Supporting Community Through Letterpress, Humor, and Activism: letra chueca Interviewed

Black square with roses and wheat buds centered in a bouquet and the words "queremos rosas" printed above and "iqual que pan" below."
Courtesy of letra chueca.

Portland, OR, in contradiction to its progressive claims and calls to keep the city weird, is saturated with racism. Oregon entered the United States as a whites-only state, preserved this legislature until the 1920s, and maintains its allure for white supremacist action today.1 I can recall the Proud Boys rally in 2019, a 2017 attack on Muslim teenagers on the MAX, and the rise of unlabeled vans last summer, to name a few high-profile events.2 Despite this hostile environment, community members create work that supports diverse stories and experiences. letra chueca is a creative letterpress project run by two diasporic Chileans crafting exceptional letterpress work. Co-founded by Camila Araya (she/her) and Daniela del Mar (They/Them), their effort focuses on the visibility hand-printed media offers to communities underserved by traditional platforms. The careful selection of type, hand-mixed ink, and placement of characters is a remarkable thing to see. letra chueca, meaning “crooked letter” in Spanish, embraces this capricious nature. The subtle nuances of tone and texture loans their message a personality absent in their digital counterparts. Del Mar weaves this materiality and physicality with the political history of self-publishing to promote their colorful, anti-capitalist, and playful messages within Portland’s topography. —Gerry Peña-Martinez

Gerry Peña-Martinez: When I think of your work I think of the physicality of the press. Why is that technique so integral to your practice?

Daniela del Mar: It is the combination of text and image that I am most excited by. There is this crystallization of meaning that happens in posters. Instead of just one precious copy, printing lets me distribute, amplify, and uplift messages. The physicality comes from the process: you figure out what you are going to say, you go to a drawer of type, place each letter, and arrange them into your message. If you don’t have enough Es, the most common letter in English and Spanish, you have to figure out que cambio?3 The physical building blocks are a way making filters in the work. It becomes a moving meditation. There is no division between the self and the piece. We officially started letra chueca in 2015, since then our main concern has been “how do we share this?”

GPM: It is not “print fifty copies,” it’s pulling the pressure roller fifty times, checking the paper, lining it up, and re-applying the ink between each pull. You donate yourself to the work. I think it is beautiful and the work comes across.

An open palm holds six letterpress blocks reading the word "flores" backwards. The blurred background in the image is a shelf, holding more blocks.
Courtesy of letra chueca.

DM: Thank you. One component I didn’t realize immediately, or maybe only intuitively, is that, for me, it is inherently anti-capitalist to print on a letterpress. The trajectory of how information is created and shared has completely revolutionized how we live. In the 80s, the letterpress fell out of favor because it wasn’t as small, cheap, or efficient as other processes. Letterpresses were trashed, wood types burned, and other things melted down. In a way they are relics. That term sounds so dusty to me. They are parts of our history, they are active tools, they are activating tools.

GPM: I didn’t know that much about its history of destruction and obsoletion, but maybe they are our ancestors. They persist, have a life, and I know you name them.

DM: Yeah, the Cannoli and Ramona. They’re just as fussy and particular as people. You have to learn su maña,4

whatever their trick is, and you’ll get to dance that day.

GPM: You mentioned printing’s past with capitalism and this political history, as arts get depleted and underfunded, how do you survive in a capitalist system that has already discarded your practice?

DM: I don’t think the original or even the previous generation of printers would call themselves artists because it was a commercial method. It gets at that old intersection of art and craft. There is nothing I love more than a blurred or queered line; I would say an intentionally queered line. Printing has that mechanical aspect, problem-solving, and political history, working in tandem with the artistic practice. There is no artistic practice without that underpinning. I love that weird gay marriage of art and craft with the press, especially with the public printing we do destabilizing the sanctity of the art gallery. We bring the press into parking lots or even Mt. Hood National Forest. I love bringing it out of our studio and into the art galleries and white cubes. It is the mixing that creates more accessibility, more visibility.

Blue words of numerous fonts, printed against a faded red background, reading "¡POR LA LUCHA! I take my roots CONMIGO WHEREVER I go por eso aunque están CANSADAS mis manos, fuertes son. con ellas, I life myself up junto a mis hermanxs SO THAT la próxima generation can inherit ALGO mejor que YO." Below that, "Letra Chueca Press 2019."
Courtesy of letra chueca.

GPM: Intentional queering of lines; I like that preface, intentionality.

DM: Part of the conversation, with printing specifically, is that the letterpress is so resource-based. Being this bridge is an important aspect of the work. When you aren’t able to visit or see the origins of something, you don’t have a nuance of understanding of how far we’ve come. We’re obliged to the Portland Mercado, we printed in community a lot there. Before Mercado opened in spring 2015, it was more difficult to find each other. When Camila and I, as two Latinx letterpress artists, found each other, that chispa5 really set our course. As text-based artists, intentionally over writers, whatever gaps in information, messaging, or poetry we want to send depends on the folks we work with. As a craftsperson who possesses the tools and means to letterpress, I want to share that knowledge so communities can print for themselves.

GPM: As you know, I came into Portland in 2016, so the Mercado was always there for me. How does it feel to be a Latinx craftsperson practicing and just existing in this white sea?

DM: In and out of college it was a lot harder to find my people, even in queer spaces. As a nonbinary femme, it was like [laughs] “who am I in this space, who is in this space?” It was tough to find something that felt intersectional, to say the least. So much has changed about Portland since that time. There is a lot more visibility and with the visibility, there is the danger of the dominant culture commodifying the work. That is certainly a reality, but I also see extremely vibrant and community-centered cultures. We always have to navigate the status quo, but to independently produce is such a beautiful thing. It doesn’t have to be more than that, right?

To answer your question about what it’s like to be Latinx in Portland, specifically with printing and letra chueca printing in Spanglish—seven years ago it felt like the punkest thing. It was how we communicated, how my brain works. Camila and I speak to each other in this print shop Spanglish pidgin. To put it on paper gave it such an immediate legitimacy.

Two women wearing glasses and hijabs pose for a photo. One holds a poster on which are pressed the words "con mi own mano I l!ght the antorcha que welcomes mis hermanxs home." To the right of this photo, a full-size image of the poster is attached.
Courtesy of letra chueca.

GPM: I hear that. Mercado was always a fixture for me, and I’m benefitting from the space you and your peers make in this white hegemony. I think a lot about that how we have to carve out our safe pocket. Make it hospitable within a hostile environment. Maybe not that exact wording. There is violence in that term, while part of our reality, I am really thinking about how we maneuver and bargain for allowance.

DM: I like that wording “making it hospitable in a hostile environment,” because that was very much the sense the first time I printed in Spanglish and showed it publicly. The response from participants at the first Taste of Latinoamérica event, who saw it because of the big letters and bright colors, had the sensation that it was made for me. I think that is the act of care and consideration you’re talking about. The beauty, the care, and the consideration are in the specificity.

GPM: The specificity of?

DM: The specificity of who it is for. Now Spanglish is old news and everywhere, and there’s a level of comfort that comes with that. I had never been allowed to speak in Spanglish as a young person. You had to speak English or Spanish. That legitimization was life changing.

GPM: We’re seeing a rise of it, but that’s only because people went out and said, “this is how I speak, and itis valid.” We’re not gonna break and contort ourselves for your ears.

DM: Exactly. That speaks to the specificity too. The specificity but also openness that I love about Spanglish. People who speak both languages (English and Spanish) and or only one can understand the core of the message. It is very considered. There is a flow and certain interpretability, if you don’t know what one word means in either language you can still get it. Still, making does not have to be for specifically public means, even if you make something for yourself it can be political and private.

GPM: I like that, personal but still political. Your mention of personal work that is still political reminded me how just taking a damn nap is political.6

DM: Part of the practice is being able to keep doing it. I focus on getting enough sleep, exercise, playing with my dog, planting my garden, and spending a lot of time in nature with my sweetheart. The rest is just as much a part of the work as the working. And cooking—cooking and growing food.

GPM: Especially the cooking. Latinx culture at large is rooted in our food, the meals we share and the banquets we have for parties.

DM: Como lo echo de menos.7 The direct line between what’s printed on a page and food is a big deal for me. We created this project in the fall of 2019 called gotxs,8 to queer this idea of the drop, the drop of ink or the drop of salsita dribbling down your mouth. After our last trip to Santiago de Chile for Feria Impresionate, we came away inspired. What a gift it was to see work printed in our home country! We wanted to bring their work here, and wondered how to create some support for people to understand and receive them? So we requested recipes from each of the artists. Camila and I were facilitators and cooked the recipes. The recipe was posted alongside their printed piece. On the opening night, we had pruebas9 for folks to eat the food favorited by the artists while enjoying their piece.

Two women lean over a table of food in a kitchen holding utensils. One dances, while the other reaches for something in a baking sheet.
Camila Araya and Daniela del Mar cooking at gotxs. Courtesy of letra chueca. Photo: Photobruja.
A woman wearing an apron laughs while a man rolls link onto blocks on a letterpress. Various folks look on, while numeros others mingle in the background.
Courtesy of letra chueca. Photo: Photobruja.

GPM: Enjoying their piece with community. Now those people thousands of miles away have fed others.

DM: It opens up questions of different ways of understanding that aren’t just text or vision-based. To be able to have different experiences and share that with someone is everything. We were able to prep most dishes, but some were made on the spot. One of our friends in Bolivia, Marco Tóxico, chose pollo broster, so we brought in a fryer to the gallery space. There was a concurrent show and because the fumes of chicken were so strong and powerful, we started pulling people from the other show.

GPM: Leave the Latinx people to have a pechanaga10 in the white cube.I lovethe intentional standing up to the staunch white cube mentality.

DM: It was an APANO space but definitely in that vein of queering and browning up the traditionally white cube.

GPM: Connecting this thread of food and practice, how do you make sure this is sustainable? What goes into preserving something in a system that doesn’t support it?

DM: Letterpress printing is still manual labor, I worked in a print factory for some years, and it takes a toll on the body. Balancing the labor with the rest, as we mentioned, is really important. Financially, the pandemic has completely changed the way letra chueca operates. Prior to the pandemic, we were hustling. letra chueca was a hybrid model with a card line, posters, custom work, and we’d donate or volunteer a lot of our work. Now, I am dreaming of new models. Putting the custom work to the side because there is no shortage of custom letterpress printers, but there is a shortage of people who want to pay others to teach them to print or to pay communities to create independent print media.

GPM: And who value the work what it’s due.

DM: Yes. There is that three-legged stool of sustainability: the social, environmental, and economic. Right now, I am working with an apprentice, and I would love the capacity to work with larger cohorts of younger students who haven’t yet learned the value and importance of their voice, who just need exposure. The environmental also means imagining beyond capitalism. Printing is resource-heavy, particularly from paper. Which we get from the processing of national forests. This speaks to sustainability as an artist. I am not making my living right now just as an artist. I do forest advocacy work with Bark, protecting the life of a forest beyond extraction in so-called public land, but this land is stolen land. And these public lands feed into the capitalist system for no public benefit. The last project I did was an artbook. It was a collaboration between me and a couple artists using only recycled materials and ensuring a portion of the proceeds go back into sustainability. There is no environmental sustainability without environmental justice, so ensuring the proceeds go towards Indigenous leadership within the environmental movement. So many people who haven’t been doing this type of work are just now realizing the dangers of continuing and navigating capitalism. We can choose other ways of being. We can choose other ways of living. What do they look like?

GPM: Finances control everything. How often do you have a hobby and others ask how to monetize it?

DM: It’s entrenched in everything.There are things that we must divest from as a community and things we need to create that aren’t predicated on currency. To make art sustainable, we need to value art, value artists. Artists are not, at least with letra chueca, possible without our larger community. Print shops are made for people to be in them and should be an accessible resource for anyone to print.The time I spend grant writing, promoting, pursuing clients, is better spent teaching people to print for themselves and giving out my work for free.

GPM: A desire to reinvest in the community rather than pursue that dollar to subsist.

DM: Exactly.

GPM: How can we stay connected?

DM: letra chueca is on a creative hiatus but we’re still here. I recently bought the shop equipment and moved into Alder Commons where I am teaching as well, focusing less on production and more on education. I am dreaming up workshops for the summer but for right now you can follow us on Instagram. For anyone interested in printing, I have a really open door and love to teach. As I said, print shops are made to be occupied by multiple people.

GPM: There’s the space. If not you, someone somewhere in their local community. Or they can do it. This can be their chispa to go out and make it happen.

DM: A reminder that you can print something for just you and your friends and there are people who’d love to show you how.


This interview is supported by Critical Minded, an initiative to invest in cultural critics of color cofounded by The Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Ford Foundation. Read more about Variable West’s Critical Minded Grant here.


1 DeNeen L. Brown, “When Portland banned blacks: Oregon’s shameful history as an ‘all-white’ state,” The Washington Post, Published June 7, 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/ retropolis/wp/2017/06/07/when-portland-banned-blacks-oregons-shameful-history-as-an-all-white-state/

2 Jason Wilson, “Portland Rally: Proud Boys Vow to March each month after biggest protest of Trump Era,” The Guardian, Published August 17, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2019/aug/17/portland-oregon-far-right-rally-proud-boys-antifa; Daniel Victor, “Three Men Stood Up to Anti-Muslim Attack. Two Paid with Their Lives,” The New York Times, Published May 28, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/28/us/portland-stabbing-victims.html?_r=0; James Doubek, Suzanna Nueyen, Jonathan Levison, and Conrad Wilson, “Federal Officers Use Unmarked Vehicles to Grab People in Portland, DHS Confirms,” NPR, Published July 17, 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/07/17/892277592/federal-officers-use-unmarked-vehicles-to-grab-protesters-in-portland

3 What do I change?

4 Their habit or way of acting

5 Spark

6 The latest chapter in Ceding Power discussed the policing of and gap in rest for Black folk.

7 How I miss it/I didn’t know I had a good thing until it was gone

8 Gota means “drop” in Spanish

9 Samples

10 Very raucous party

Author: Gerry Peña-Martinez

Gerry Peña-Martinez is a graduate from Reed College with a degree in Economics-Art History. Their infantile interest in the arts has since blossomed into a commitment to broaden who feels welcomed in traditionally restrictive spaces.