In a time when Donald Trump's ignorance, cultural appropriation, and gentrification are hot topics, many people of color are taking a stand, and taking back the neighborhoods and culture that is there. The Latin community is no different. From restaurants, clothing lines, even to the arts, young latin men and women are reconnecting with their heritage in an effort to fight back against racism and the lack of creative space available to the youth. Chicago native Mercedes Zapata is one of those trying to help. As a photographer and a painter, the millennial artist is using her talents to tell the stories of womyn of color and to set a new standard for future artist of color. I got chance to interview Zapata about her recent journey in the art world, and lets just say she's on her way to being a modern day Frida Kahlo.
Tell me about your upbringing. Where are you from? Where did you grow up? What was your childhood like?
I am from the Southwest side, from a neighborhood called Brighton Park. I was raised by strong women in my family, mainly my grandmother. My family is very expressive within the arts, whether it be painting, cooking, or sewing etc. I always had an outlet.
What was your first experience with art (in any form)? Where did that lead to?
Art has always been prevalent in my life. My earliest memories were with my aunt and cousins finger painting or chalk drawings on the sidewalk.
Fast forwarding to high school (where we met lol), what were you involved in? Did you find more opportunities in high school to express yourself? If so, what else did you explore?
High school was where I was able to really explore art. I joined our theatre program where I was involved in short plays, improvisation, and sword combat. I painted more in high school than I ever had. I entered a national contest and ended up being a finalist. Because of that, I was able to paint on a 5x8 ft fiberglass cow. By far, one of the weirdest things I can say I've accomplished. I tried to be involved in everything and anything in high school. It made me well rounded, but it also taught me to be more selective in where I invest my time and energy.
As I was doing research about you, I learned that you went to Lewis University, and you came back to Chicago. Can you give us more detail into the start of your journey post-high school?
I was accepted into the American Academy of Art my Junior year of high school. Because of that, I didn't really feel the need to apply to colleges in my last year. However, I really felt like I needed to leave the city and learn more about myself. I applied at Lewis University the summer after graduation. I was there for three semesters. I lost my grandmother, my main caretaker, within my first semester. It crushed me but I found a community within Lewis that kept me going. My aunt's health soon dwindled and financing Lewis University became impossible and there wasn't any aid for me. Heavily in debt, I attended Harold Washington College. After losing my aunt and my grandmother, I really began to think about my life's path. School didn't fit anymore. Instead, I knew I had to utilize my artistic outlets.
Now looking at your social media, I notice you became popular after have your photographs posted in the Chicago Red Eye. Tell me what it was like to have your work featured not once, but multiple times?
Having the RedEye print out a photo I posted on Instagram was unreal. It was a photo of my friend Sarah laughing heavily at 2 am on a CTA train platform. We had ignored all the signs telling us about reroutes and we got lost. It was just one of those moments you couldn't recreate. The RedEye printed 13 of my photos within a year. It was incredible and also made me realize that if a newspaper liked my phone photographs, I should probably be taking myself more seriously. Since then, I've focused on my photography more than any of my other mediums.
As of now where does your career in photography stand? Are doing more artistic shots? Photoshoots? Has your photography been displayed anywhere else?
It's unbelievable to look back at my work two years ago and see how much I've progressed. I went from having the Chicago RedEye reposting my work to them inquiring to hire me as a freelance photographer to take over their Instagram account for a weekend. I took that opportunity to showcase small business owners, artists, and locations of the Latinx community. That concentrated subject motivated me to keep focusing on my community. At this year's Ruido Fest, AT&T Latino gave me tickets to capture whatever my heart desired. With that, I went up to countless people and asked to take their portrait. It's been a pleasure filling my feed with brown faces.
This year, my work has also been showcased at Zhou B Art Center in the Champ Studio and published by Mujeres en Medio's Óptica fotozine.
I was recently named by Prisca Dorcas Mojica Rodriguez, Founder of Latina Rebels, as one of the "5 Gem Latina Instagram Accounts to Follow Immediately". That was so unexpected and I am forever grateful for that. Her article brought a wave of feminist artists and supporters to my page. It's been fun connecting and talking about collectives and neighborhood shows.
I'm currently trying to make time for creative photo shoots between my day jobs and client work.
Besides photography, I know you're still painting and I heard somewhere that you were involved with a clothing line that has been featured in local news stations. Can you tell us more about that?
I am still painting and drawing. I worked as a designer for a local clothing line for 6 months. I found myself only drawing for the sake of a profitable team design instead of drawing for the sake of it being an outlet. It was rewarding to see my work on clothing, but if I do it again, it will be on my own time, creative direction, and I will own the rights to my own work.
Besides being a fabulous artist, you are fabulous while giving back to the community. Being Latina, I know the Latin community has a special place in your heart and work tirelessly to advance your community. What impact do you hope to have for young Latin women and Latin artist? What do you hope to bring to your community?
I hope to remind young Latinx that we have the power to change the narrative. We have the power to create our own media and aesthetics. The community constantly reminds me that art can be activism and that we have the responsibility to to act on it. There are so many artists out here giving back to the community and making sure that the next generation has role models and the resources to succeed. I hope to become more involved in those kinds of programming. Right now, I am photographing the works that The Gabriel Project of Pilsen is creating. Their mission is to create life changing possibilities for inspiring young adults without resources through a network of established artists.
What or who is your biggest inspiration in art? Who would you love to impress or who would you love to show your work to?
My biggest inspiration is other womyn of color and how they showcase their culture and pride. It makes me feel at home in my ideas and in my skin. I am interested photographing womyn of color in Chicago and their self-love, and body positivity.
I would love to show my artwork to my Aunt Belen and my grandmother who have passed away. They supported my artistic endeavours my whole life, and I know I would make them proud. Whenever anyone recognizes my art, I know they would get the biggest kick out of it and it makes me smile.
In 15-20 years, where do you see yourself?
In 15 to 20 years I envision myself happy and thriving off of my artwork. I want to inspire other young Latinx to pick up a camera and share their stories with the world. I hope to travel and capture life outside this city. I choose not to set up a more detailed goal because one never knows where life will take them.
Any final words or thought?
What makes my work inspirational are the people who inspire me. Thier stories and struggles are what make them unique and I wish to capture each one. My ultimate goal is to dismantle notions of respectability politics regarding sexuality and femininity. In specific, I am interested in how womyn of color in Chicago manifest their unique narrative of sexualidad, self-love, and body positivity.
Check out Mercedes Zapata at the following links: