Juan Sánchez

Teaching Page

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Juan Sánchez, Un Sueño Libre/A Dream for Our Children, 1987. Lithograph, 22 x 29 inches. Collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. Museum Purchase Fund.

This teaching page is a resource to help you prepare your students for their visit to the museum and continue the discussion after your visit. You will find information on the artthe artistkey ideasdiscussion questions, and additional resources. You can also download a PDF of this teaching page and a large image of Un Sueño Libre/A Dream for Our Children. This work is on view at the museum through January 3, 2016 in Taking Their Place: Recent Acquisitions in Context.

THE ART

Three young girls, two of whom are holding flowers, have paused to be photographed. Perhaps they are in the midst of delivering a gift of flowers or are participating in a community event with their flowers and bicycle. Centered behind the bicycle handles and arranged by height, they look directly at the camera, the younger girls in front smiling openly, the taller girl in back looking solemn and somewhat protective with her hands on the others’ shoulders. Sunlight falls on the street and on the girls’ faces, highlighting their youth and vulnerability.

The girls and their parents were friends of artist Juan Sánchez, and he snapped the original photograph of this “moment in the street.” He made a lithographic print of the photograph and collaged it onto the center of this larger lithographic print, emphasizing the importance of the girls’ image by drawing red, blue, yellow, and black lines around its edges.

Five other images surround the central picture, each of which is dominated by versions of a star. Closer study reveals that the star is part of a flag, the whole of which can be seen hanging vertically between windows and doorways in the lower middle photograph. This large flag has a blue triangle on one end that contains the white star and meets at angles with three red and two white bars. Each of the other pictures is a variation of this photograph, which Sánchez took of a street mural in a Brooklyn neighborhood of New York City. He tore and pasted together segments to make new pictures, leaving evidence of white jagged tear lines. The images and their black background are layered over scrawled pink lines and a lacy red design that was transferred directly onto the photosensitive printing plate from a lace tablecloth. Other blue and yellow gestural marks have been added as highlights.

Juan Sánchez composed a poem about hope and revolution that is key to the meaning of this print. The Spanish words, printed at the top, read “Un Sueño Libre ¡Aleluya! Cuando se diga ‘Patria y Justicia’ y sea verdad; cuando se pueda pasear por las calles llenas de sol noche y día; cuando las manos del pueblo Afro-Jíbaro-Taíno se una en un gran poder bello y revolucionario; cuando todo ser humano tenga pan, tierra, salud, y la bendición de vivir de un poema del corazón; cuando nuestra liberación llegue los espíritus libre de nuestros niños sevestirán floreado de oro.” Translated into English, the poem reads, “A boundless dream—Hallelujah! When one says ‘fatherland and justice’ and it is true; when one can walk along sun-filled streets, day and night; when the hands of Afro-Jíbaro-Taíno people are joined in one great, beautiful and revolutionary power; when all human beings have bread, land, health and the blessing of living according to their heart’s desire; when our liberation comes, the freed spirits of our children will flower with brilliance.” Sánchez has said he composed the words in a spontaneous “stream of consciousness,” and that he wanted to communicate to children that they are “important and valuable and loved,” and that parents generally “are caught up in making whatever change is necessary to ensure their children’s future.” This print is one of several prints and paintings Sánchez has made in which children are the central focus. He wrote the words on tracing paper, blackened the back of the paper to transfer it to the printing plate, and then went over those marks with a grease pencil before ink was applied to the plate.

The flag depicted here is the red, white, and blue flag of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, which is a territory of the United States. The flag has some similarities to the American flag, with horizontal red and white bars and a blue field behind its single white star. However, the star is located within an isosceles triangle and there are five, rather than thirteen, bars. According to tradition, the red stripes symbolize the blood of brave warriors and the white stripes symbolize victory and liberty, which would come with independence. The blue triangle represents three branches of government—executive, legislative, and judicial—as well as the waters of the ocean. The white star signifies the island of Puerto Rico, or “rich port,” which was populated for centuries by indigenous aboriginal peoples known as Taínos. The island was claimed by Christopher Columbus for Spain during his second voyage to the Americas. Under Spanish rule the indigenous population was forced into slavery and nearly eliminated due to European infectious diseases. Spain possessed and colonized Puerto Rico for over four hundred years until it was ceded to the United States in 1898 as a result of Spain’s loss in the Spanish-American War. Residents of Puerto Rico are citizens of the United States. The powers of its government are delegated by the United States Congress, and its head of state is the President of the United States.

Juan Sánchez has made reference in his poem to the multi-cultural Afro-Jíbaro-Taíno people of Puerto Rico. The term Jíbaro, derived from the word jívaro and meaning hill or forest people, was used by Spaniards to describe inland mountain-dwellers. When Spanish control of Puerto Rico ended, “Jíbaros” who were generally working-class agricultural land tenants, sharecroppers, or hired fieldworkers were considered “authentic” Puerto Ricans and came to symbolize the complexity of Puerto Rican identity. The Yoruba are West African people from parts of Nigeria west of the Niger River, thousands of whom were brought as slaves to work in gold mines and sugar plantations in Puerto Rico during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Intermarriage of Spanish settlers and Africans and the indigenous Taínos resulted in mixed racial identity and culture for most Puerto Ricans.

THE ARTIST        

Juan Sánchez has said, “I am one of millions of Puerto Ricans not born on Caribbean soil. Colonialism and poverty in Puerto Rico forced my parents to migrate to the United States, so that colonialism dictated the paradoxical status of making me North American born. Born and still living in Brooklyn, New York, I grew up to be an ethnically, socially, and politically conscious Puerto Rican.” Sánchez’ parents, Puerto Ricans of African descent, had emigrated to New York in search of better economic conditions. As a young boy, Sánchez was encouraged by his parents to pursue art. They were artists themselves who made popular religious artifacts. He first studied commercial art at the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, and then entered the Cooper Union School of Art to study painting. He earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. He resides in New York City, which has long been home to a large number of people from Puerto Rico in what are called “New Yorican” (or “NuYorican”) neighborhoods or barrios, and he has frequently expressed his support for modern-day independentistas who continue to raise the question of Puerto Rican statehood. He is a member of the Master of Fine Arts faculty of the Department of Art at Hunter College in New York City.

Sánchez has long made art that represents his Puerto Rican cultural identity and draws attention to the cause of Puerto Rican independence from American jurisdiction. He adapted the term “Rican/structions,” first used by salsa percussionist Ray Baretto, to refer to his combining methods as well as his ethnic references. His artworks employ symbols that refer to the island’s original Taíno culture, to the Yoruba culture of the African slaves, to the Catholic religion of the Spanish colonialists, to Puerto Rican folk art traditions, and to American and European art history. Sánchez has said that he is a “product of the multi-identity” of being raised in New York City by parents from Puerto Rico and as a result feels an affinity with many different cultures. He intends his Rican/Structions to challenge stereotypes of Puerto Ricans in the United States and to convey the importance of Puerto Rican influence on music, art, politics, and many other aspects of American society. Regarding one of his images, Sánchez has said, “The beauty of that Puerto Rican child symbolizes the never-ending struggle of a people striving for dignity and self-determination. I wish for the viewer to feel the extent of my people’s anguish as well as their prevailing joys.”

KEY IDEAS

  • Combination of images and text that refers to Puerto Rican culture and aspirations for independence, in a style described by the artist as a Rican/Struction
  • Poetry that conveys an optimistic hope for a better future for children
  • Layering of representational and abstract forms that symbolizes layers of citizenship and political identity

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What symbolism might be expressed by Juan Sánchez’ use of torn and reconnected photographs in this print?
  2. What are your ideas about Sánchez’ choice to photograph a mural of a flag behind a railing rather than an actual banner for his image of the Puerto Rican flag?
  3. In what ways does the text included in the print affect the visual impact of the overall image?
  4. What are your thoughts about the benefits and the losses to children whose parents who move to the United States from other lands? 

RESOURCES

On the Artist:

Profile from Tamarind Institute

Art Methods:

MoMA: What is a Print?

Context:

Pew Research Center: Hispanics of Puerto Rican Origin in the United States, 2011