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Arnaldo Roche: Painting the Soul of Puerto Rico’s Cultural Identity

The enduring impact of postcolonial oppression can profoundly influence individuals, leading them on a transformative voyage of self-exploration. Within the realm of human existence, art in its diverse manifestations acts as a channel for articulating the unyielding determination to resist and the steadfast endurance of communities. It is a potent means through which artists can shape and reimagine their individual stories, ultimately regaining control over their narratives and lived experiences. In the context of the 21st century, the influence of postcolonialism has cast a discerning light on antiquated systems, compelling a critical examination of deeply ingrained social and political issues (Mignolo, 2010; Sales, 2021). Consequently, art has metamorphosed into a potent political force, acquiring a distinctive political dimension. In other words, contemporary art has evolved to possess a heightened political relevance and significance. This evolution underscores the transformative potential of art in addressing pressing societal concerns. Artists harness their creative expressions to challenge prevailing power structures, amplify marginalized voices, and engage in dialogues that facilitate progress toward a more equitable and inclusive world.

This article embarks on a comprehensive examination of the dynamic interplay between art and politics within the contemporary landscape. It underscores the remarkable capacity of artists, across a spectrum of creative expressions, to harness the transformative potential inherent in their craft. This, in turn, enables them to exert a profound influence on the reconstruction and redefinition of their narratives. In this context, art emerges as an indispensable conduit through which individuals not only reclaim agency over their stories and life experiences but also engage in the intricate process of cultural identity formation. Therefore, this article will center its attention on Arnaldo Roche Rabell, a Puerto Rican artist renowned for his neo-expressionist style, as well as his utilization of self-portraits and landscapes as vehicles for depicting his cultural identity. Moreover, this exploration will place an enhanced emphasis on the symbiotic relationship between art, politics, and culture. It underscores the pivotal role it plays in shaping and representing the cultural identity of both individuals and communities. It will delve into how art, when fused with political and cultural dimensions, becomes a formidable force in the construction and articulation of cultural identities. It serves as a reflection of the values, beliefs, and collective experiences of a community, thereby contributing to a deeper understanding of the nuanced fabric of societal identity.

In doing so, this article aims to shed light on the intricate ways in which artistic expressions intertwine with political and cultural contexts. These interactions serve to not only define but also challenge and redefine the essence of cultural identity in our contemporary world. Nonetheless, this examination of cultural identity through art in a postcolonial context will center on the issue of identity development and portrayal in Latin America, with a particular emphasis on Puerto Rico. Particularly through an exploration of the artworks by Arnaldo Roche Rabell, who presents a diverse array of pieces on this subject. This focus is particularly pertinent due to the region's history of racial intermingling, resulting in a diverse and distinctive population.

Figure 1: The Garden of Intolerance: In the End, Like Fathers, Like Mad Men, Like Heroes (Roche, 2002).

Hybridity in Puerto Rico and Its Role in Identity Formation

Within the context of Latin America and specifically Puerto Rico, the concept of hybridity has been of paramount importance in understanding the historical evolution of its diverse population. Stuart Hall directs his focus toward this intricate aspect by elucidating that cultural identity in the region is not a fixed or unchanging entity. Instead, it is intricately woven into a broader and ongoing process of transformation and self-definition (Hall, 2015; Hall, 2021). As such, hybridity in Latin America serves as a compelling lens through which to comprehend the multifaceted nature of its cultural identity. This phenomenon arises from the complex interplay of indigenous, European, African, and other influences that have shaped the region over centuries. As such, it represents a dynamic and continually evolving fusion of traditions, values, and customs. Stuart Hall's insights underscore the dynamic nature of cultural identity in Latin America. It is not a monolithic construct but rather an ever-evolving entity that adapts and redefines itself in response to changing circumstances and influences. This perspective challenges conventional notions of fixed cultural identities. It invites individuals to explore the rich history of Latin American culture as an ever-evolving process of "becoming and being". In doing so, we gain a deeper appreciation for the resilience and adaptability of the region's people in the face of historical complexities and ongoing cultural transformations.

To extend our exploration of this topic, we will employ a semiotic approach, which entails a thorough examination of visual representations by dissecting their intrinsic meanings (Rose, 2016). Through this method, we engage in the deconstruction of images, scrutinizing their constituent elements and components individually. By doing so, we can unravel the underlying significance embedded within these visuals and subsequently establish connections to more extensive systems of knowledge. This semiotic analysis functions as a valuable instrument for uncovering the hidden depths of meaning within visual images. It allows us to decode the subtle messages and symbols conveyed by visual elements. Ultimately, it illuminates the larger contexts and cultural symbols that influence our comprehension of the subject matter under consideration. Essentially, this approach enables us to delve beneath the surface of visual representation in the artwork of Arnaldo Roche Rabell. It reveals the intricate network of meanings and associations that contribute to the formation of our shared knowledge. Consequently, it will enable this article to explore how art can articulate the ongoing evolution of cultural identity in Puerto Rico and Latin America as a whole based on the perspective of the artist.

Figure 2: Puerto Rican flag flies in San Juan on February 9, 2022.

Hybridity in the Art of Arnaldo Roche Rabell

Art has played an indelible role throughout human history, with certain artists emerging as exemplary characters of various artistic movements and contextual situations. In particular, within the realm of cultural identity, some artists have chosen to embark on a profound exploration of their personal experiences and identity through their artistic endeavors. This exploration is intertwined with the intricate process of hybridity prevalent in Latin America. Among these remarkable creators is Arnaldo Roche Rabell, an Afro-Antillean artist hailing from Puerto Rico, where he was born in the year 1955. Roche Rabell has etched his name in the annals of art history as one of the foremost figures within the neo-expressionist movement. Within his artistic expressions, Arnaldo Roche Rabell delves deep into the profound significance of identity as an unceasing and perpetual quest (Cabanillas, 2005; Hobbs, 1996; McCarthy & Dimitriadis, 2000). Through his artistic oeuvre, he poignantly reflects on his journey in search of identity as a denizen of Puerto Rico, a territory ensnared in the complex web of colonialism. In his thought-provoking creations, he skilfully unravels the multifaceted repercussions of colonialism on both his reality and the collective identity of his homeland.

Moreover, within the canvas of his artistry, Roche Rabell unearths and exposes the suppressed African identity embedded in the Caribbean. Simultaneously, he sheds light on the pivotal role played by European colonization in shaping this diverse and mixed population. McCarthy and Dimitriadis (2000) elucidate that engaging with the artistry of Arnaldo Roche Rabell offers an alternative lens through which to perceive reality, compelling us to reimagine the contours of the future. In essence, his work serves as a profound testament to the enduring power of art in elucidating the complexities of cultural identity. It also acts as a catalyst for redefining the path forward for society as a whole.

Figure 3: Arnaldo Roche Rabell (n.d.).

Arnaldo Roche Rabell and His Artwork We Have to Dream in Blue

To gain a deeper insight into hybridity within the Puerto Rican context, we will analyze a specific artwork by Arnaldo Roche Rabell, titled We Have to Dream in Blue. Created by Arnaldo Roche Rabell in 1986, this piece stands as one of the most renowned works in his artistic portfolio. Central to its visual allure is the depiction of a Black figure adorned with striking deep blue eyes.

The initial aspect pertains to the artwork's title, We Have to Dream in Blue. One notable element is the commanding tone conveyed by the phrase "we have to", which implies a directive directed at the viewer, suggesting a specific manner of dreaming necessary to achieve a positive outcome. In this context, "dreaming in blue" signifies envisioning a brighter future for the depicted individual. As argued by Gera (2010), the title hints at the idea that this person feels compelled to dream in a manner prescribed by a dominant culture characterized by its distinct ethnic and cultural traits. Importantly, this painting holds the potential for a political interpretation. It suggests that the depicted individual must adapt to this dominant culture, vastly different from their own, to assimilate and enhance their prospects for a better future. Neglecting this directive carries adverse consequences, including a heightened experience of prejudice and marginalization within society. This imperative serves as an upfront cautionary message, underscoring the pressure on individuals to conform to the standards imposed by the dominant culture, which can significantly shape their life paths and opportunities.

However, it becomes evident that the depicted individual carries a heritage that is richly blended and complex. Within the composition, a character emerges, representing none other than Arnaldo Roche Rabell himself, as noted by Hobbs (1996). Roche Rabell appears to be engaged in a profound journey of self-discovery, an odyssey aimed at comprehending the intricacies of his upbringing in Puerto Rico as a descendant of the Afro-Antillean heritage. This central figure possesses several distinct characteristics commonly associated with individuals of African descent, including the presence of Afro-textured hair, a deep skin tone, and full lips. Notably, the representation of hair in the artwork subtly blurs the boundaries of color, allowing us to discern a textured, coiled hair pattern, a feature frequently observed among African descendants. Yet, what piques the curiosity is the striking presence of bright blue eyes in this individual. Such eye color is not typically a prominent trait among individuals of Black heritage. This contrast of blue eyes against the backdrop of other features associated with African ancestry hints at the presence of racial mixing within this individual's heritage. In essence, this individual embodies the complexity of a mixed heritage, symbolizing a fusion of diverse cultural and racial elements. Roche Rabell's exploration of his own identity in this artwork becomes a testament to the intricate interplay of diverse influences that have shaped his sense of self and cultural belonging.

Figure 4: We Have to Dream in Blue (Roche, 1986).

Overall, the artwork titled We Have to Dream in Blue serves as a poignant representation. It portrays the arduous journey undertaken by African descendants as they grapple with the intricate task of defining their individual and collective identities. This struggle is deeply intertwined with the harsh reality of inhabiting a society riddled with racism. In such a society, Black individuals often find themselves compelled to conform to societal norms dictated by a predominantly white and Eurocentric dominant group. This dominant group frequently projects a sense of superiority, imposing its standards on those who do not conform, thereby subjecting them to discrimination and marginalization.

In this context, Arnaldo Roche Rabell's art provides a deep understanding of the complex interaction between personal challenges and societal issues experienced by the people of Puerto Rico. This narrative often extends to encompass the broader reality of Latin America. It underscores the significant predicament faced by an entire society struggling to authentically express its shared identity. Consequently, Arnaldo Roche Rabell's artwork starkly contrasts the genuine core of one's identity with the facade one is forced to assume in the pursuit of security and social approval. Furthermore, Stuart Hall's concept of identity as an ongoing voyage can be viewed as intersecting with these concepts. According to this theory, Black individuals are confronted with the challenge of simultaneously embracing and safeguarding their Black identity while navigating the expectations and demands imposed on them by the dominant society. This dual awareness of their identity, compounded by continuous external pressures, gives rise to a multifaceted struggle in self-definition. The individual depicted in the artwork appears to be under pressure in their current reality. As a person of mixed heritage, they symbolize the daily challenges they encounter while also elucidating that their identity is rooted in a complex lineage, with significant implications for their future.

Figure 5: Total Eclipse of the Sun (Roche, 2018).


In conclusion, We Have to Dream in Blue by Arnaldo Roche Rabell stands as a potent critique of the enduring social and political struggles endured by citizens of Puerto Rico. With striking clarity, it portrays the weight of their ongoing battle, their historical consciousness, and their unyielding commitment to reshaping their identity within the confines of a dominant culture that often oppresses them. Their collective aspiration is to forge a brighter and more just future. Furthermore, Arnaldo Roche Rabell's art is a reflection of his journey and that of his community, intertwined with questions about his role in society and the fusion of traits from his diverse ancestry.

However, this postcolonial reimagining of art empowers individuals to author their narratives, envision alternative futures, and express their evolving self-identities, both as individuals and within their communities. This process, captured through Arnaldo Roche Rabell's brush strokes, serves as a testament to the enduring resilience and creativity that emerges in the face of cultural and societal challenges. As we delve into these narratives and brush against the canvas of diverse experiences, we are invited to consider how art can broaden our horizons, foster empathy, and ignite awareness about the intricate tapestry of societal realities that shape our world.

Bibliographical References

Cabanillas, F. (2005). Arnaldo Roche: africanía a dos voces. Centro Journal, 17(2), 42-71.

Gera, J. (2010). The Search for Identity in the Art of Ana Mendieta and Arnaldo Roche Rabell.

Hall, S. (2015). Cultural Identity and Diaspora. In Colonial discourse and post-colonial theory (pp. 392-403). Routledge.

Hall, S. (2021). ten “Africa” Is Alive and Well in the Diaspora: Cultures of Resistance: Slavery, Religious Revival and Political Cultism in Jamaica [1975]. In Selected Writings on Race and Difference (pp. 161-194). Duke University Press.

Hobbs, R. (1996). Arnaldo Roche-Rabell: The Uncommonwealth. University of Washington Press.

McCarthy, C., & Dimitriadis, G. (2000). Art and the postcolonial imagination: rethinking the institutionalization of third world aesthetics and theory. ARIEL: A Review of International English Literature, 31(1-2).

Mignolo, W. D. (2010). Aiesthesis decolonial. Calle 14: Revista de investigación en el campo del arte, 4(4), 10-25.

Rose, G. (2016). Visual Methodologies. Fourth edition.

Sales, M. (2021) Our Ghosts Have Come to Collect: Decolonial Turn in Contemporary Brazilian Art.

Visual Sources


Author Photo

Dane Prins

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