Celebrating the Complexity of Chicanx Identity Through Community Arts: Jake Prendez Interviewed

Jake Prendez, Essential Santos, 2020. Courtesy of the artist.

Jake Prendez’s art is as untraditional as his career. From “good kid,” to gang involvement, a master’s degree in Chicano studies and co-owner of Nepantla Cultural Arts Gallery, it has been a journey. Prendez grew up in Bothell, WA, and spent fifteen years in Los Angeles before returning to open Nepantla in the White Center neighborhood of Seattle. The intentional choice to plant Nepantla in a neighborhood where it is surrounded by culture, despite ever-present gentrification in Seattle, is emblematic of the approach Prendez has taken throughout his career as an activist and artist. Culture, language, and place are prominent themes in Prendez’s work, which often features antigua imagery and evocative representations of Mexican food with modern Chicanx subjects. —katie wills evans

katie wills evans: From the Pop Up Mercado and The Barrio Boogie Collective to the Nepantla Cultural Arts Gallery, you have repeatedly worked in collectives and communal settings. Why is that?

Jake Prendez: You know, I had a crew from middle school on that was important to me. We thought we were badass. It was called “different shades of brown.” It was the homies—we were Black, Mexican, Peruvian, Cambodian, and Filipino. Then, as I got older and became a part of different community organizations, whether they were civil rights or Chicano type organizations, I’ve always kind of worked with collectives. I guess I’m comfortable in that scene. Nepantla Cultural Arts Gallery is me and Judy Avitia-Gonzalez, so it’s a team too. I think “Jake Prendez, the artist” is one of the first times I’ve ventured out on my own and it’s just my name attached to it. A lot of times that just feels weird. I’m more comfortable in a communal space getting together with people with other great ideas and bouncing things off of each other. I think about that a lot when Judy and I are working together. I love bouncing ideas off her. I’m a very ideas driven person, but Judy is great at helping me organize a lot of those things that might not come to fruition otherwise. It’s incredible having someone on your side that really complements you.

kwe: You were diagnosed with dyslexia later in life. How does knowing this about yourself now impact how you view yourself as a person and an artist?

JP: It’s a really important part of my life, but I didn’t find out I was dyslexic until I was done with the coursework for my grad program. My parents wanted me tested for dyslexia when I was in first grade, when I was writing Jacob with backwards Bs, so “Jacod.” I always had trouble with spelling, and later on with math. The school refused to test me. They said, “No, he’s not dyslexic. We don’t need to test him.” It’s an expensive test, and they just didn’t want to pay for it. Instead, I was in special help classes throughout elementary school. A couple of kids in the class and I would have to go in the coat room with a Special Ed teacher. You’d have to walk out in front of all your classmates and friends. It was just so humiliating. I grew up with very low self-esteem, always thinking, “I’m stupid, I’m dumb,” and it played out in really negative ways. I got involved in gangs and lashed out when I got to middle school. I went from the really good kid to an angry teenager. I performed badly in high school and barely graduated. Later, I learned studying techniques and things like that once I got into college.

Jake Prendez, Genetic Memory, 2018. 36 x 24 inches. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

It was important for me to get a diagnosis, just for the “I-told-you-so factor.” It was an emotional process because I always had impostor syndrome in school. I was always scared they were going to find out I was dumb and kick me out of college. I was telling that to the person who tested me and she said that’s very common with people with dyslexia. She said, “You feel like you’re faking it because you’ve had to learn alternative study methods. For it to make sense in your brain, you’re doing twice the work everyone else is. You have to take that information, convert it into a way that makes sense to your brain, and then regurgitate it.”

I remember one of the first things that really hit me was that there are things I’m just not going to be good at, things that are harder for me. But I realized, why dwell on these things that I’m not good at? Instead, why not pursue things that I am gifted in? I’m going to have a much happier life, I think. The test was good because it motivated me to throw myself into art. I figured I might as well focus on my talents and not my deficiencies.

kwe: Since your master’s thesis you have linked art and social justice. What’s the connection between the two for you?

JP: I was going to do a double major in art and ethnic studies at University of Washington. In the art program, I was already being told my art was too “ethnic.” At that point, I decided that I didn’t want to study art there. So, I focused on ethnic studies and really stopped creating art for almost ten years. After that, I did my Masters in Chicano studies. I was still always interested in art, but I wasn’t necessarily creating at that time.

My master’s thesis was called “The Art of Rebellion.” It was about social justice in Chicano visual arts. I end up taking a class with a Yreina Cervantez, a famous Chicana artist. It was a Chicano studies class, but it was also a painting class. I just fell in love with art all over again. It was fortunate for me because I wasn’t on the traditional path.

I really don’t have much art training—I’ve taken maybe four art classes in my life. But when I did get into art, I already had this background in ethnic studies, Chicano studies, and social justice, which framed and informed the art that I was creating. I was studying things like Mexican muralism and what the greats—Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Siqueiros—were doing and how they influenced social realism in the depression era. I thought, “That appeals to me. I can do something like that.” You know, I paint what I want. I’m not necessarily trying to paint for a specific cause, but those are the things that are important to me, so it just kind of naturally comes out in the paint.

Jake Prendez, My Ancestors Got My Back, 2019. 30 x 24 inches. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

kwe: Nepantla, the name of cultural arts gallery you co-own, is a word in the Nahuatl language. What does it mean generally and to you?

JP: Nepantla means the space in between. It was popularized by Gloria Anzaldúa, a famous Chicana writer, who wrote the book Borderlands. I remember in college reading that book and thinking a lot about that idea of Nepantla. It could be cultural—the idea that you’re not Mexican enough for Mexico, you’re not American enough for the United States. The idea can apply to identity too. It relates to gender norms, racial and ethnic identity, and so many different things. But in each space, Nepantla is where you heal, you rejuvenate, you create. When Judy and I were opening Nepantla, we agreed that we wanted to heal the community; we’re rejuvenating, we’re creating in this space. It felt like the perfect word.

kwe: Can you speak to the use of language in general in your paintings?

JP: You know, it’s funny because my Spanish really sucks. There’s a term “pocho,” which means kind of like Americanized Mexican. It’s something our families in Mexico will call us. “You’re a pocho, man!” I’m third generation, so that language has really been lost with my cousins and me. There are words we still use that are residual culture. It’s still a part of our identity and lives. My family uses a lot of Spanglish. It’s funny just to see how language changes in communities.

I was in New Mexico one time and they had a laundromat there. Instead of being called a laundromat or a lavandería, it was “Washateria.” I was like, whoa! That is the most Spanglish thing I’ve ever seen. That’s awesome. I exist in that Spanglish world. There are Spanish words without any English equivalent that really does them justice. So, a lot of times, the title of a painting might be Spanglish, Spanish, or English. Sometimes I’m working on something that is talking about ancestors and it’s influenced by Indigenous culture and I’ll use Indigenous language to title the painting. It really depends on the piece and where it’s coming from.

I love how language adapts. I love slang, especially Chicano slang. For example, Caló, which is a kind of Mexican Spanish slang that originated in the early twentieth century in the Southwestern US. It’s Spanish, it’s English, it’s Nahuatl, and it’s other languages. There are things you’ll say and not realize that it might not even be a Spanish word. You think it’s Spanish, but that’s an Aztec word. Language is beautiful.

Jake Prendez, A Little Prayer for Those Who Migrate, 2018. 36 x 24 inches. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of the artist.

kwe: The inclusion of Antigua imagery seems to be a recurring theme in your work. How does incorporating this imagery in more modern scenes relate to your feelings about history and Indigenousness?

JP: There are a few milestones in your life that adapt and change what you’re creating. I did a trip to Guanajuato, Mexico, to do some murals with ten other artists. We were there for two weeks seeing and being in the motherland, seeing Indigenous cultures. My art when I came back was much more heavily influenced by Indigenous culture and this idea of connection to our ancestors. I think being someone who was separated culturally from my ancestors but hearing their stories impacts me, you know?

There is a story about my great-great-great grandpa, who was this Indigenous man who couldn’t stand living in town for too long. He would leave the family and go up into the mountains and then come back a year or two later. One time, he left for a while. When he came back his wife was remarried and had a new family. That history in me too. I have these moments where I’m feeling the claustrophobia of being in the city and I just want to go out in the middle of nowhere and I think, “man, is that something in my DNA?”

I hear people talking about Indigenous people and culture, especially Mexican Indigenous cultures, like they disappeared. Like what happened to the Mayans? As if they are extinct now. No! They’re not extinct. They are still there. Our culture survives not just in the way we look, but in the way we dance, the way we cook, the way we raise our children, the way we work with our elders. That’s that residual culture that’s passed down. It’s in your DNA.

I think a lot of work in the “Cultural Resilience” series, was all about that. I was doing these portraits of friends and then painting Indigenous symbols over the portraits that represented that Indigenous culture that we walk around with every day. My “Contemporary Codices” series which was about creating these codices, but each in the style of our ancestors. It’s everyday life today, right? You have a Paletero, you have a college student, you have a girl taking a selfie. They’re things you still see, but in style of our ancestors. The combination is my way of reconnecting with my roots.