For his solo exhibition “Immigrant Mentality” at the Paradigm art gallery, Sean Lugo drew from his own experience as the son of an immigrant mother from Cuba and a Puerto Rican father.
He grew up in Weehawken, New Jersey, surrounded by immigrants from South America and the Caribbean.
“I was pretty much raised by all immigrants where I grew up. I had many mothers and they were all from different Latin countries,” said Lugo. “We had Ecuadorian mothers, Colombian mothers, Dominican mothers, Cuban mothers, Puerto Rican mothers. Wherever we went, we were blessed. We always had people looking out for us.”
To evoke that community, he turned half of the gallery space into a bodega.
“Bodega to me is like a family,” said Lugo. “You wind up knowing the owners, the owners’ kids work there, everyone winds up knowing your name. They remember your birthday. It’s kind of like you’re home away from home. Everyone’s always got each other’s back in a bodega.”
The rear of the gallery has a stockpile of prayer candles (veladoras) illustrated with Lugo’s own sly version of religious imagery: His signature style is replacing the heads of human figures with heads of teddy bears. A soda machine in the corner is covered with graffiti stickers, and topped with stacked rolls of toilet paper wrapped in packaging designed by Lugo.
Lugo, who says he grew up dyslexic, gravitated toward comic books as a child because of the illustrations. One of his fondest bodega memories is going to New York with his father and shopping for comics in a corner store.
So, in the bodega he imagined for Paradigm, one wall is filled with comic books, the superhero on each cover redesigned by Lugo with a teddy bear head.
On top of a glass case, filled with packages of candy and stickers, is a life-size wooden cutout of a cat.
“We can’t have a real bodega cat, so I cut one out of wood,” he said.
Just like in a real bodega, everything here is for sale. Although not at bodega prices — these are, after all, original pieces of art — Lugo priced them affordably: sticker packs are $20, comic books are $200. Even the cat can be had for $300.
Lugo comes out of street art, where as Sean 9 Lugo he developed his vision for wheatpasting teddy bear heads, which is both an act of parody – putting a stuffed bear head on the body of a ferocious and buxom comic book heroine – and as homage. One of his paintings in the front room is a woman cutting an orange on a chopping block. The woman represents Cristina Martinez, the immigrant, chef, and undocumented workers’ rights activist who operates the popular South Philly Barbacoa restaurant.
Martinez posed for Lugo, who later replaced her head with that of a teddy bear.
“[She] feeds hundreds of homeless people a day, and has her own business as an immigrant,” said Lugo. “I really wanted to capture someone who I think is extremely powerful in Philadelphia.”
The front room of Paradigm features Lugo’s paintings of immigrants in the act of crossing borders, such as the a family holding hands running across the face of the canvas, mimicking the “crossing immigrants” highway signs seen in Southern California near the Mexican border, where a high number of immigrants get hit by cars while trying to cross Interstate 5.
The opposite wall features images of the lives of immigrants after they arrive: cutting hair in a barber shop, hauling bananas in a pickup truck, working in a restaurant, and doing laundry.
The image of a woman folding laundry is meant to represent Lugo’s mother, now deceased, who cleaned houses after she immigrated from Cuba as a teenager. The woman who posed for the picture, in place of Lugo’s mother, was Lugo’s mother-in-law, an immigrant from Poland. She, too, had worked as a cleaning woman.
The “Immigrant Mentality” of the show’s title references the acts of crossing borders, working in a new and unfamiliar country, and then raising a family there. As a first-generation descendant of immigrants, Lugo says the experiences of the parents finds its way into the children.
“You think differently. You don’t think like the average American,” he said. “You’re being brought up with those roots. You’re not just being taught English. You’re being taught Spanish and English. It’s like you’re getting everything that your parents have, and more.”
“I feel like the immigrant mentality is the ‘cheat code’ to reality,” he continued. “You’re experiencing more than the average person is. You’re getting more for your buck. You’re getting educated differently.”
“Immigrant Mentality” is on view at Paradigm until August 22.
Get daily updates from WHYY News!