“Heroes & Icons” Hits The Capitol

 Lucy Gellman Photos. 

Lucy Gellman Photos. 

Maybe you’ve read the story of Frida Khalo, the Mexican painter whose forays into folk art sparked a worldwide following. Or the Columbian writer Gabriel García Márquez, whose One Hundred Years of Solitude (Cien años de soledad) has been published in 44 languages. Or proud Latina Sonia Sotomayor, the U.S. Supreme Court Justice who once almost threw out an invitation to Phi Beta Kappa because she thought it was a sorority. 

But have you heard of The Borinqueneers, the 65th Infantry Regiment of the United States, composed entirely of Puerto Rican soldiers? Can you name which major 20th century conflicts they fought in (spoiler: all of them)? What about Franklin Chang Díaz, the third Latin American astronaut to go into space? And golfer Juan “Chi Chi” Rodriguez, the first Puerto Rican to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame?

 Candelaria checks out the images. 

Candelaria checks out the images. 

Now, there’s a chance to learn about those figures — and tens of other Latinos who have left their mark on the world — at Heroes & Icons, an exhibition installed in the north lobby of the capitol building in Hartford. Devised and mounted by New Haven’s ARTE, Inc., the show runs through Oct. 29. It is supported in part by the Hispanic Federation and office of Democratic State Rep. Juan Candelaria

Wednesday evening, ARTE, Inc. held an opening reception in the north lobby, feting 39 “heroes and icons” who are both living and deceased. Their legacies, memorialized with photos and text on banners, represent 14 countries and several centuries of history. Three years after the exhibition made its debut at the organization's 10th birthday at New Haven City Hall, ARTE, Inc. co-founder and Executive Director David Greco called it “very exciting,” and long overdue in the seat of Connecticut’s legislative body. It was a laborious undertaking, he added: The exhibition took about $5,000 for research, text production, images and installation.  

Founded in 2004, ARTE, Inc. is a not-for-profit committed to lifting up and celebrating multimedia Latino art and artists in New Haven. In addition to a rotating slate of exhibitions, the organization hosts several school and youth engagement programs in New Haven to instill in kids a fire for — and understanding of — Latino art. With 46 percent of the student body at New Haven’s public schools identifying as Latino, Greco said that mission is increasingly urgent. 

 David Greco with a group of Trinity College students who made the trip to see the show. 

David Greco with a group of Trinity College students who made the trip to see the show. 

“We tried to get a good representation of Latin American countries,” he said, noting the timeliness of the show as he and others continue to raise funds for humanitarian relief in Puerto Rico. As of Wednesday night, funds had topped $86,000. “We wanted to have artists, writers, politicians, singers.”

Wrapping the marble-decked lobby from one end to the other, panels do just that, positioning explorer Juan Ponce de León just feet from television sensation Desi Arnaz, Justice Sotomayor and Khalo diagonal to fashion icon Oscar de la Renta and Pope Francis. While paragraphs of large white text describe the life and work of each hero, a color photograph brings them to life, as though viewers can stand eye-to-eye for a conversation with them. 

"This is just the beginning," said Werner Oyanadel, senior commission analyst with the Comission on Equity and Opportunity. 

 Couple Ruben and Nancy Serrano lean in for remarks. 

Couple Ruben and Nancy Serrano lean in for remarks. 

“I feel awesome. Proud,” said Milagros Acosta, outreach coordinator for Connecticut House Democrats. “I am so glad to see all these Latinos here — like, to see everybody who has been so instrumental in the Latin culture.”  

Acosta worked closely with Candelaria, ARTE, Inc. and the Hispanic Federation to make sure the show was installed without a hitch, a process she described as marked by red tape and long questions from the state’s Office of Policy and Management. She said that Wednesday’s ceremonies, marked by a small gathering and the thick smells of beef empanadas, fried yucca, and tender pork from Tata’s Restaurant, made the ordeal well worth any fuss. As she directed to friends to portraits of her personal heroes — Chilean poet Pablo Neruda and Peruvian novelist Julio Ramón Ribeyro — Rep. Candelaria walked among the panels, soaking in the display. 

 Acosta: Neruda may be her favorite, but la Renta isn't shabby, either. 

Acosta: Neruda may be her favorite, but la Renta isn't shabby, either. 

“It feels exciting to see individuals that have contributed to the world — not just to this country but to the world —from Latino backgrounds,” he said. “I think we need to celebrate our cultures, and our countries, and this exhibition is the first step in doing that.”

Referring to the panels, he added that “they’re all my favorites, because every one [of them] has contributed something to the makeup of who we are as Latinos. For Latinos, the conversation is often about immigration. Sometimes we forget to talk about the contributions to the world.”

Installed during Hispanic Heritage Month, Candelaria also said that the timing of the show feels both urgent, and bittersweet. As friends of ARTE, Inc. gathered to eat and drink in celebration, he said that his thoughts were also with the island of Puerto Rico, and the thousands of American citizens in need of drinking water, food, transportation, and lifesaving medical supplies. 

 Candelaria, with Ingrid Alvarez-DiMarzo and another member of the Hispanic Federation. 

Candelaria, with Ingrid Alvarez-DiMarzo and another member of the Hispanic Federation. 

“It is a public health crisis,” he said, noting an estimated 6,000 people whose dialysis treatments have been cut due to diesel shortages. “The people are being treated as second-class citizens. Still.”

In and outside of Heroes & Icons, ARTE, Inc. is working to fight that crisis, continuing its role in fundraising efforts this weekend, next week, and online through a GoFundMe page. But Greco and Ingrid Alvarez-DiMarzo, Connecticut State Director at the Hispanic Federation, said that the exhibition itself is also meant to render powerless that stereotype. 

“You know, we stand on the shoulders of heroes, and of giants,” she said during brief remarks at the event. “I can’t think of a better time to think of where we come from and also how much work we still have to do.”

“My favorite part is looking at all of them together,” she added later in the evening. ”This is present. This is past. This is who we are.”