Meet the Mexican-American artist challenging transphobia one performance at a time

The image provides an insight into his performance
An image of from Vicente’s performance called,“I hate America and America hates me” Image: provided by Vicente Ugartechea

By Shreya Bansal
Medill Reports

Three years ago, 30-year-old Vicente Ugartechea moved from Texas to Chicago, where he felt like he could express himself as a transsexual artist for the first time. Today, his paintings and performances are displayed in museums and centers in Chicago, New York, Vancouver, Finland, Berlin and Amsterdam. Some of his upcoming work includes KINK U, a performance that explores fetish and politics of sex, in Wisconsin and an exhibition titled “Sexuality at the Museum” at the Wilzig Erotic Art Museum in Miami. He talks about his life since he came out to his matriarchal Mexican family at 19, graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and started showing his work around the world.

Did you always want to become an artist?

I am a first-generation American from a Mexican family. I grew up in a matriarchy. My mom left my father when I was really young. My father’s family was racist and treated her badly because she was Mexican. They would say things like “marrying white was marrying better.” My mom instilled in us the idea of an education was really important. I was actually going to school to get my biology degree at the university of Texas, but I have always been artistic. My grandma would always draw in her free time, and I was always fascinated by it.

Also, growing up and realizing you’re a little bit queer and being exposed to someone like Frieda Kahlo was a huge thing for me. When I was getting my biology degree, I was doing well, but I was super depressed. So I gave up and started looking into art programs. I applied to University of North Texas and got in and then broke it to my mom.

How did your family react to you taking up art and leaving med school?

I am the fourth kid out of six, and I am very smart, so my mom always lifted me. She was so excited to have a doctor. It broke her heart when I quit med school. Also, I am gay, and transsexual, so It was a lot for her. I moved out and moved in with my sister when I was 18. I also came out as lesbian then, and my mother did not take that well. Then I came out as trans to my sister, and she kicked me out as well because that was too much for her. I was homeless for about two months. A friend’s family took me in. Even though I worked very hard, I am a product of all the communities that lifted me up. I wouldn’t be able to do this myself.

How has life changed since you moved to Chicago?

When I was still living in Texas, I was super closeted. The first month I got to Chicago I wasn’t walking around with tension for the first time. I wasn’t scared I was going to get assaulted or that people will scream slurs. Health care here in Chicago is better than in Texas, so I was able to have my surgery and access hormones. Before I moved to Rogers Park, I had not been around so many trans and queer people in my life. My neighbors were my best friends. They were trans people who took me in, and I learned more from them than I learned from school. When you don’t have the fear of being constantly erased and oppressed, the thought that you’ll be ridiculed for expressing yourself is gone.

Photo of the subject
“My existence is a radical act,” said Vicente who believes one’s identity is cannot be removed from their art. (Shreya BansalMEDILL)

What are the connotations of being a trans-Mexican American artist?

Sometimes institutions call for minorities and people like me to perform because they want you to portray your identity through a certain lens, which is trauma. But they want you to perform trauma in a certain way, and I refuse to do that because I see and experience the violence against trans people all the time. So going into a gallery and showing that type of trauma through my art doesn’t benefit me, and I don’t think it benefits them at all. I think, “How do I maintain my power, and still flip them a finger?” Other trans people don’t need to see other trans people killed. You’re just going to re-traumatize an audience that’s already traumatized.

Often the conversation about trans individuals revolves around their bodies. How do you deal with that while also being an artist?

People say weird stuff to me all the time. To my professors and people in the faculty in my college, I want to say, “I am showing you a piece of art, why are you asking me questions about my genitalia.” Recently, one person was like, “Because you’re trans, you have a vagina right?” I tell them, these are inappropriate questions to ask anyone, so I am not going to answer these questions. The responses are always, “I’m just trying to learn,” and I am like, “You have a phone, and you have Google.” I understand the curiousness, but I recommend doing your own research before approaching a trans person in that way, because these answers are readily available, and it is awful to do that to a person.

A picture of the subject's performances
An image of from Vicente’s performance called,“I hate America and America hates me” (provided by Vicente Ugartechea)

What does your art aim to do? How do you question power and privilege though your work?

My aim is to disseminate information. I actively don’t restrict my work within institutions and galleries. I don’t think I have performed inside a gallery in a year. I am speaking about empowerment, minorities, my own experiences. Galleries have a certain aura and privileges, only certain people go to those things and that’s not my target audience. The work needs to be outside, in other spaces.

Who are your all-time favorite artists?

Frieda Kahlo, my grand mom and my sister are my all-time favorite artists. I love my sister to death. She taught me the strengths of doing work when you needed to. These women taught me what it meant to be powerful and owning your identity. It was little glimpse of what could be, as opposed to just being this pretty girl and getting married.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Photo at top: Vicente aims to highlight how police owns trans bodies in his performance titled, El Baile de Popocatepetl & Iztaccíhuatl
Image: provided by Vicente Ugartechea. (Shreya Bansal/MEDILL)