Immigration in the Visual Art of Nicario Jiménez Quispe

Crossing Borders

A Review by Lina del Castillo

Crossing Borders

Immigration in the Visual Art of Nicario Jiménez Quispe. Carol Damian, Michael J. LaRosa, and Steve Stein; foreword by Annette Fromm (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019, 131 pages).

Words penned by Peruvian artist Nicario Jiménez in thick black Sharpie caught me by delighted surprise upon opening this book. “Mi arte, mi experiencia vivida.” My art, my lived experience. Two additional dedications flank the artist’s words in triptych formation, visually reminiscent of the decorative devotional boxes known as retablos—Jiménez’s chosen form of artistic expression. Michael J. LaRosa’s offering, “Con Paz, Sin fronteras,” (With Peace, without borders) rests on the left side as Steve Stein’s “to profound immigrant encounters,” graces the right. Tucked away towards the bottom as the supporting framework is Carol Damian’s call “To the power of Art.” My heart was warmed by reading these hand-written dedications.

Full disclosure, I was a graduate student in Latin American history at the University of Miami (UM) from 2001 through 2007, working under the supervision of Steve Stein. I learned about UM’s program while working in Bogotá, Colombia, as a teaching assistant for Michael LaRosa, a former student of Stein’s. Many productive conversations with Mike helped me realize that, if I was serious about researching and teaching 19th-century Colombian history, then I needed to work towards my doctoral degree. By then, I had met and worked with several other scholars and intellectuals in Bogotá’s vibrant academic world that I wanted to emulate. All of them had worked with Steve Stein at the University of Miami.

I make these overlapping mentoring relationships explicit precisely because Nicario Jiménez’s migration story and the art that he has created out of his lived experiences with migration are bound up with the friendships he developed with precisely these two people: Steve Stein and Michael LaRosa. I remember seeing several of Nicario Jiménez’s retablos—then focused on the violence in Peru— as a graduate student. They impressed me with their detail, color and the evocative stories they memorialized.

I did not realize how deeply the memory of seeing Jímenez’s work haunted me until I saw his Matanza de Cayara from 1988 again, as pictured in this book. An uncanny feeling came over me as I saw something so familiar from so long ago in such close-up detail.

I grew up with one of the decorative, mid-20th century mass-produced retablos from Peru as described in the book. Our family’s simple diorama-like pastoral nativity scene joined our peregrinations from Colombia to the United States, and back. As a child, I loved opening and viewing our retablo. Doing so inspired a feeling of hogar, of coming home to familiar territory, no matter where we were. I remember its doors were outlined in red and decorated with blue hand-painted leaves that branched off from large round flowers, much like the doors to Matanza de Cayara.

“Nicaro” and “Jiménez” name the flowery doors to Matanza de Cayara, a move that not only identifies the creator of the retablo, but also the artist’s lived experience as witness to the massacre. Nicario Jiménez’s retablos communicate to world the pain that came with the violent loss of what was familiar to him. And yet, at the same time that Jiménez shows us how painful forced uprooting can be, his work as a whole also point to the hope, transformations and opportunities migration can bring. In doing so, he disrupts viewer expectations. For me, this meant that Nicario Jiménez’s memorialization stayed with me for years, if subconsciously so.

This book is remarkable precisely because it captures distinct aspects of Nicario Jiménez’s message so well.  By slowly zooming the viewer’s attention in, page by page, image by image, the book walks us into different retablo scenes. The opaque white, almost card-stock quality of the paper the images are printed on offers an added artisanal quality that would have been lost if the images had been printed on glossy paper. The authors also provide the right amount of engaging historical and biographical context, facilitating a better understanding of the dynamic visual components to Jiménez’s compositions.

The book’s introduction begins with a needed de-centering of familiar national origins myths, rightly noting that at least two cities in the continental United States pre-date Plymouth’s 1620 founding: St. Augustine, Florida, founded in 1565, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1607. Doing so reminds readers of the complex, entangled histories of colonization and migration that have shaped U.S. history and its relations with the rest of the hemisphere. From this perspective, Nicario Jiménez’s work contributes to centuries-long creative cultural productions related to questions of migration. More immediately, however, the authors effectively convey how Jiménez translates jarring contrasts—from Ayacucho, to Lima, to Miami, to Los Angeles—into his art.

The second chapter offers a persuasive discussion on why the retablo, in Jiménez’s hands, needs to be considered an art form. Rather than paint the retablo as a static, unchanging indigenous craft, the authors demonstrate how cultural borrowings, industrialization, and tourist expectations have all impacted the retablo’s form and the materials that inform its making. Nicario Jiménez draws on a long family tradition of retablo fashioning and improvised upon it, using potato flour, plaster of Paris, and his secret formula for insect-repelling glue to create the characters, creatures and plants that populate his stories.

The rest of the book narrates how the artist’s experiences with migration impacted his work. Chapter three, The Peruvian years, opens up the moment of surprise and wonder when one of Jiménez’s retablos—which was not intended for sale—caught the attention of Steve Stein. Rather than a peaceful pastoral scene, the retablo depicted the violent repression of a labor strike on the streets of Ayacucho. This moment of connection and recognition of Jiménez’s talent initiated a long-term friendship that facilitated the artist’s arrival to the United States and his eventual U.S. citizenship.

Chapter four, El Norte, highlights how Jiménez juxtaposes the opportunities for inclusion and success he found in the United States with moments evidencing exclusion, racism and insults. The authors offer a quick synopsis of migration legislation in the 20th century that helps underscore the tension between ideals depicting the United States as a ‘nation of immigrants’ with its increasingly exclusionary policies regulating migration.

The fifth chapter, Promise and Hope, reveals how, despite the racism Jiménez experienced and witnessed as an indigenous person in Peru and the United States, he nevertheless managed a measure of success. Most evocative in this sense is the last retablo the book focuses on, Triunfo Latino (Latin Triumph), 1999. Building up from stories of exclusion on the border, the retablo depicts how hard work in the service sector and educational opportunities culminate in recognition and success for Latino/as, for instance, at the Grammy’s. 

Friendships and family ties, at the end of the day, are crucial factors determining a person’s decision to leave home to find their porvenir, the path their lives have yet to take. This basic fact driving migration trends is unfortunately glaringly absent from the hateful discourse spewing forth from those currently occupying the office of the President of the United States. Nicario Jiménez’s works, and this volume, are a welcome respite. Together, they help us recognize and humanize who immigrants are and what motivates them—what motivates us. We leave idealized homes, cross borders and face innumerable challenges primarily because of the sacred bonds of family and friendships that give life meaning.


Lina del Castillo is an Associate Professor in History and Latin American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.


For related articles, take a look at our 2014 issue on Peru!

See also: Book Talk