Latinx muralist Manuela Guillén uses her artwork to bring communities together
As an artist, Manuela Guillén understands the impact art can have and aspires to strengthen its impact.
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Born and raised primarily in Miami, Florida, to immigrant parents from Cuba and El Salvador, respectively, Guillén, she saw Latin culture heavily celebrated in her neighborhood and city.
Upon moving to Mays Landing, New Jersey, at the age of 16, she witnessed a stark contrast in how much Latin culture was celebrated there.
While the environment of the two cities were vastly different, a constant remained for Guillén in her love for art.
“I feel like a lot of my artwork is very influenced by the colors and plants,” she said in an interview with AL DÍA.
Growing up, she often felt ostracized by her peers and embarrassed to speak Spanish.
However, as she arrived in college, her Latinx culture and heritage became a heavier influence in her artwork and she began to embrace it much more.
When she was four years old, Guillén can recall watching a movie and being fascinated by the murals she saw throughout it. It was at that moment that she remembered thinking to herself, “I want to draw on walls.”
So, she grabbed a bunch of crayons and started drawing on the wall in her home. Despite getting in trouble for doing so, that was her earliest memory that triggered her desire to later become a mural artist.
Guillén also credits her sixth grade art teacher for helping her tap into that interest.
“She was really great, non judgmental, very freeing,” she said about that teacher. “She let me create what I wanted to make and she used to always have her art room open anytime I wanted to go.”
That art room would become an escape for her during her middle school years, as she endured various hardships both in school and at home.
It was in those years that art progressed from being an interest into a passion.
“I kept focusing on the skill and trying to find my own style… and voice in the art world,” said Guillén.
Throughout the years, Guillen has developed her artistic style as one that she describes as “intimate, soft, light pieces of work that uplift people during really hard times.”
In the same way she turned to art and creativity when she needed an escape, she hopes others can also look at her art pieces and find that same solace and light in dark situations.
While Guillén has lived most of her life in Miami and the United States, she’s also spent parts of her life living in Dominican Republic and Mexico.
As she’s tried immersing herself into her Latinx culture and heritage, there were times where Guillén hasn’t felt like “the perfect Latina,” noting how she wasn’t really fluent in the Spanish language.
So she started using her illustrations as a way to tap into her heritage and “making up for the things I felt like I wasn’t good at as a Latin woman,” she said.
However, the experience of living in Mexico for six months, speaking Spanish nearly all the time and seeing the different houses, streets, structures, colors and textiles that contrasted with what she was more familiar with in the U.S., shifted her mindset.
“My mom told me that when I came back from Mexico, she noticed my art changed,” Guillén said.
The colors used in her artwork became much brighter, and in turn, her inspiration grew.
“Art has made me accept more being this version of Latina,” said Guillén.
“There’s not a cookie cutter Latina out there. That’s something that needs to be said more,” she added.
In addition to her work as a muralist and artist, Guillén also works as a Spanish and Art teacher to 6th grade students.
Most of the students Guillén teaches are Latinx and some of them have expressed similar sentiments about being embarrassed about their accent, not being fluent in English or Spanish, or feel they aren’t “Latin enough.”
As someone who is relatable to those students, Guillén feels she can play an important role in helping overcome those beliefs.
“In the position I’m in as a teacher, I’m always very encouraging to others to try to uplift everybody,” she said.
Guillén uses her position as a teacher to help her students understand the vastness of the cultures and subcultures that exist within the Latinx community and to simply embrace them.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t see a lot of teachers like me. So I want to be that representation,” said Guillén.
“I know how important art is for many children and I really want to serve them the best,” she added.
Through art, Guillén creates assignments for her students that allow them to both express themselves, and also learn about themselves in the process.
On a more personal level, Guillén has used her artwork as a platform to bring awareness to art education, sociopolitical, and environmental issues.
“It’s just like a constant reminder for all of us to keep working towards a better world, a world that we want to live in and we can thrive in.”