Semana Cultural Latina Week
Downtown Iowa City — through Sunday, Aug. 25
As daytime winds down in Iowa City’s Ped Mall, a larger-than-life, blank white mask comes to life on the new stage outside of the Graduate Hotel. The suspended sculpture, created by visual and multimedia storytelling artist Miriam Alarcón Avila, becomes a three-dimensional projection screen.
A series of photos of “little luchadores,” children wearing their own decorated paper masks, are displayed onto Alarcón Avila’s massive luchador mask, over which she labored for months (the version used for this installation is her seventh iteration).
The Little Luchadores in Iowa exhibition will run after dark all this week as part of Semana Cultural Latina Week in Iowa City, which runs through Sunday, Aug. 25, anchored by Saturday’s Iowa City Latino Festival. It also serves as a preview for Alarcón Avila’s upcoming exhibition Luchadores Immigrants in Iowa, to be held at Hancher this upcoming November. Alarcón Avila was awarded a 2018 Iowa Arts Council Art Project Grant for that photo documentary project.
The luchadores in Latinx culture are famous wrestlers, but much different than the professional, WWE-style wrestling popular in the U.S. Alarcón Avila explained that growing up in her culture, “the luchador is a real life [super]hero.”
“Here in the U.S., you have Spider-Man. For us, we have the luchador,” she said.
Her work is inspired by an observation she made while working at Hancher. “There is so much beauty [at Hancher],” she said. “I look out into the crowd and see the same faces. There are not Latinas in the crowd … A big feeling of the Latina community is that they feel they do not belong.”
“I have been here for 17 years,” Alarcón Avila said. “All of the time I see the stories of the Latina community and I feel so proud of how loving they are. Inside my heart, I know these stories need to be told.”
Alarcón Avila found the little luchadores for the Ped Mall exhibit by attending various Latino festivals throughout Iowa, and as the children made their masks, she had a chance for some rare time to chat with the parents. She says this mini-series evolved as “a gift to her,” as it was unplanned and happened so organically.
“I want to showcase the rich culture … [We] are much more than cooks behind the counter or in the kitchens of Iowa City,” Alarcón Avila said.
This Saturday evening, Aug. 24, she will give a presentation at 7 p.m. that will feature both an audio and a video segment, including an interview with one of her adult luchador storytellers, El Camaleón. El Camaleón chose his name based on his experience as a Latino in Iowa, Alarcón Avila said.
“Being Latino and living here, you feel like you have to pretend to be someone else,” she said, explaining that her subject would prefer to blend in with the crowd, like a chameleon.
Alarcón Avila’s all-time favorite luchador is El Santo (the Saint). Like other famous luchadores, El Santo was known for more than wrestling — he was also a prolific actor. El Padre Tormenta (the Father of Storm), lived other lives outside of the ring as well, serving as a priest and doing good deeds for the community such as raising money for orphans. Both men are considered real-life heroes.
“La luchas overcome struggle. They are always raising up, always fighting,” Alarcón Avila said.
Over the years, attempting to interview fellow Latinas on camera about their struggles living as Iowans or among Americans had left her empty handed — until she brought the mask concept into her work.
“I would meet people that would agree to talk with me on camera about their stories, but then they would freeze,” Alarcón Avila said. “They would say, ‘Now people will know who I am; they will know my identity.’ I didn’t want to edit the video to darken the face or blur it out, like the person speaking is a criminal.”
The masks empower those brave enough to interview for her, she said. “With the mask, the person can talk, and keep their identity, while still telling their story. Latinos are already so underground. They need to come to the light. It is time to shine and overcome this current political climate.”