Fragile History

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The Ceramic Works of
Jessica Denise Villegas

Words by Josue Rawmirez, edited by Gisela Zuniga

Close up of El Destierro ceramic vase by Jessica Denise Villegas

Jessica Villegas’ work shows a deep understanding and reverence for the history that shapes her life. Her ceramic series “Reclamando La Tierra” offers a window into her experiences of displacement and how it weaves into the larger tapestry of historical trauma in the Rio Grande Valley.

Jessica Denise Villegas Headshot
Jessica Denise Villegas in her studio

Villegas’ story with the Valley starts when her family moved cross country back to their South Texas/Northern Mexican roots because of her father’s Army job. She describes her introduction to the RGV as a culture shock in comparison to life in Indiana. “I don’t really remember any other Latinos when I lived up north. All my parents’ friends were either African-American or white people,” Villegas recalls. In elementary school in the Valley, she noticed the differences in classmates’ personalities and the school culture. “It was like my world was turned upside down” she states. “It took me a really long time to understand who I was and I had an inner battle with myself for a really long time.” Little by little she was introduced into the different ways that people speak, act and carry themselves in the RGV, in art and in life.

Her mother’s jewelry-making played part of her creative upbringing. Thrift store and flea market sprees for bags of beads and chains to desbaratar and put back together was how she knew she had a skill for the arts. She eventually developed a great admiration for artesanias. “I saw how colorful and imaginative these pieces were… and how people really were attracted to them. That’s where my creative interests really took off,” she mentions.

“The catalyst to becoming the artist I am now was taking my first Mexican-American Studies class,” mentions Villegas. Her first Mexican-American studies class at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley introduced her to Mexican-American thinkers and scholars like Americo Paredes, Gloria Anzaldua, and Cherrie Moraga. She was blown away.  Exploring ethnic studies connected her to fellow artists from the community. “From there, it was from zero to a hundred. I started taking art classes. I fell into ceramics and I was no good at it but I loved it,” mentions Villegas.

Molding ceramic material by hand, infusing it with feeling, and shaping a three-dimensional piece beyond something to be viewed on a wall is what attracted Villegas the most about this medium. “It becomes a part of the environment. It holds up its own space and almost becomes another being in the room,” she reflects. While the outcome of her work is always planned, the ceramicist never lets her perfectionism get in the way. “I feel like the more organic and more free you let your work be, the more it will speak about what you are trying to accomplish.”

Jessica Denise Villegas molding clay
Jessica Denise Villegas molding clay

Creating something out of earth to reflect her roots is immensely grounding for Villegas. Her studies and her art all came together her sophomore year of college when she started making pieces around RGV history. ”It really ignited a flame within me that I didn’t know I had. Although I could share this history with everybody else, it still felt like a unique narrative because it was through my perspective and point of view.” Her engagement with her ethnic studies coursework is all visible in her BFA collection Reclamando La Tierra, that captures the impact history has on contemporary lived experiences. Reclamando La Tierra showcases 4 large ceramic vessels representing a timeline of radically influential moments in RGV history. The first thing anyone can see is each piece’s massive size. To her, the size emphasizes “[a sense of] presence in the room” because of the important and often overlooked histories they embody.

Full length Destierro ceramic vase
Artwork and photo by Jessica Denise Villegas

The first piece of the series,  El Destierro, is a 4 foot tall vase of glazed red clay earthenware with a patina that gives it an aged feel. It is topped by a lid decorated with a Mexican eagle figure landing on a nopal. The body of the vessel is covered in intricate roots and features a quote in both English and Spanish from famous local theorist Gloria Anzaldua: “we were jerked out by the roots, truncated, disemboweled, disposed and separated from our identity and history.”

El Destierro evokes the physical, emotional and mental uprooting of Native Communities, Tejanos and Mexicanos after the involuntary secession of the region to the United States through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Villegas believes this was “one of the most impactful [moments of our region] because it really determined how we are perceived in the present.” Author Americo Paredes described the treaty as the “final element to the Rio Grande society” because the river became a dividing line, putting the region in limbo. This balance of belonging and not belonging to the United States or to Mexico was, according to Gloria Anzaldua, a state of Nepantla. Derived from the Nahuatl word for “in between,” it is a place where multiple possibilities coexist, including the potential for transition.  For Villegas, the challenging and lengthy work of building this piece allowed her to reflect “that despite this treacherous history, we are fighting to surpass it.”

La Matanza ceramic vase
Photo of La Matanza, by the Jessica Denisse Villegas

La Matanza is the biggest and second piece in the timeline. It has the most striking imagery. The urn-like shape shows bodies facedown, their arms above their head, as if hanging, referencing the indiscriminate lynching of Mexicans and Tejanos in the early 1900s by the Texas Rangers. The figures are cut off at the torso by a noose that chokes the mouth of the vessel and slithers to coil repeatedly at the base. The lid is topped by a sculpture of a bare “hanging tree” surrounded by skulls. 

La Matanza can be uncomfortable to look at at first glance. The Texas Rangers’ motto of “Shoot now and ask questions later” normalized lynchings in the region. These state-sanctioned killings were often used to seize property from Mexican Americans, as described by one Laredo newspaper in 1910: “the old [Tejano] proprietors were forced to work as laborers on the same lands that used to belong to them.” These massacres forced the transfer of land and wealth away from Mexicans, Tejanos and Mexican-Americans to white northerners, which left a permanent mark on many families still living in the Rio Grande Valley today.

El Camino de Hierro ceramic vase
El Camino de Hierro by Jessica Denise Villegas

El Camino del Hierro, the third piece of the series, starts a conversation about labor and industrialization. Villegas’ piece references the Bracero Program of Mexican day-laborers that upheld the U.S. domestic food stream during World War II, an integral part of the mid 20th century RGV economy. The Bracero Program also solidified industry norms that continue to treat migrant farmworkers as sources of disposable labor. The vase features a railroad track that curves from top to bottom, paralleled by rows of seedlings that transform into falling bombs. An image of a uniformed skeleton reaches out, beckoning as it is surrounded by the explosives. The lid of the piece features a headstone that reads “It was a time of suffering.” The tomb is lined with a bounty of agriculture including grapes, melons, citrus and sugarcane. El Camino del Hierro is an altar and offering to the many local Tejanos and to immigrant Mexicans who were unable to enjoy the fruits of their labor during their lifetime in the mid 20th century, and today. The introduction of railroads and subsequent expansion of Anglo-led agricultural industry diminished the local ranching economy and natural scenery of the Rio Grande Valley for massive agribusiness.

La Perseverancia, a vase shaped like a cactus and inscribed with a quote about perseverance
La Perseverancia by Jessica Denise Villegas

The last piece of this timeline, La Perseverancia, is vastly different in shape and color than the previous three. The piece has a bulbous shape with pointy spikes, and uses the same crawling glaze, texture and green color as the nopal in the first piece. Its lid is topped by a set of cacti with an oversized red flower in bloom. Villegas inscribed the vase body with the saying “a pesar de todo aquí estamos y aquí nos quedaremos, en nuestra tierra,” with the English translation on the opposite side. Villegas sees La Perseverancia as representative of the strength and “the heart of the people who have continued to seek representation and better lives for themselves and their families” in the Valley. The vase represents today, the present state of the Valley where we thrive and radiate in the sun alongside and with the natural world around us.

Villegas’ ceramic art brings the history of our region to life through emotionally striking life-size sculptures. The historical timeline of the vases’ imagery doubly document her growth as an artist and as someone who uses art to challenge anti-immigrant narratives, particularly when many people aren’t aware of these histories. “I spoke to my mom about the U.S.-Mexico War, the lynchings in the 1910s, and she was unaware of most of [these historical events]. She’s lived in the RGV most of her adult life, so it was odd when I was teaching her these things…I’m not even originally from here.” This experience is not limited to Villegas and her family – many generations of local families have been institutionally detached from local history, whether through not learning about these topics in local public school curriculums or by simply never being introduced to it. It speaks to the cycle of erasing the history of people of color and their understanding of themselves and their community. More efforts have been made in recent years to actively highlight local history of Mexican Americans and other ethnic groups in the RGV, but there is still much more work that needs to be done.

Many forces, from colonization, industrialization, and border militarization have uprooted and subjugated the peoples living here, draining the resources, labor, and life of local people. The groups most deeply affected by this are folks Indigenous to this area, like the Estok G’na, to asylum seekers and migrants choosing this place to call home. Our community’s roots, however, run deep, feeding themselves from the water of the Rio Bravo after every injustice, century after century, to rise and bloom once again. Villegas’ vases honor that cycle of regeneration, they serve to hold RGV history and tradition.

To learn more about her work visit: https://jdenisevillegas.com, and take a look at the photo gallery below with more images of her artwork.

Follow her on Instagram at @jdenisevillegas and look out for her digital drawings on Trucha’s Instagram!

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