If we’re being honest, we know that most of the time people don’t automatically think of Puerto Ricans when they think of Caribbean people. Jamaicans and Haitians, surely, Cubans maybe, but when it comes to Puerto Ricans, it’s complicated. Puerto Rico is of course, a commonwealth of the United States, and these days feels much more associated with that problematic history than its status as a Caribbean nation. Plus, the Puerto Rican diaspora has such a long history stateside, that many Puerto Ricans who live on the mainland have become quite far removed from the island. In many ways, I’m one of those people and I know I’m not alone. Philadelphia-based artist, Shawnick Izul Rodriguez, who is best known by the moniker, Art by Sir (her initials) — I recently learned — is also one of those people. Our families have been here for generations but none of that makes us Boricuas any less proud of our Caribbean heritage and our Puerto Rican roots.
To look at Rodriguez’s art, you would never know that she’s never called Puerto Rico home. You would never know how complicated her relationships with her heritage is or that she didn’t originally set out to showcase it in her work as an artist. Scrolling through her Instagram page, it screams Puerto Rico. It screams Caribbean. That’s the thing though, Caribbean American heritage and history is deep and multi-faceted, and so many of us are just really beginning to explore what it means to be a Caribbean in America and all the many ways the histories of our islands knit us together.
In a recent chat with Rodriguez, she shared with HipLatina that she actually didn’t start showcasing her Puerto Rican heritage in her paintings and the jewelry she’s become best known for on social media until after Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria back in September 2017. Despite graduating from an arts high school and getting a full art scholarship to the prestigious Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey, her home state of New Jersey, the 39-year-old initially decided to pursue a career in social work. But after years of working with high-risk youth and eventually adults as well, she was fatigued and emotionally burned out.
It was then she decided to pursue her passion for art, mostly focusing on work that tapped into her own personal life and the turmoil she felt at the time. Some time later, in the wake of the hurricane, she was moved to create a series dedicated to the island.
“That’s when it hit me that I needed to express myself through what I was emotionally going through because I wasn’t able to get in touch with my family, know what happened to them,” Rodriguez says, explaining that she started with just one painting, but it sparked something in her. “I finally was like, ‘you know what? why not do a whole series?'” After chatting with her mom, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, she named the series, “Tu Eres Puerto Rico.”
“I started getting into my art and participating in art shows all over Philly, I noticed there wasn’t representation of not just Puerto Rican art, but Latino artwork,” she says. “You see a lot of white and Black people and they shed their lights on their cultures, but you don’t see representation of us, so the more I started going I was like, ‘if there’s anything that I would like to do in the art world, it’s to be that voice’.”
Now, one look at Rodriguez’s Instagram account and you’re immediately met with the most vibrant and authentic images representing our culture: Puerto Rican flags, landmarks of the island, cultural icons, Caribbean landscapes, and symbols of Boricua pride. In her words, her heritage is the “staple” of Art by Sir, and it has resonated with thousands of people.
Rodriguez has certainly and successfully committed to using her work as a form of cultural representation not just for Puerto Ricans but for other Caribbean Americans as well — you can peep work dedicated to Dominicans, Haitians and other Latino American groups on her Instagram — but sometimes, it’s challenging. And unfortunately, she says much of that comes from the inside.
While Rodriguez has endless support from her family, from her experience, many Latinos don’t have a concept of art appreciation. “They love art. You can love art, but then there’s appreciation and appreciation is different because it’s understanding the idea and the concept and the value of it,” she says. “Our community lacks the knowledge of the value of art.” So, while she wants to make art representing our people for our people, she’s often faced with unrealistic expectations and an undervaluing of her time and talent.
“Because you have a creative bone, people think you can make something out of nothing,” Rodriguez explains. “And honestly, sometimes you can’t. Because if you have a passion behind it, you’re not gonna be able to do it because now it feels like work. I never want that to be work for me, I love what I do.”
Particularly through social media — Rodriguez has nearly 50,000 followers between Instagram and TikTok — she is putting in the work to create that knowledge and build that appreciation. She shares not just her completed works, but also her process in many of her posts. From her jewelry to large-scale murals depicting scenes from the island on Philadelphia streets, her followers can see the care and thought she puts into each piece.
“If you come to Philly, and go to North Philly, the Bandlands…that’s little Puerto Rico and it’s known as ‘el barrio,’ and through there, that’s all you see — Puerto Rico’s heritage, culture, everywhere — but if you step outside of that area, you don’t see it at all,” Rodriguez explains. “So for me to share my culture through art, I don’t want it to stick just to a certain area, I want it to be shown all over. So with social media the great thing about that is yeah, we have pockets of communities there, but we can also broaden the horizon,” she continues. “So that’s why sometimes, I’ll dibble and dabble in other things, so people can be like, ‘who is she?…’ you’re making a connection.”
Like so many people across the Puerto Rican diaspora and even the Caribbean diaspora as a whole, this connection — to her heritage through her art and to other people through her heritage — means a great deal to Rodriguez. She knows the importance the kind of representation her work brings because it was her work that helped her deepen her own understanding of her roots.
“Growing up in the states, I didn’t grow up learning about my culture. I had to learn through my art as an adult about my culture and my people and what was going on,” she tells us. “For me, it’s just a constant — ’til the day I die — to learn and grow from it, to breathe it.”
Beyond social media, Rodriguez is using her expertise, her knowledge and her passion to help future generations of Latinx kids understand their cultures through art. She also serves as an art teacher for an organization called Taller Puertorriqueño through the University of Pennsylvania, that allows her to teach kids about Puerto Rican culture and art, and sometimes, other Latinx cultures as well. It’s a mission especially close to Rodriguez’s heart since as a Puerto Rican born in the states, she feels the strain of her culture being watered down through the generations in her family.
“We’re already losing it [culture] at a faster rate, and it’s just so important to my heart to keep it alive and it’s why I do what I do,” she says.
As Caribbean people, Rodriguez feels strongly that it’s our indigenous roots — particularly the Taínos — that makes us such a passionate and proud people who hold onto the connection to our countries of origin so tightly. She says, it’s our shared history of colonization, our kinship with the land, our parallel struggles that bind us.
“Everything about each other’s culture is just colorful and unique,” Rodriguez says of her fellow Caribbean Americans. “I think that’s what makes us these amazing people. It’s colorful, it’s bright, [even though] it comes from struggle, beauty comes out of it every single time.”