Lata America, an exhibition of digital illustrations by San Francisco artist Gabriela Alemán, is currently on display at SOMArts’ The Ramp Gallery. Each of the ten illustrations plays off a different soda or beer can, from the exhibition’s title work that imitates a Coca Cola can to “Morena Especial,” which imitates a Modelo can. According to Alemán, “lata” means can in Spanish and “Lata America” is a play on “Latin America.” In addition to the ten digital illustrations, the exhibition includes a framed reusable shopping bag.
Alemán, a native of San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood, said she was inspired by people in her community that recycle cans to earn money. While others may look down on collecting cans, Alemán said she sees it as evidence of how enterprising and resourceful people in low-income Latinx communities are.
“My mom did it back in the day when we had no money, and, now that we’re financially stable, she still does it, because she sees it as a way to supplement her income,” Alemán said. “I was like, it’s a form of empowerment, so how can I turn it around?”
Alemán said the people she had seen collecting cans in her community were primarily women and that it was important for her to use various colloquial words that described women in her illustrations. For example, “morena” means “brown woman,” “garota” is a Portuguese word for “girl,” and “cipota” and “chavala” mean “girl” in El Salvador and Nicaragua, respectively. According to Alemán, the latter two are especially important to her because she is half Salvadoran and half Nicaraguan.
Carolina Quintanilla, Curatorial Partnerships & Residency Director at SOMArts, said she thought it was important to display Alemán’s work because it encompassed a broad spectrum of Latinx identities.
“Her series stood out to me because it creates visibility for communities not always included in Latinx shows or spaces,” Quintanilla said. “It brings light to the idea of Latinidad [collective Latin American identity] and who is included or not included and also pushes us to question how the word homogenizes our experiences and what purpose that serves.”
Alemán said her personal favorite illustrations in the exhibition are “Sangre Indígena” and “Couronne Champ,” which is based on the Haitian soda Couronne Champagne. According to Alemán, people often leave the Caribbean out of discussions about Latin America and it was important for her to include it. She said she chose the word “champ” because Haiti is the “champion of Latin America” in that it was the only Latin American country to fully expel its colonizers.
“The first thing people think of when they think of Haiti is how poor it is, but they are also the only country that ever detached themselves completely from the people that colonized the land,” Alemán said.
Quintanilla elaborated on the necessity of representing parts of Latin America that have not gotten their fair share of the spotlight in art and other media:
“Her work not only brings visibility to the Central American experience and the Caribbean experience but also reaffirms our existence by tapping into nostalgic words and imagery in a way that becomes empowering,” she said.
In addition to representing diverse Latin American communities and women who collect cans to earn money, Alemán said the exhibition is also about commercial exploitation of Latin America. This theme is particularly explicit in an illustration based off a can of the Peruvian soda Inca Cola that reads “Sangre Indígena” (indigenous blood). Alemán said she paired this piece with the Coca Cola-inspired “Lata America” illustration to draw a link between the presence of foreign corporations in Latin America and the oppression of indigenous communities. According to Alemán, corporate interference in Latin America is the very reason many Latin Americans rely on collecting cans to survive.
“They go into our communities and what do we do? We recycle aluminum cans because there’s no other way to support ourselves after being exploited, even after people have to migrate to the U.S. or other places outside of their native lands,” Alemán said.
Nonetheless, Alemán said she sees the exhibition’s message as being positive overall: Lata America celebrates recycling and women of color who recycle. Alemán said she chose to frame the kind of reusable shopping bag that people use to collect cans on the streets because, like people who recycle for money, it is underappreciated.
“It’s something you’re never going to see framed anywhere,” Alemán said. “Let’s take a moment to give it the space it needs. Let’s glorify it... This is an example of us reusing everything and never letting it go.”
According to SOMArts’ website, the cultural center and gallery focuses on using art as a tool for social change by providing artists with guidance and space to exhibit their work. Lata America will be on display until January 29.
Disclaimer: Keep out of reach of children. For use only by adults 21 years of age and older.