Imagine an oracle that divines the present, not the future. An oracle as an instrument of inquiry that mirrors what you already know. A conduit that invokes the elements—plants, rocks, fire or water — to converse with yourself, your loved ones. Alive and gone.
Oracles became relevant to my multidisciplinary art practice through my experiments with botanical inks. I use inks as divination methods because they have a particular way of marking paper. Water and pigment swirl and settle to create textures and latent images that are revealed after drying. Sometimes a hidden landscape, a message. Creating abstract, non-figurative painting allows the ink to speak for itself. It provides a rest for the psyche. An exercise in asking and doing, in listening closely to chaos and chance.
As part of the Rewilding Borikén series—which coordinates homesteading workshops at “occupy” projects across Puerto Rico—I decided to integrate this practice into the next botanical ink-making workshop. I had volunteered at a ceremony and candle-making workshop alongside survivors of gun violence at La Conde Community Project in the San Antón neighbourhood of Carolina, Puerto Rico led by Lead to Life, a trans-local collective of Black and diasporic queer artists who transform guns into shovels for ceremonial use. The ceremonies are attended by predominantly Black families and community members impacted by police brutality and environmental racism. Humbled and inspired by the positive response I received after the ceremony and ink-making demonstration, I planned the next workshop at La Conde.
La Conde began as an occupy project in 2019. That same year, Puerto Rico’s former Secretary of Education Julia Kelleher closed more than 600 schools as part of the Fiscal Control Board’s austerity measures to restructure the public debt. The Carlos Conde Marín school in San Antón was one of those schools. Shortly after its closing, the neighbours began to occupy and rehabilitate the school to serve community needs. PATBA (Parcerleras Afrocaribeñas) was born out of those efforts, a community organization led by Black Boricua women from San Antón neighbourhood in charge of the La Conde’s rehabilitation.
“When I heard the news [that the school was closed] I said, ‘Oh my God, how can they close it!? This school is in good shape!’” remembers Euralia Salomón. “It was very pretty, very clean. It was always very clean. It had all its windows, doors, everything. Later they destroyed it, they stripped it of cables, pipes, everything.”
Kelleher’s wanton disdain for the school’s significance within the community helped the PATBA movement galvanise local support. After the occupation, “young people began to join,” says Victor Trinidad, and the community became “very, very motivated.”
“We have many dreams for it,” say María Rosario, Victor’s wife. “Even when health gets in the way, we try and help out as best we can. We [she and Victor] joined the movement after Carla’s father spread the word throughout the barrio. He told us there would be challenges. And he told us everything they planned to do to bring the school back to life. So we decided to come. We’re here every Saturday as part of the cleaning brigades.”
There is still plenty of work to be done, but at least the building has a solid foundation, the school grounds are tended to. More importantly, residents are having a good time resurrecting Carlos Conde Marín. María is in favour of increasing unity by inviting more people to cooperate. Her selling point? She laughs: “At the end of every brigade there’s a nice little lunch secured for everyone. The group is very easy to get along with, we treat each other with respect, we’re in harmony.”
(Left) Albizia procera harvested at school ground with ink sample below. (Right) La Conde’s botanical ink palette. From left to right, mango, avocado and úcar leaf inks filtering. Photographs and swatch by artist.
Venezuelan artist Gabriela Sierra was invited to help me identify flora growing wild on the school grounds, some that could potentially be used for ink-making. I had experimented with matafinca (Albizia procera), “farm-killer”, a few months ago for the Lead to Life ceremony. It’s a noxious, vivacious weed that creates a beautiful neon green colour if left to simmer with aluminum sulfate as a mordant and shade modifier. We harvested the bark and leaves, along with samplings of avocado, mango and úcar tree, and boiled them with the contents for a day. Experimenting with mordants and various swatches, we created a three-colour palette for La Conde.
Gabriela and I held a workshop at La Escuela Eduardo Conde Marín as a way to support PATBA in reclaiming, reconnecting, and rejuvenating the land. We began with a ceremony by honouring those ancestors, family members, neighbours and friends who had brought each of us closer to the world of plants in our own way. We presented their names at an altar, upon which we placed the plant material for ink-making. As we boiled the raw materials, participants constructed oracles and created abstract drawings with pencils that communicated their offerings or channeled their messages and prayers. Later, we recreated these drawings using botanical inks and pH modifiers on light watercolour paper.
I guided participants in a final meditation in which each person was asked to think of a question for a loved one or someone who had transitioned. For the living, they could ask a plant how to support them. For those with us in spirit, they could ask for guidance in taking care of themselves. After completing our oracle, I walked to the former cafeteria with a group participants who had grown up in the neighbourhood and attended Eduardo Conde Marín. On our way there, they opened up about who and what motivated them to participate in the ceremony.
My name is María Rosario. During the oracle exercise, I thought about my mother. She was the one who would prepare the bath with warm water and poleo (from the genus Plecthantrus) when we got sick. She would bathe us and we’d sleep so well. I thought of her when I made the painting, I made it thinking of her… I thought of her hair. She had wavy hair. Not curly, wavy. She would always dye her hair red. I’m not sure why, but she always dyed it red. I always remember her like that, happy and with bright red hair while she took care of us. Even though she didn’t have a chance to study much, she knew English. She aspired to be a secretary. Her handwriting was like that of a secretary. She was always helping us with our homework. With everything. Taking care of us. That’s the message I received.
I suffer from a lot of anxiety and today I had an amazing time.
My name is Victor Esquilín Trinidad. During the exercise, I thought about my uncles, who studied here. Carmín Trinidad, who died recently, and my other uncle, Junito, who’s alive. Also Felín, Marcelo, my mother. I was brought to Puerto Rico from New York 40 days after I was born. My aunt raised me with her husband because in New York my mom was having problems with my dad and they were getting divorced. So I came here, and my aunt and uncle raised me, and I got into a lot of trouble. I never wanted to be in class.
My grandfather’s name was “El Cano” Marcelo Trinidad Castro and he worked in the sugar cane fields for many years. He came from the 23rd bus stop in Santurce. He’s family with Tito Trinidad, the boxer. One time a card reader told me that my grandfather was always with me. And I feel it’s like that. One of the paintings is inspired by him. He used to spend the day leaning against a wall in a corner, drinking. He drank a lot. I would buy him drinks and he’d guzzle them down. He would stand around looking at everything and everyone. He would stand underneath the tamarind tree, where I later built a little wooden house, and hang things on the fence that he found on the ground. Little trinkets. Wires, cables, nails, little things like that. He used to work on a farm, and he would bring home plants. He liked to graft varieties of mango together. He would always wear his security guard hat and everyone called him “El Cano”.
The other painting is of a heart, because I thought of other family members who studied here—my aunt and cousins. I was raised by my aunt at my grandmother’s house until I was four. I used to call her mom. My aunt was 68 when she passed away two years ago. In my mind, I saw her and her husband. This heart represents my spiritual heart. They were always here for me.
As for my memories in this school, I used to run around the school a lot and play games. When I got back home I would get a beating for being so dirty. I used to love pranks. There was a cookie factory nearby where I would steal cookies and feed them to my fighting roosters. This room used to be cafeteria. I remember sprinting out of my sixth grade classroom to make the line for lunch. I would want to eat fast so I could play.
My name is Euralia “Lala” Rivera Salomón. I worked here in the cafeteria for 28 years, and everything was wonderful. Thank the Lord. I have no complaints. What I liked most about the workshop was the working with the community, being focused and in harmony with plants. During the exercise, I felt a connection to my father and mother. They died, but they both introduced me to many plants. My mom taught me about using baquiña and juana la blanca to dissolve kidney stones. They’re also good liniments.
My dad was called Luciano Rivera Andino, and my mother Paula Vizcarrondo Salomón. My mom died 25 years ago, and my dad 13 years ago. He lived until he was 103. We lived here in St. Just, on the main road. I always think about them. All my loved ones who have died. But especially them. I made them this hand so they know I think about them, and how they take care of me. I drew the flowers that I always place on their tombstones so they can enjoy them.
Alchemy and healing with plants are valuable tools in my own process of bringing depth and purpose to my art. Working with plants to create art materials involves all the senses that help me centre myself in the present. It is also a political act; I believe that recognizing and understanding how to use wild endemic flora is a means to support Puerto Rico’s sovereignty. Creativity and vision are egalitarian; they cannot be owned by the art world or developers. We won’t transform our archipelago’s material culture over night, but gradually, slowly, generation-by-generation, similar to María’s experience with ink-making. The richest and most beautiful inks take time, and I reckon that’s also how long-lasting change will take place.