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Central American resilience, identity explored in latest exhibit

The Central American community is frequently associated with violence, crime and devastation by today’s sensationalism-driven media. This wave of hyper-generalized misinformation has resulted in the dangerous misunderstanding of Central America and the wrongful criminalization of its people. However, determined as the current administration may be to cement this toxic image of Central America, the resistance of the Central American community is stronger.

Leading the fight against misrepresentation and erasure of the Central American identity, paintbrush in hand, is Los Angeles artist Kiara Machado. Her paintings serve as a reminder of the beauty, resilience, and complexities of Central American culture, combatting the singular narrative manufactured by mass media.

Machado has been honing her craft in the arts since kindergarten, but it wasn’t until her transfer from community college to California State University, Long Beach that she stepped into her calling as a visual artist professionally. She has since received her BFA with honors in Painting and Drawing in 2018.

The Lynwood native attributes her success to the sacrifice and support of her parents, who take immense pride in their daughter’s passion for their Guatemalan and Salvadoran heritage. Despite the persistent concerns of achieving economic success as an artist, Machado has been able to ease those pressures by taking refuge in her family’s support. 

“Worrying about economic stability and thinking about how hard my parents have worked to put me through school have always been things that prevented me from being fully committed to being an artist. But thankfully I have the full support of my family,” Machado said. “I recognize that it’s not always going to be easy but I know that I’m my happiest when I’m painting.”

Artist Kiara Machado paints in her studio in Long Beach, CA on Nov. 1, 2019. Courtesy: Kiara Machado

Machado’s concern with establishing economic stability in a country her parents fought so hard to reach is common among most first-generation Americans. The perceived responsibility to justify the struggle of immigrant parents and achieve the elusive “American Dream” is a heavy weight to bear. That pressure, however, comes with the privilege of access to resources that past generations of immigrant families could only dream of—a privilege of which Machado is astutely aware.

This combination of responsibility and privilege motivates Machado in creating holistic representations of the Central American identity and making space for the dynamic narratives of Central American culture in the traditionally elite world of art. 

Asked about how her parents have responded to her art hanging in galleries from Los Angeles to Italy, Machado said: “I think they get very excited and proud to see it. A lot of the art world is very elite so my work has provided a space for my parents and their histories in that world. We take up space in places that I never thought I’d be in and I got to this point because of my family’s support.”

Machado’s calling, to address the absence of Central American narratives in the art world, mirrors that of artist Kerry James Marshall and his work in emphasizing the absence of Black figures within an art history context. Machado notes Marshall as one of her primary influences both in art and activism.

Despite the flourishing Latinx art scene in Los Angeles, living and creating under the hegemony of Mexican culture has proven to be difficult for Machado who feels that her work is constantly misconstrued to be Mexican or Chicanx.

“I feel a little helpless sometimes, it gets incredibly frustrating having to make the constant effort of reiterating the purpose behind my work in representing Central American identity,” Machado said. “There are always art shows with all-Latinx contributors but the art ends up being solely Mexican, so that makes me question how diverse these spaces really are. It’s hard but I think that we’re slowly making changes.”

Kiara Machado works with children at the Mexico United States border during a mural painting workshop on Nov. 30, 2019. Courtesy: Kiara Machado

Late last year, Machado traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border, along with her fellow Quetzal Migrante collective members, Lulu Matute, Oona Valle, and Dulce López. Their objectives were to paint a collaborative mural on a portion of the border wall as well as to facilitate healing workshops for primarily Central American migrants waiting to submit their asylum cases at the border.

The healing workshops included guided meditations and physical art workshops in which migrants who were interested in creating their own works of art were welcomed to paste them onto the border bars. Folks were also encouraged to contribute to the mural, keeping a specific question in mind: “How do you and your community envision a world of freedom, without borders or obstacles?”

As it stands, the mural currently depicts a quetzal flying over a volcano with mother and child standing in the foreground on one end and another larger quetzal surrounded by flowers on the other. The collective has left the folks at the border with the liberty to add to the mural on their own and plans to return within the next few months to see how the mural has evolved.

Quetzal Migrante’s work at the border aims to combat the xenophobia Central American migrants experience on their journey through Mexico to the U.S.-Mexico border and provide a platform for them to express themselves on their own terms.

“It was a really beautiful experience to be able to see the families that have formed between the folks who are in the process of crossing,”Machado said of her experience working with Central American migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border. They have no blood ties but built a strong camaraderie amongst each other and have formed bonds out of their shared traumas and experiences.”

This transformative experience of solidarity at the U.S.-Mexico border along with the beautifully resilient Central American community Machado grew up immersed in are apparent in each of her stunning paintings, many of which will be featured in her upcoming exhibition, “Diario Entrada Uno.” 

Kiara Aileen Machado’s “Diario Entrada Uno” art series opens Friday, Jan. 24 at 6 p.m. at Acción Latina’s Juan R. Fuentes Gallery, 2958 24th St., San Francisco. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday – Friday and the exhibition will run through March 6.

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