more thoughts on place and identity

Hog butcher for the world, Tool maker, stacker of wheat, Player with railroads and the nation’s freight handler; Stormy, husky, brawling, City of big shoulders. Carl Sandburg, “Chicago,” 1916

The el tracks
encaustic mixed media
7×5 inches
Urban Dialogue collaboration with Angie McMonigal

This is the latest piece that I created in collaboration with Angie McMonigal, using her urban photographs. She wrote a post over on her blog that shows the original photos, which is really interesting to look at. Two different visual people, two perspectives, two different media…brought together to create something entirely new.

She had a series of photos taken from inside the el, outside of the el, and of the tracks and I just loved them all and knew that I wanted to do something with them. (By the way, yes, it’s formally the “L tracks”, but I’m being stubborn and sticking to “el tracks” as that’s how I think of it in my head and spell it when I do have to spell it out. I love the el. In college it was my freedom of leaving the confines of campus and getting into the city. When you’re riding it, you just feel Chicago. Of course, there were times when I hated that I had to take the el. In the middle of January waiting for a train really sucks. Or when you’re squished like sardines and you have to elbow someone to get out of your way to get off at your stop. Or when there’s a really bad smell and you’re pretty sure you know what it is, but don’t really want to think about it. Or there was that time when I was heckled by someone on how long it took me to figure out a clue on a crossword. That was irritating. But pretty funny, now that I look back on it.

Using her photos and actually looking back at my own work where I use my photos, I really have been thinking about how my thought process behind my works dwells often on themes of “place” and “identity”. I’ve been thinking lately- why?

Why does it matter to me? Why am I always thinking about place/identity? Is place intertwined with identity? If you feel rootless, then what does that do to your ability to self-identify? Why is this something that I think about a lot?? And I started to go back in time and recalling that throughout my life I have always felt like an outsider of some sort. Not belonging to any one place.

I am a daughter of immigrants, one from the Philippines and the other from Central America, who made their home in Maryland. I am of mixed ethnicity- mestiza they would call me in both of my parents’ countries of origin. I identify myself as American. This is where I was born and raised and that is what I am. When I am among filipinos, I am not considered filipino. When I among latinos, I am not that either. And here, in the United States, while not rare, my face is a curiousity of sorts. My first memory of being asked what I was or where I was from can be traced back to probably when I was 6 years old. And I am still asked those questions to this day. It doesn’t bother me…but it is something that say, my husband, being Irish American descent through and through, never has to deal with.

stranger: Where are you from?
me: Maryland
stranger: “No, where are you REALLY from?
me: oh uh, right outside of Washington, D.C.
stranger: no, no, WHAT are you?
me: oh, you mean, my ethnicity?!

Repeat several hundred times with several variations throughout my life and you get the gist. I mean, wouldn’t you start to feel like an odd duck?! It doesn’t get me mad, or offend me, people are just curious and sometimes don’t know how to phrase things the right way. And to be completely honest, sometimes people were offensive, but whatever. Luckily those didn’t happen all that often. But I started thinking that this repeated exchange has definitely influenced me in terms of how I identify myself and why it is has always been in the forefront of my brain.

One day I would really love to immerse myself in this theme- of identity of first generation mixed asian/hispanic female in America. One day…


  1. That could get annoying! Glad you just let it roll off. People are just curious I guess. Sometimes too much so.
    I love the piece. You are the only encaustic blog I have kept since I discovered I was highly allergic to it and couldn’t work in it. I was so upset I deleted everyone but you! I like your work too much.

    1. Thanks Roberta. Oh so sorry to hear that you’re allergic to it! I could see how that would be heartbreaking- thanks for keeping me around. Are you allergic to other wax type of products?

  2. I love this piece, actually loving the whole urban collaboration! I’m with you about the “el”, short for elevated. When I went to school in Chicago (late 60’s) I took the el every Tuesday from Rogers Park downtown to Marshall Fields and then walked over to the Art Institute and wandered the galleries all day. I still think of those times every time I’m in the city and see or hear the el. I also don’t think I’ve ever been as cold as waiting on an el platform in January! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you Carol! See, so many of us refer to it as the “el”, short for elevated. I wonder why that is? I used to live in Rogers Park in my early 20s- by the Morse el stop. Thank you for sharing your el story. Yeah, standing on the platforms midwinter can be brutal. brrrrrrrr

  3. I really love this piece. What an interesting story also. When I was a kid I always wished I had some sort of ethnicity to identify with. I was envious of people like you. I am pure American mutt through and through. Its interesting to hear that you have two very specific ethnicities but still do not really identify with either one of the them. Americans.

  4. Such a wonderful piece. Reminds me of both the strength and the wear & tear of the city. You do collaborations right! Of course I know that from personal experience too.

  5. This piece is stunning and one of my favorites now! I totally get your dwellings on place/identity ~ I have always put lots of thought there,too, but it’s because I have never stayed in one place very long so I relate to the outsider feelings.
    You are doing such amazing work, I’m so happy that you share!

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