"Por el pan nuestro (For our bread) by Betsabeé Romero (2017)

There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.

You could live in D.C. your whole life and never uncover all of its majestic spaces. One such place is the Mexican Cultural Institute of Washington, D.C, situated near Mount Pleasant. In the front yard of the Institute, a Mexican flag proudly waves you to the doorbell, waiting to be rung.

Inside, the mansion is covered with grand murals by Cueva del Río, a pupil of Diego Rivera. Among the stately rooms, on the fourth floor, El vuelo y su semilla, an art exhibit by the renowned Mexican artist Betsabeé Romero, reflects on the identity and culture of Mexican immigrants through symbolic objects.      

El vuelo y su semilla begins in front of a large red wall with a poetic introduction in both English and Spanish. The words are bold and heavy: “… With their hands of clay, with their weather beaten feet. They have arrived simmered on fire…” Romero speaks in poems alongside her work through each of the five rooms, which helps visitors thoughtfully consume each object.   

The first room contains three different perspectives of a tire, an item we rarely pay attention to unless it’s flat. The poem, “Trampling over Corn,” begins with the unyielding line “Colonizations that run over each other. Ancestral myths under the yoke of profit,” leading into Romero’s first perspective, “Atropellando maiz (Trampling over corn),” which depicts a forklift tire engraved with golden skulls and bones standing in a bed of corn kernels.  The tire is not worn, the tire is center stage, unleashing a dangerous beauty. 

Across from the tire is “La sombra del maiz (The shadow of the corn),” which is more of an abstract tire image. The shape and structure is familiar as it casts a shadow on the wall of gold corn remnants in the artistic style of mandalas. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear that the shadow is no shadow at all, the image is painted on the wall. The papel picado or perforated paper illuminates the room, a graceful intermission in the already loaded journey.  

The last perspective in the first room is “Por el pan nuestro (For our bread),” an engraved forklift tire and bread. A tire is upright on the wall surrounded by a halo like circle of beautifully baked and glazed bread. The image is as striking as the truth it holds, best said in Romero’s own words: “Reverse the industrial and cold function of a tire. Decolonize its material. Bring it to our hands. In another land, in other people’s furnaces. Cooking with its imprint, rediscovering the instrument. Game of kneaded and slowly baked impressions. Ancestral handprints…” 

In the second room, “Oro por espejitos (Gold for mirrors),” security mirrors are stamped with corn images hanging on bold red walls. It’s unexpected and somewhat jarring, encouraging some thoughtful self-reflection: What do you feel? Do you ever think about where the food you eat comes from? Do you care? 

Romero is encouraging visitors to see how genetically modified corn affects the farmers, as explained through her verse: “manipulated corn, reflection erased from its ancient history of sinister, spectacular appearance, mirror seed that takes the light, the water, the land…” The mirrors might seem like selfie-ready art, but Romero’s message is much deeper: Don’t forget to take the seeds planted for you. 

With each room, Romero keeps visitors on their toes with unexpected surprises. In the third room, “Mesas al aire (Tables in the air),” there are fully dressed tables suspended from the ceiling, adorned with embroidered table cloths of animals and texts from One Hundred Years of Solitude. Mexican cookbooks become the table legs, never reaching the ground. The space feels like a scene out of Alice in Wonderland. Romero takes you to an imaginative place but brings you back down to earth with her poem, “Tables in the air don’t have wings but they carry the bread on their shoulders.” 

Next door, “Cada cabeza era un mundo (Every head was a world)”, are spheres made from 12 sombreros with writings from the Azuela novel The Underdogs on the bottom rims; “Floating over blood stained history,” “Reddened and bleeding.” The groups of sombreros are suspended, huddled together, yet reminiscent of decorations for a fiesta. “Hovering above a cruel story of those that barefoot they have followed on the thorns from a South that never ends… that has never been in their favor.”  Each sombrero is a person, not a party, and not a part of a costume non-Mexicans wear on Cinco de Mayo.  It’s as if you’ve been placed in the middle of someone else’s journey, haunted by their hurt.

The last room, “Petate urbano (Urban petate),” feels like a coat room, with beautiful arrangements of black and gold squares.  At first glance, they resemble linoleum blocks used for printmaking, but upon closer inspection it’s clear they are tires embedded with corn. The corn shines like gold and the shapes are grooves of the tire, placed together now taking up a new space toward the exit.  

In the same room, “El maiz y fuego (Corn and fire)” closes Romero’s journey. Octavio Paz’s words are written across a white wall: “The invention of corn by Mexicans is only comparable with man’s invention of fire.” Below the words is a whole corn on a stick, made to look like a fishing rod as the kernels dangle to the bottom like worms. What’s the catch? Exactly. 

Romero creates a space for a process that we, as consumers, take for granted. But she creates each room as a whimsical subject, almost as a trick to make visitors think that everything is OK. From the written message on the wall that could be mistaken for decals with inspirational quotes used in homes, to a table dressed for dinner in the style of a fairytale, to beautifully halo-like objects meant to illuminate the senses, the revelation throughout the journey is that everything is not okay.  

As a Mexican, traveling through the exhibit feels like memories of family gatherings. Objects evoke a sense of the familiar, yet a sadness for my people weighs heavy as I step into each new room. It is important to understand that, while Romero created a visually stunning journey, it is also a story to be heard. It is the story of Mexican identity in a United States that is trying to erase it. Don’t let it.

At the Mexican Cultural Institute of Washington, D.C. to May 20. 2829 16th St. NW. Free. (202) 728-1628. Instituteofmexicodc.org.