Tony Peralta wants to give Dominicans and Afro-Latino’s tools for their pride. He’s the man behind the Peralta Project and the much buzzed about Rolos and Icons II art show. This self proclaimed class clown from Washington Heights, NY is using his artwork and apparel to refocus the conversation about latinidad away from the caramel mestizo and blue-eyed Latinos favored by the media. In short, Peralta wants to remind America that the overarching term Latino also includes Afro-Latino, particularly Dominicans. Although the overall Dominican presence in the US is quite small, in 2014 they surpassed Puerto Ricans as the dominant Latin group in New York. Still, the Dominican experience doesn’t get much love or recognition by the mainstream, but Peralta has taken it upon himself to be the representation he wishes to see. “How I look is a symbol,” he explained, “so I know my presence alone is a statement. I’m dark-skinned and visibility is important. I want to educate folks.”
As a Dominican Tony is all too familiar with the legacy of hatred and colorism left by the Domincan Republic’s former dictator, Rafael “El Jefe” Trujillo, who violently ruled the region from 1930 until his assassination in 1961. Trujillo famously powdered his face with pancake flour to appear lighter, led a war against Haiti and eliminated the option to identify as “Black” on the national identity card. In a nation of dark-skinned African descendants, misinformation and internalized attitudes about race run deep. “Trujillo was trying to whiten the country spewing anti-Black rhetoric, but we can’t deny our african roots. He died in 1961 so it’s still relatively fresh,” Peralta shared. “It’s an ignorance, and it’s not a conversation people have in the US. When you label someone Black here they think of African Americans, when it comes to Dominicans the idea of race is different. Ask anyone who is Afro-Latino [and] they identify as [the country] they’re from before they identify as Black.” Making sure that his Dominican roots aren’t erased by the American penchant for putting people in easy categories is something Peralta’s passionate about and it’s shown in everything he creates.
Tony’s apparel is a celebration of quintessential Dominican images and phrases, one of his most popular shirts is a tee that says LATINA in bold letters with the “I” as an Afro pick. He also has a clutch purse that says ‘Coño no me joda.‘ and then there’s the image of two clasping hands with a ‘de lo mio’ inscription. The Coño clutch sold out in less than 48 hours and he’s seeing a higher and higher demand for his work as he gains popularity, “I’m giving people an identity by helping them express what they are. These things didn’t exist before, taking terms of endearment and bringing them to the mainstream.”
As for his artwork it may be fitting that he chose pop art to breathe new life into the “everyday” and the “mundane” he grew up with much in the same way Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Rosenquist did for the American mainstream. Peralta taught himself screen printing at The School of Visual Arts.
“I would pay to use the facilities. One of the instructors actually worked for Warhol back in the 60s.” It’s a facility he still uses to this day. “I love pop art, screen printing was a quick way to do what I wanted. It was an immediate art form. I wanted to take what Warhol did and make it Latin. I always say if he had been Latin he would have been Andres Warhol. When you see pop art it it draws you in, it’s colorful and dope and big. As an artist I don’t want to be super photo realistic, The art I see out there is more technique as opposed to content – content is everything.”
His art show, Rolos & Icons included images of Wonder Woman, Selena, Frida Khalo, and Dora the Explorer among others. So far, Peralta’s content has gotten him a great deal of attention. His screenprint “Celia con Rolo” sits in the Smithsonian while some of his other paintings have been collected by the likes of Swizz Beats, Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Junot Diaz.
When I asked him why he chose women as his subjects he said it all comes back to his mother. “I’m paying homage to women [because] they’re just so beautiful and powerful. Strong women remind me of my mom, they’re the one’s really pushing the culture forward. I chose women who are inspiring, Celia Cruz is the most famous Afro-Latina that we know and as a symbol she was very important.”
Peralta’s own environment was what informed his passion for exploring blackness in the Dominican American context.
As a teen he fell into a depression when he realized he didn’t have the grades to get into the High School of Art and Design and was instead sent to George Washington High School, one of the lowest performing schools at the time. But it all turned around when he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Suddenly he was aware of the identity of the Black man in America and it became clear that he needed to wake up. “Washington Heights was known for cocaine … everyone was in that life. Reading about what Malcolm X went through, it was relatable and inspirational. The day I finished reading that book I was on a mission to leave the school that I was in. It should be required reading in the hood.” Tony got his GED and enrolled in Long Island University graduating with a degree in Media Arts. He went on to be a Design Director at a boutique marketing agency in Manhattan and that lead him to designed for brands like Sean John, Goliath and Oscar De La Renta. In 2005 he began the Peralta Project and the rest, as they say, is history.
For now, Tony is working on his latest women’s apparel that should be dropping at the end of the month as well as planning his next move. If you want to find him he’ll be holding it down for the DR in NYC. You can also check out his website or find him on Instagram.