"I've got a picture of Ana that I show to guys at work," says Rita, who's driving down Broadway looking for an uncluttered spot--a boarded-up store, a wall--where she can hang posters of herself and her lover. "They say, dang, that's a fine woman you've got."
Salsa music fills the car. Rita and David, another volunteer, seem a bit nervous. Rita spots a plywood-covered storefront across from the Great Ace, pulls the car over, and flips on her hazard lights. They cross the street carrying a white bucket of soupy wallpaper paste, a roller, and a plastic bag filled with dozens of brightly hued posters.
With a few bold swipes of the roller, up goes a blue poster of a mustachioed Puerto Rican man in his 30s. The close-up photograph has the sophisticated look of a toothpaste or cigarette ad. It's not. Below it Rita pastes another poster with blue lettering: HOMOSEXUALES. LATINOS. PRESENTES! (Gays. Latinos. Present!) Finally a third poster identical to the first is plastered below.
Rita rolls more paste onto the plywood and sticks up an image of her and Ana, whose long hair spills over her shoulders, in a playful, romantic pose. They face each other, Rita holding Ana's finger to her pursed lips. The second triptych's text reads: LESBIANAS. UNIDAS. FELICES! (Lesbians. United. Happy!)
Rita and David then put up another series of images on pink paper of a gay couple who met in their senior year of high school and are now celebrating ten years of "love and happiness" (10 ANOS DE UNION, AMOR Y FELICIDAD). The last series, on fluorescent yellow paper, shows two lesbian Latinas laughing warmly, one woman's arm on her partner's shoulder. Each triptych calls for an end to racism, sexism, and homophobia, and notes this weekend's march for gay, lesbian, and bisexual rights in Washington, D.C.
A light breeze stirs the air on this crisp spring evening. Passersby pay little attention, some craning their necks for a look but not slowing their gait. "Nobody has said anything," says David, 23, a light-skinned Colombian American who works for an AIDS organization and is a leader of a gay Latino organization.
"We would have thrown a roller at them," says Rita, 34, who has dark Latin features. She works nights as a machine operator.
Someone records the location on a clipboard so the posters' creator, artist Eduardo Aparicio, can return to document what happens to them. Will they be ripped down or papered over? Will they be defaced with graffiti? Will they be left alone? "I'm sure people are going to scribble on them and tear them apart," says the 37-year-old, Cuban-born Aparicio, whose head is shaved. "All it takes is one person to do that."
The street-art campaign, which doubles as Aparicio's master's thesis in photography at Columbia College, evolved out of his interest in images of male sexuality in public spaces--handbills, posters, fliers--that are often so torn and weathered they're reduced to scraps of disembodied faces, arms, legs, torsos. He was also drawn to the provocative graphics used by ACT UP in New York City. His project eventually grew into a collective effort by activists and artists in several cities called "Latinos Atrevidos/Provocative Latins" that focused on the march on Washington, becoming a way for groups that felt left out by the movement's traditionally middle-class, white-male leadership to participate. He has sent sets of the posters and originals to gay and lesbian Latino groups that will post them this week in Houston, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. The panels will also be pasted up in Washington, D.C., before the march.
"You don't have to spend a whole year developing a campaign," Aparicio says. "You can just do it." He used the tools of the 90s activist: fax machine, photocopier, camera, personal computer. Ideas about the message went back and forth between his Uptown apartment and the various Latino groups, including Chicago's Association of Latin Men in Action. Then Aparicio photographed 22 Chicagoans for the posters--Mexicans, Argentineans, Puerto Ricans of all ages; immigrants, natives; blacks, whites; men, women; a transsexual and two straight men. They were friends, acquaintances, or strangers he met at Vortex's salsa night.
"My idea with the models was to have a range of types of ages and races and even sexual identities," he says. "These faces do not necessarily conform to a stereotypical image of what a lesbian or a gay man looks like. In a way, some of them offer a visual hook and then tell you this is not what you've normally been told this face is about. I wanted anything from the butch dyke to the cha-cha girl. I call [Ana] my cha-cha girl because she's feminine in the Latina kind of way." He wanted the words and pictures to be self-affirming, exuberant. "They're playful because of the posing and the text. They're not about people begging for respect."
Rita heads west on Diversey toward Ashland. "You know where we could go?" she says. "There are a lot of boarded buildings on North Avenue. You've got a lot of gays up there. But we have to go there with caution." This is the first night of postering. They decide Wicker Park and Logan Square are key locations and hope to go another day this week.
Rita turns north on Ashland. The shuttered Wieboldt's store looms ahead on the left. She and David step over broken glass on the sidewalk and go to work, she rolling paste onto black corkboard, he steadying the poster against the wind. She smooths out the air bubbles with the sides of her hands. "I'm just waiting to see if anybody says anything," she says as she puts up her own image. "'Was that you I saw?' I'll say, I put it up myself."
"A self-promoter," David jokes.
A late-night jogger passes without turning his head. Rita and David walk around to the side of the building facing Lincoln Avenue and attempt to paste up another set of posters. "Cono," David curses, as the breeze blows one down. The boards have been coated with enamel, and the paste won't hold. They give up and try a smooth black surface around the corner on School Street that has no posters on it. "Let's break it in," Rita says. Four neat triptychs quickly go up. She taps the wall with the roller handle. Clink, clink. "Glass," she says.
"We're people of color, so we're red and blue and yellow and purple and green," Aparicio says with a laugh. "The idea is to increase Latino visibility within the gay community or gay communities and to raise awareness within Latino communities." Later in the week volunteers will poster Latino neighborhoods along 18th and 26th Streets, Chicago Avenue, and Milwaukee Avenue. He hopes gay Latinos who see the images won't feel so isolated. "The whole thing with Latinos and homosexuality is often misunderstood," he says. "There's a difference between what happens inside the Latino family and the dominant discourse about sexuality in Spanish, which is supposed to be very macho and antigay. And it's true. But in private it's a totally different story. There's a lot of acceptance-not necessarily endorsement or encouragement for it. But if a family member happens to be gay or lesbian their partner is welcome as a part of that family."
Aparicio left Cuba with his mother and a younger brother in 1969, when he was 13 years old. His father, a professor at the University of Havana, joined the family in Florida after spending six years in prison for opposing the Castro government. "A speaker who's too effective and convincing," Aparicio says the prosecutor told the court. "I thought of my father a lot while doing this. He showed me how to cut paper with a ruler and an X-Acto knife, and how to position things straight on the page. I was influenced by this constant concern for what is acceptable speech and what's not acceptable speech, and how those rules can change."
David and Rita stop on Broadway north of Montrose in front of a boarded-up storefront that's freshly covered with ads for a Spin Doctors concert and a commando movie called Excessive Force. Rita tugs at a few posters, looking for a space on the cluttered wall. At last they roll paste over a concert poster and affix two sets of panels.
Reflecting on her activist evening, Rita says, "I'd never done this before. Now my mug is all over the city."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yael Routtenberg.