When President Donald Trump’s administration moved last week to repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, New Haven social activist and artist Juancarlos Soto knew he would have much more art to create in support of his local community in the coming months.
Soto’s most recent piece focuses on the country’s current political climate. Inspired by Shepard Fairey’s 2005 “Make Art, Not War” composition, Soto painted a portrait of a Latina woman titled “We Are Seeds of Resistance.” The idea, he said, came about after Trump’s presidential inauguration.
“I wanted to make an image that is everything the opposite of the Trump administration,” Soto said.
Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Soto came to the United States when he was 16 years old and later attended the Paier College of Art for his undergraduate degree. Because both of Soto’s parents were Christian missionaries, he remembers that growing up in his household put him in a social activist path right from the start. Soto currently works as a community organizer for the local Planned Parenthood of Southern New England, prior to which he worked at the local activist group Junta for Progressive Action in New Haven as a youth organizer.
The portrait, in bright red and white colors and bold lines, emphasizes the hints of indigenous culture in the woman’s shirt pattern, as well as the flowers on the woman’s head.
The quote “We Are Seeds of Resistance” came from a collaboration between Soto and two friends. To him, it is a phrase that encapsulates how future generations should resist bigotry, facism, sexism and homophobia.
“Everything that we do, every thought that we plant, every time that we go out there into a protest, we are planting those seeds to resist all of that stuff,” Soto said.
One such fear Soto hopes his art will help dispel is that xenophobia of those who immigrated to the U.S. under DACA, a program enacted in June 2012 by the Obama administration. According to Soto, there is often a criminalization of the parents who brought their children to America while undocumented.
“That’s something I don’t like, people don’t wake up and decide [to leave their home], it’s because they have no other choice and they come here looking for a better life,” he said.
Soto said he hopes that he can use his art to elevate the stories of DACA recipients and other immigrants, and to thus also dispel this myth and fear of the other within the New Haven community.
Daphne Brooks, a music professor at Yale, said she agrees that art can be a powerful tool to push back against destructive forces. She noted that the problems society currently faces are largely driven by fear and ignorance of one another, and that art can help bring populations together.
“We need to use art to be able to find these ways to represent ourselves and cultivate a strong line of resistance and critique to any form of harmful ideology that negates our presence and worth in the world,” Brooks said.
Throughout his time as a community leader in New Haven, Soto has continuously created art in response to certain events in his community, especially those that impact immigrant and LGBT+ communities. As a gay Latino man in the U.S., Soto explained that his experience in the country was very different from most others and put him on the path he is now.
In fact, Soto noted he went to arts school with the intent of joining marketing and advertising, but soon realized that he could use his art as a way to express the stories of those around him. Soto now works in a variety of mediums, but with each piece he strives to represent people’s stories in a “very authentic way.”
Soto has previously exhibited work on a similar topic as part of an exhibit and panel discussion sponsored by the Yale Humanist Community last October. He also had an installation in May 2016 titled “Faces of DAPA” as part of a national conversation surrounding American immigration policy.
For this 2016 series, Soto photographed local Hispanic families, but he also works in other mediums, preferring visual effects that, in his words, are simple and more easily communicated. Soto said he realizes that the current political and social climate is changing quickly, yet noted that as an “artivist” he does not plan too much into the future, rather creating art as situations arise.
“I’m just trying to bring more love into my little piece of this beautiful globe, and people need to realize that we are all equal and that the reality of who we are as humans outside of skin color or gender expression [is that] we are the same,” he said.
Lauren Cueto contributed reporting.