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Visiting artist shares coffee, stories about immigration with CCRI community
March 4, 2016
For artist Ana Flores, memories don’t just float formlessly in the ether. They have a distinct taste and smell. Standing in front of a coffee cart she constructed out of metal and cans of Café Bustelo coffee, it’s perhaps no surprise that many of Flores’ own memories are evoked by the strong, smoky aroma of Cuban coffee.
Flores brought her work, “Café Recuerdos,” to the Flanagan Campus in Lincoln, setting up shop in the cafeteria. Alongside the cart, Flores had a platter of cookies and an urn of New England Coffee – along with a couple of unsealed tins of Café Bustelo, of course – for interested students, faculty and staff who stopped by.
The cart, a painted narrative showing nods to the diverse diaspora of the immigrant experience, particularly of Latinos from Cuba and the Caribbean in Rhode Island, was commissioned by Rhode Island Latino Arts as part of “Nuestras Raíces: Latino Oral Histories of RI.” The Steelyard in Providence helped Flores construct the cart, which she designed and then painted. Images on the faces of the cans range from former Providence Mayor Angel Taveras to a prominent Dominican grocer to the likeness of one of the “Peter Pan” flights that came over during the Kennedy administration, transporting unaccompanied children from Castro’s Cuba to the United States.
While Flores herself has accompanied the cart only to CCRI, it has been making a varied journey across the state in the past year or so – at farmer’s markets, libraries, even in front of Trinity Repertory Company downtown. Rhode Island Latino Arts representatives would talk to passersby, recording their experiences in what would eventually become the oral histories.
Although Flores wasn’t recording any stories during the two days she was in Lincoln, she cherished the opportunity to absorb some of the rich immigrant histories that live on in CCRI students. “It’s incredible,” she said, pausing for lunch after talking to Professor Jim Glickman’s Public Speaking class. “There was a Syrian girl here and her friend from the Sudan who had gone to school in Dubai, and now they’re here together. There are a lot of people with Polish background, because the Polish came to work in the mills of Woonsocket.”
Flores, who settled in Rhode Island after attending the Rhode Island School of Design, said that that, despite her initial thoughts on how far apart the regions seemed, she discovered there was actually a strong connection between Rhode Island and Cuba/the Caribbean via the triangle trade. “The major merchants for that trade were Rhode Islanders,” said Flores of the ships that came back and forth transporting goods and slaves.
While the origins of many immigrant stories, such as those that came out of that trade, are obviously quite fraught, the silver lining is the beautiful tapestry of cultural history we now enjoy. “I’m so glad to have this chance to connect, and it’s a great community to do it in,” said Flores, who has spent a career making public art, as well as interacting with the people who come out to view it.
But there’s a stronger connective tissue for Flores in this project: her own heritage. Her family came to Connecticut from Cuba in 1962. Though the memory of the island might fade over time, Flores found that the scent of Café Bustelo would call to mind her grandmother, who would meticulously make three cups per day. “It was this incredible ritual, this therapy to ground herself and allow her to be here, but also give her time to think about what she’d left behind,” said Flores. “There’s a connection with aroma and memory in the brain – the amygdala. With the refugee crisis in Europe going full blast, I kept thinking: What do you take with you? You can’t take anything, except what’s in you, those connections.”
Flores said that many of the students she spoke to over the course of the installation had memories that centered on food – of traditional meals still being cooked in the home and what smells and tastes reminded them of their family’s pasts. Others had less of an idea of what traditional food might taste like, but still had a clear path tracing from their homeland to the Ocean State; one student in Glickman’s class shared that his grandparents had come from Italy and landed in Cranston to open a barbershop. Another recalled connecting with members of the Pakistani community here. “I try to leave them with the idea that it’s important to see if you can collect some of these stories from relatives while they are still here,” said Flores.
More information about the cart and the project can be found online.
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