The Salvadoran War lasted 12 horrific years (1979-1992), during which time civilians were terrorized by death squads and children were recruited to be soldiers. An unknown number of people disappeared, more than 75,000 were killed and 500,000 fled the country.
Among those who left were the parents of Oscar Rene Cornejo. The artist’s “White Flag: Salvadoran Remnants” is on view at the Bernstein Gallery, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, through April 7, with a reception Friday, March 10, at 6 p.m. The artist will give a talk, followed by remarks by Charles Krause, the award-winning former Washington Post bureau chief for Latin America.
Born in Houston, Texas, in 1982, Cornejo creates woodblock prints and constructions, alternating between abstraction and historical realism. The Salvadoran Civil War was a war he never knew personally; he calls it his parents’ war. And yet the second-generation after effects, and being torn between two cultures, is very much his own.
Growing up, Spanish was spoken exclusively in his home and English was spoken in school, but nobody ever talked about why the family left El Salvador. “They were traumatized and wanted to leave it in the past,” protecting their children, Cornejo recounts from his home in Brooklyn.
“I didn’t find out it about until I was 19,” Cornejo says. After the attacks on September 11, he began questioning U.S. foreign policy. “I cared for the first time about history and became extremely obsessed about U.S. policy in Latin America.” With access to the internet and New York University archives, “I started seeing images of the living conditions my parents left.” It reminded him of when he and his siblings would whine to their parents, and the parents would speak about their own hardships.
“The woodcuts are me responding to these images, reclaiming them, redrawing and re-creating part of my history I didn’t know existed,” Cornejo says. “It’s pretty outrageous — I’m only one generation removed and I didn’t know about this, and it’s why I’m here.”
Even as Cornejo’s curiosity grew, his parents were reluctant to answer questions, but he persisted and bits and pieces came out. His parents had to leave school after second grade because students were labeled dissidents and insurgents. His parents were compelled to work, as children, to put food on the table. “They lost their friends and their teachers, until the atmosphere was so polarized they had to leave.”
But even living in the U.S., “At a young age we developed a relationship to labor—we were all on the same team to make the household run, working with my mom to help her clean houses and then with my dad in construction.” His home was a loving one, even though everyone was working all the time. “We were on our own, raising ourselves as my parents worked two to three jobs. It was a constant struggle, staying in school and focusing while taking care of the house and paying bills.”
Of his siblings, Cornejo says “four of us were from the same litter” (from the same mother and father), although his oldest sister remained in El Salvador with a grandmother — she later moved to Virginia, where Cornejo’s mother resettled while his father remained in Houston. His father remarried and had three boys, and his mother remarried and had another daughter.
When Oscar was 12, the family took a trip to El Salvador and got to know his big sister whom he had previously known only through phone conversations. The trip to his ancestral village, with houses made of mud and straw, was a bit of a culture shock: he had grown accustomed to hot running water and plumbing. It made him realize the privileges he had taken for granted, but he enjoyed being on farms with animals and being with his family in this context. “There was a body language here that I hadn’t experienced in the U.S., it felt like a relinking.”
As a youngster, Cornejo always drew. “It was a way of connecting with people.” His uncle, imprisoned for a reason Cornejo never understood, would send drawings on handkerchiefs. “I didn’t know anyone else in the family who drew, and my uncle became like a pen pal — we had these drawing exchanges. It was a way of communicating through art, and I stuck with it.”
In school he found community in the art department. His high school had a strong art department that recognized his abilities.
He applied to a pre-college, six-week summer program at the Rhode Island School of Design, earning a scholarship to cover tuition, housing, food, and supplies, but his parents did not want him to go. “‘Who would give you anything for free?’” he recounts their asking. “‘How are you going to make a living — you can’t eat the drawings.’ So I had to go against their will.”
The only thing the scholarship didn’t cover was his airfare, so he sold drawings as a fundraiser for his tickets. Once there “I was hooked. I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. I hunkered down to focus on developing myself as an artist.” From there he went to Cooper Union, getting awards and recognition that helped to build his confidence.
One of his mentors at Cooper Union told him that history is made every day. “A building can blow up,” the mentor said. Indeed that day, September 11, 2001, a building blew up. “So I questioned my role as an artist. It was an existential crisis: How can I be in the studio when these things are going on?” He applied for grants to take his ideas out of the studio and put into practice. This included a trip to Mexico in 2004, renovating an abandoned space, and turning it into the Latin American Community Art Project, a cultural center where artists could connect to the community through workshops.
With a Randolph Hearst Scholarship in his freshman year, he went backpacking in Central America, winding up in the village where his mother grew up, and, four years later, turning her house into a residence for the Latin American Community Art Project, with free studio space and art classes for the immediate community.
Cornejo would work on and off with his father in construction, saving up to return to the program he had set up in El Salvador. With his uncles he did roofing, and looking at some of his constructions on the walls of the Bernstein Gallery, a viewer sees references to this work.
But Cornejo wanted to spend more than six weeks at a time in El Salvador, and a Fulbright Scholarship enabled him to spend a year-and-a-half. He brought in international artists to exchange ideas with the local artists and set up a print shop.
In 2008 Cornejo returned to the U.S., just in time for the financial crisis. Unable to get funding he thought maybe he would go to graduate school in cultural anthropology, given his interests in post-conflict zones, but when he was accepted to the MFA program at Yale he knew it was the path to take.
Cornejo went on to create exhibition-themed workshops at the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston, coordinating tours, then became a resident at the Skowhegan School in Maine and eventually coordinated the fresco apprentice program there. These days he’s an adjunct at Cooper Union, teaching advanced drawing; gives tours of the Studio Museum of Harlem, and works summers at Skowhegan.
“If I had my way, I’d still be in El Salvador, but beginning in 2011 it became violent with gangs so I couldn’t protect the people I was inviting. I hope I’ll be able to get back without bringing people into danger,” he says.
In Cornejo’s more abstract work, the sculptural elements relate to the construction work he did with his father, working with wood, cement, even roofing material. “Using fine art material I combine my experience with family, my past, my culture, and the new language I was taught in college, creating a hybrid identity from these overlapping histories. I always felt American but discriminated against because I came from another place. Yet recognizing myself as American, I was not welcome when I returned home, where my parents are from.
“No one wants to leave home and risk their lives,” he says when asked about the current administration’s proposals on immigration. “Political refugees are escaping violence at home or an economic situation where they can’t sustain their family. They are doing the work no one here wants to do. If you want to stop immigration, pay a fair wage so someone will do the job. Immigration becomes the scapegoat for the real problems of trade agreements. It’s almost as if what many immigrants were escaping they are now facing here.”
He believes in engaging with the community that is yours, speaking with local representatives, and teaching compatriots about their rights and the ways they can protect themselves. “We saw that when Trump put the travel ban on, people went straight to the airports and how that had a powerful effect. It forces you to educate yourself as to how it works. The outrageous moves of this president are forcing an entire community to educate themselves about how the government works.”
Working in his studio two blocks from Zuccotti Park, the site of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement, Cornejo does all the carpentry by hand, avoiding technology. He wants to use the same tools he would have access to if working on the side of a mountain, combining printmaking and fresco and dyed fabric that suggests flags. “I think of these structures as fragments that exist in architecture, as if taken out of a wall. They are like poems, nuanced and ambiguous rather than journalistic, and it’s up to the viewer to decode the metaphors.”
White Flag: Salvadoran Remnants, Bernstein Gallery, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University. Through Friday, April 7, reception on Friday, March 10, 6 p.m. 609-497-2441 or wws.princeton.edu/about-wws/bernstein-gallery.