IN CONVERSATION

Josué Esau Romero: Exposing the Narratives Behind Nationalism

When we first started discussing what Unfiltered San Antonio would become, Delia and I were both adamant about being a platform for emerging and underrepresented artists. Being two women of color, we have personally experienced the struggle for representation and exposure (although we’ll be the first to admit to our own privilege). Over the past few months, I’ve had the opportunity to become close to many artists who grapple to survive in an increasingly nationalistic environment hell-bent on restricting them in every way. So when I was introduced to Josué Romero and his practice a few weeks ago, I knew I had to learn more—and so do you.

Born in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Romero immigrated to the United States when he was four years old. “I remember snippets of the traveling and the crossing of the river.” Romero told Unfiltered SA, “That conceptualizes where I am politically. It was hard to do things for a while but you get normalized.”

While Romero has always been artistically inclined, it wasn’t until his introduction to SAY Sí that he understood his deeper connection to art. Using his hands to create fulfilled an unconscious desire for power and agency which he attributes to his circumstances as an immigrant.

A recipient of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Romero has always lived with the notions that come along with being an immigrant, but it wasn’t until last year when he was arrested and nearly deported, that his artwork took the turn from formal constructions towards a more conceptual approach.

“After that event, I knew who my enemy was. I felt confined and attacked and I narrowed that down to nationalism. How is it that nationalism is attacking me? Mythology is used to build a national identity, which is always about exclusion. It’s ‘this is what we are’ and ‘this is what we are not and everything that we are not is awful and the enemy.’ It’s something to be destroyed and hated and I fall into that ‘other’ category.”

His Narrative Armor series is a direct reaction to his near deportation. The armor was created using handmade paper, a physical representation of the armor he uses to protect himself against the effects of his experience and against nationalism. The armor has multiple, wearable pieces, which—like many of his recent works on paper—are a direct contrast to the hard material a suit of armor would actually be made of (notably steel, iron, hardened leather, etc.).

“This [piece] is more personal. How do I protect myself? It’s not physical protection that I need. It’s more psychological, philosophical protection. It was one of the first things that I linked back to my deportation. I need to protect myself, but how? There’s nothing I can do to stop the systems that are at play but I can protect myself in thought. I can protect myself against the effects it has on me. I can be my own person without the government telling me ‘we grant you sovereignty’ or a place in the world.”

In his first solo exhibition Unseen Prisons, which took place this May at Rubio Gallery-South, Romero focused on formulating the idea of nationalism for those who are oppressed by it as well as those that give into it. The exhibition included paper formed into shackles and barbed-wire. All painted dark grey, the objects, especially the barbed-wire, evoke the illusion of metal, thus giving them a physical and metaphorical weight they do not actually bear.

While the United States may have been founded with the individual in mind, our troubled past has proven time and time again that it is the collective that is sovereign. Individuals have the right to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness—but only the individuals that we deem acceptable. If you think extreme nationalism isn’t on the rise, then let’s turn towards the plans the White House and Congress have for the border wall — a physical representation of extreme nationalism. So, how do we oppose what has long been a source of exclusion and discrimination in the name of pride and patriotism? Romero would suggest exposing the narratives. ALL of the narratives.

In his upcoming senior thesis exhibition at the Southwest School of Art, Romero will focus on reinterpreting San Antonio’s mythology, more specifically, the Alamo. While all the details aren’t settled yet, Romero hopes to produce brochures about the Alamo that guests can take home.  

“On one side there is the monolithic narrative taken from the alamo.org website and [I’m] trying to present different accounts of the history on the opposite page so the very medium itself can act as a facilitator of conflict. I’m trying to get the audience to understand that [our history] is nuanced and uncertain. It’s a number of different things. It’s not just one story.”

Although I now have a better understanding of Romero’s disdain of collectivism, I struggle with his resistance to embrace being a part of a community. His words have led me to wonder if we can embrace the support and value of a community without claiming a place in it and taking pride in it. And it seems Romero is working through these questions as well.

“Collectivization is usually [focused] around some kind of ideology, it centers on the idea that we believe the same thing, we have the same enemy, we are a group. As opposed to the community which allows for differences. It’s not about believing in the same things. It sees the humanity in other people and appreciates that as opposed to just the ideology. That’s been a big distinction for me. I try to make my work about collectivization vs. community. I’m interested in community and I appreciate it but I’m not one to claim that ‘this is mine.’ That kind of pride has always been off-putting to me.”

While Josué does not claim the title activist, his work is powerful, engaging, and undeniably authentic. His practice has clearly developed over the past few years and he is keen to be involved in engaging critique about his artwork. To learn more about his work, head to his website at www.josuesau.com.

 

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