer, had traveled with University of California, Berkeley students to Managua, Nicaragua in the late 1980s. They were helping to reconstruct a country torn apart by armed struggle. In 1979, the Sandinistas had overthrown Anastasio Somoza, the last representative of a dynastic family of dictators that had controlled the country since 1936.

The Sandinistas took their name from Augusto César Sandino, a leader who successfully fought the US occupation of Nicaragua in the 1930s, only for the Somozas to seize power in the ensuing political vacuum. The idealistic young man, John Kellogg, met Adela Mayorga, a strong and compelling part-Indigenous Sandinista woman working on their educational and literacy campaigns, and the rest was history. From what Jessy calls their “revolutionary love,” an older brother was born in Nicaragua and, a few years later, Jessy was born in the United States where their family had moved after the Sandinistas lost power in the election booth.

When Jessy’s father died unexpectedly a few years later, he left behind a widow, just beginning to learn English, with two children to support and an architecture degree that was useless in the United States. However Jessy’s mother’s family, which originated in both Nicaragua and El Salvador, leaned on each other for support and survival in Miami. Still, as Jessy describes it, “growing up in a white Cuban community, being from brown Nicaraguan-Salvadoran people,” was confusing. Cubans, some from wealthier backgrounds, had come to Florida to request political asylum from communism, which they vociferously opposed.

Jessy’s family and thousands of Nicaraguans, committed to Marxist equal access to education and resources, were forced to seek refuge in the country that had trained, armed, and backed the Nicaraguan Contras, an opposition group whose rise precipitated the Sandinista fall from power. While the neighborhood might have been speaking the same language–Spanish, albeit with different words and accents–there were few commonalities to unite the different nationalities.

Jessy, a self-taught painter who uses they/them as well as she/her pronouns, began to use art to explore the racial mixing at the heart of their family. A pair of portraits of family members illustrates this origin story. One is a painting of their father’s brother, Uncle Mike. As they describe it, “My very first ancestor in the Americas from my father’s side invaded from England in early colonial times. He did not migrate, this ancestor invaded and took part in genocidal missions against Indigenous tribes.”

“I contrast the privilege I have of knowing my father’s family tree with how I don’t have this from my Nicaraguan mother’s side of the family,” they said. “I often think about how that time period altered our families forever; on one hand as the oppressed and the other as the oppressor, and of my own internal struggles, lately with losing thousands of years of my Indigenous Central American heritage.”

Cintil, Corn, Maiz, acrylic on canvas
Abuelita, detail, acrylic on canvas

This portrait is contrasted with one of their Abuelita, that is, their mother’s mother. Abuelita is shown as beautiful but not idealized, with an aquiline nose that does not conform to traditional standards of Eurocentric beauty, like the freckles that dot her face. She is shown imbued with wisdom, but Jessy comments, “I try to be careful not to romanticize my idea of being Central American as just a singular identity. Rather, I try to highlight its real complexities through migration and our new home in the North.” Ultimately, the artist must illustrate and reckon with the contradictions of embodying both the colonizer and the colonized.

These histories are complicated, but no more so than the origin stories of the more than 150,000 El Salvadorean, Guatemalan, Honduran, and other Central American immigrants who have made Maryland their home. In fact, so many Central Americans and Mexicans have come to live in Maryland that for Jessy “Baltimore felt like a second homecoming” in the United States, one that is allowing them to more fully explore their origins.

As Jessy and I discussed immigration, they posed the question to me: “Hearing the term migration, what do you envision? Is migration just that one journey from point A to point B, that physical journey, or is it more? Is it lifelong? Is it centuries old? It’s a person of the [Central American] diaspora feeling so disconnected that they dedicate their entire life to reconnect. That’s what migration did. So that’s what I’m doing, that’s how displaced I am.” The reconnecting has taken many forms. First, just in returning to painting, a love since childhood, which, as an immigrant who wanted to care for their mother, seemed impossible to pursue. Yet they felt an attraction to the permanence of paintings, noting, “Moving so much growing up, we always lost things, but we never lost art on the walls.”

That search for permanence and solidity permeates Jessy’s early work. Many of their first paintings depict plants domesticated in the Americas, whose secrets were gently teased out millennia ago, quite possibly in Central America. Corn, whose kernels originally grew only as large as wheat seeds, was bred to create the substantial ears we know today and, at some point, someone added limestone to its cooking pot, a stroke of genius that allowed humans to absorb the maximum nutritional potential from its masa. Jessy celebrates that human ingenuity with the painting Cintli, Corn, Maíz. In the title, the plant is named first in Nahuatl, an Indigenous language they are learning, still spoken in parts of Mexico and Central America, then in English, and in Spanish.

Companion Spirits, Acrylic on Canvas
Untitled (Toucan), Acrylic on Canvas, in the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation Collection, Baltimore

The painting elevates corn above the viewer, blowing it up to create a sacred, Christlike figure looming benevolently. Transformation–of kernels, of a man into a god–is reinforced by the husks that have been pulled away from the multi-colored kernels. On the corn cob itself they are the brown of a well-matured ear, but they droop down exaggeratedly, shading into pink and green and transforming at their ends into the very long tail feathers of the quetzal bird, sacred for the Indigenous cultures of the region.

Birds are omnipresent in Jessy’s work, a Kingfisher skimming by Uncle Mike’s chest and a Guardabarranco, national bird of Nicaragua, perching on Abuelita’s shoulder. “Birds are migratory, and don’t see borders, and are like we should be; free to move.” However for Jessy, they do not represent just migrants, but rather encapsulate spirituality in a physical form, representing a shared energy that connects us all, irrespective of national boundaries and origins.

Jessy has recently begun to delve even further into their roots with a self-portrait, inspired by a vision from 2021: seeing themself laid in the ground in a fetal position. Later they connected it to ancient burial customs which have been coming to light in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua. In recent excavations, archaeologists have exhumed a thousand-year-old cemetery of people whose bones had been buried in womb-shaped ceramic vessels.

For Jessy, whose self portrait now includes a ceramic shroud, the vision “…symbolized rebirth and returning to yourself, spiritually…and physically, you came from the land and you return back to it the way you came, from your own mother, Mother Earth. It’s a cycle. It’s not the end, it’s the beginning. It’s cyclical in time, it is very Mesoamerican.”

Certainly their art is just coming into its own, rebirthed from childhood sketching to self-assured paintings that are both luminously beautiful and filled with many-layered allusions to Central American migrations of the body and soul.

 

This story is from Issue 15: Migration, available here.

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