Afro-Puerto Rican woman explores racial, gender identity through art in Chicago

CHICAGO (WLS) -- Brenda Torres-Figueroa is an Afro-Puerto Rican who examines gender and racial identity as a visual and performance artist.

"Performance is an art form that works with identity politics and [is] my way to understanding a little bit more who I was," said Torres-Figueroa, who moved to Chicago from Puerto Rico in 2000 for a master's program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The then-23-year-old settled into the city's Humboldt Park neighborhood. Torres-Figueroa recalled seeing a large Puerto Rican flag overhead on her bus ride on Division Street into the heart of the neighborhood.

"Humboldt Park is amazing. I think it's a beyond vibrant Puerto Rican neighborhood," she said.

Torres-Figueroa's art is based on her life growing up in Puerto Rico. She described Puerto Rico as a mixture of three cultures: European, Taino -- the people indigenous to the island -- and African.

"[It] is a beautiful thing that we can have this kind of ambiguous racial identity -- but at the same time, in the dynamics of the island and society, sometimes that plays a difficult role," she said.

Torres-Figueroa experienced challenges because of her complexion.

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"Colorism is a very big thing in Puerto Rico as well in Latin America," she said, "and this idea of the binaries, good and bad, connected to color."

As a teenager, one of her grandmothers, who was darker-skinned, encouraged her to look to marry a man with a lighter complexion. Torres-Figueroa doesn't fault her grandmother for that advice.

"It was just a reflection of her experience," she said, "and also colonization and also internalized white supremacy."

When Torres-Figueroa came to Chicago, she encountered more challenges tied to her identity. Sometimes she said she's not viewed as Latina even when using her native tongue.

"I have people when I talk to them in Spanish, they continue speaking to me in English because they cannot connect my visible identity with my actual identity," Torres-Figueroa said.

That fueled her passion for visual and performance art. She uses garments to challenge societal perceptions.

Torres-Figueroa said it's important for Black women to take up space.

"I think being a performance artist, the people don't have too many other options than to look at you," she said. "With that, the layers of constructions of ideas that they have of you -- you have to challenge them."

To follow Brenda Torres-Figuerao on Instagram: @Performatum.

From actors to activists, people share stories of celebrating their heritage, expressing their identity as Latino, Latinx, or Hispanic, and representing and embracing their diverse cultures. Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month with "Our America: Todos Unidos" on ABC Owned Television Stations streaming apps and Hulu.
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Celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month with "Our America: Todos Unidos," premiering September 15 on ABC Owned Television Stations streaming apps and Hulu.

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