You may call her work photorealism with her sharp focus images or even surrealism with dreamlike motifs. But her artistic vision crosses genres. Born in the U.S. to a Puerto Rican father and a Guatemalan mother, resistance and empathy run through Patricia Perez’s blood.
Perez was three years old in 1983 when she picked up her first pen and notebook. Fascinated with the process of drawing spirals, this practice permitted Perez to enjoy and cement the last bittersweet moments of her grandfather’s life in her memory.
Perez says she has been unconsciously painting her resilience with every breath she takes for her whole life. “This is how I breathe. Literally and figuratively, you need to control your breath to paint,” says Perez.
After moving out of Lakeview in 2005 due to the merciless rent increases caused by gentrification, Perez found her community in Humboldt Park, where many artists were settling.
At that time, Humboldt Park was plagued with a lack of access to educational resources available in more affluent neighborhoods, says Perez. She minored in Latin American studies in college and fused new insights with her art to bring cultural awareness to her viewers.
“I draw inspiration from the stories that I hear and the stories that resonate with not just me but with the experiences of my own family. I learned in that process that your story is my story.”
What sets Perez apart from so many artists? “She is very passionate about what she does. It will take her across the world,” says artist John Vergara, Muralist and long-time friend of Perez. And across the American continent, she went.
The wheels of the train of death screeched in her ears as she laid her backpacks on the floor of her hotel room in Nogales, Arizona, ready to cross into Mexico in the opposite direction that most Latin Americans head.
The small U.S. town of Nogales shares a border and the same name
as a town on the other side – Nogales, Mexico. It’s Oct. 7, 2022, and after months of preparations, Patricia Perez is only a 15-minute walk away from the US-Mexico border wall.
At night, the eerie feeling of the infrared homing planes persists, turning documented and undocumented into a single fearful entity. Even as an American citizen, Perez could not shake that discomfort away.
On the Mexican side of that wall exists a school trying to fund its roof repairs to prevent heat strokes. Perez found herself surrounded by dozens of kids and began teaching them how to draw and paint. Little did she know that the stars would align as she noticed a 12-year-old girl hyper-focused on her coloring sheet. Her gut flinched as she approached the kid with hesitation.
“Hey, would you like to paint with me?” asks Perez in Spanish.
“Yes,” says the child.
“Have you painted before?” asks Perez.
“No,” says the child.
“Okay, well, we’re learning together!” says Perez.
She was pleasantly surprised by this child’s skills as they went through the process of drawing and painting a hummingbird.
She asks, “Are you sure you have never done this before?” The kid shook her head with a firm no.
A light sparked when Perez realized, “She’s an artist, and she doesn’t even know she’s an artist!”
After gathering up some art supplies and handing them to the girl’s father, Perez inquired about the family name. Not so coincidentally, that kid’s name is Perez.
“I saw myself in this kid!” says Perez. She stays in close contact with the family, and they provide each other with regular updates on little Perez’s artistic talents.
Perez continued to work closely with different organizations in that quest to cultivate solidarity. On Oct. 1, 2023, during a Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America initiative, Perez joined Kiara Machado in Honduras for a mural project binding youth community from all parts of the country.
“We balanced each other really well,” says Machado.
The ritual of creating art and healing wouldn’t be over without music and dancing. Machado testifies to Perez’s liberating dance moves on the floor as they celebrated the finalization of their mural.
Perez now sees herself through her grandmother’s eyes. She is the artist that her grandmother couldn’t be. Her eyes flicker, and her voice cracks up as she tells the story of her latest visit to Guatemala with her son. After 23 years, it was time for her grandmother, Cupertina Reyes Miranda, to be immersed in her granddaughter’s passion.
Without a plan but with a few art supplies, Perez headed up to the mausoleum and painted a monarch butterfly mural above her grandmother’s resting place. As she packed up to head back
home, a monarch butterfly glimmered on her left side, holding her grandmother’s whispers: you are going to be okay.
“I left with this overwhelming sense of gratitude. In her time, it was not possible for a woman to paint, make money from it, and build a quality life for herself, but I made it into a reality for myself.”
Cover Photo: Patricia Perez posing with her grandmother’s sewing machine in front of her painting, Into the Unknown, 2022. Perez says she sees in herself the artist her grandmother’s life didn’t allow her to become. The sewing machine was part of her grandmother’s daily life as a craftswoman.
(Photo credit: Audrey Azzo)
Audrey Azzo is a Lebanese-American graduate student journalist at Northwestern Medill. Her main areas of interests are Arab feminism, homelessness, environmental justice and immigration.
IL Latino News partners with Medill School of Journalism in providing students mentoring and real work experiences.