Candy Alexandra González: Up Close

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Candy Alexandra González Photo: Caleb Essenthier

Each year from September 15 to October 15, Americans observe National Hispanic Heritage Month. It was started in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week under President Lyndon Johnson and expanded to a month under Ronald Reagan. The start date of the 15th was chosen because it is the anniversary of independence for Latin American countries Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Additionally, Mexico and Chile both celebrate their independence days on September 16 and September 18, respectively.

To celebrate, we chose to speak to a rising star in the arts community, Candy Alexandra González, a Miami-born and raised, Philadelphia-based, multidisciplinary visual artist, poet, activist, and trauma-informed educator.

I see that you do interviews too, so I’m going to steal my first question from one that you did. Can you give us a brief overview of who you are and all that you do?

[Laughing] Ah, that’s from the interview I did with my friend Selina. 

So, my name is Candy Alexandra González, I identify as non-binary and use they/them pronouns. I am Miami born and raised, and I moved to Philly about 5 years ago to pursue a Masters of Fine Arts in printmaking. I stayed after I graduated so I’m a West Philly-based artist. I’m trained in book arts and printmaking and paper making. I’m also a photographer and a poet and an educator. As an arts educator, I work in a variety of places in Philly. And that’s me in a very small nutshell!

I appreciate the brevity! Tell me about growing up in Miami and what it’s like not having snow for Christmas.

Sure! It’s such an interesting experience, I tell people all the time that for Christmas, we go to the beach! It’s always shocking to hear that other people didn’t get to experience that. Miami is such a Latinx-led city, it was a privilege to grow up in a place where I saw people who looked like me, immigrants and bilingual people represented at every level of city government, Just the whole way Miami is structured, it’s run by Latinx folks and because it is a bilingual place, I didn’t grow up with the shame of speaking Spanish as my first language. Growing up there allowed me to stay close to my culture and to be proud of it. It was a beautiful thing. 

It’s ridiculous that in this country, especially under our current divisiveness, people are yelled at and accosted for being able to speak another language. That someone would be made to feel ashamed doesn’t compute for me. We should be celebrating anyone with the capability to know more than one language or culture. So talk a little about your family. 

My parents always had a bunch of jobs. As immigrants, they were always trying to make it work, so they did everything from delivering newspapers to being a valet to working in kitchens. My mom now co-owns a restaurant with my aunt. She made her dream come true in that fashion. My dad also has his own business. He drives one of those 16-wheeler trucks across the country. I have a few siblings, one of them teaches biology and environmental sciences and the other sister is a new mom. 

What’s a trait that you’ve learned from your parents?

They’ve always encouraged me to be honest and to work hard. 

What’s a fun family memory?

During the holidays we started doing a White Elephant gift exchange. And because my family always has to be extra, we started giving gag gifts. A lot of lingerie gets gifted to unsuspecting people in the family.  

How did you fall into the arts?

My BA degree is actually in romance languages and literature. My goal was to study abroad. Both of my parents were undocumented, so I didn’t get to travel out of the country when I was young. But I ended up taking a drawing class and then a printmaking class my last year and loved it. It was too late to switch majors but my printmaking professor really believed in me and shared resources with me and encouraged me to apply for MFA programs. It was a little scary going into the arts because we were taught in our family that every generation needed to do better than the one before. So at first, my parents weren’t really on board, they wanted something they thought would be financially secure, but once they saw what it meant to me, they became very supportive. 

How do you bring culture into what you do and why is it important? 

My passion is paper making and last year I had a fellowship at a paper mill in Brooklyn called Dieu Donné. It’s been around since the ’70s and they’ve worked with people like Andy Warhol. I got to assist Nicole Eiserman, who’s a renowned painter, and I was able to use the facilities to do my own work. It’s hard to access places to do hand paper making so after a while I started getting into photography. I was working at Moore College of Art where I started as a tech which gave me access to photo equipment. I now teach there! I also write poetry and I started writing about my experience with fat phobia and self reconciliation, which led me to doing self-portraits. I also did a lot of pulp paintings of my own body in very colorful abstract compositions. As for how I include my culture, it just happens organically. As an MFA student, my work focused on immigrant narratives. At the same time I started exploring altar practices. My family has had altars my whole life and exploring that has been a whole other ballgame. It’s an aspect of my culture that’s woven into my different styles of art. So as to why I think it’s important, I want my art to reflect who I am. I can’t be separated from my heritage. 

A lot of your more recent work deals with fat phobia. What gave you the courage to explore that?

I wish that I could say that there was courage behind it so much as there was a need. You try to deny something for so long until you’re backed up against the wall and there’s only one escape route. I was so distanced from who I am and the version of myself that I wanted to be that there was no other choice. I had to confront years of self-loathing. It wasn’t easy. There were people in my life who asked me very triggering questions which got me thinking and changed the trajectory of my work. Like I had someone ask me if I thought I could access the word cute for myself, and I was like, “What do you mean? Me? Cute? No!” That got me thinking and realizing that I wasn’t happy and it became something I incorporated into my poetry and art work. 

What has the response been? I’m sure it’s been moving for a lot of people. 

Yes, I’ve had quite a lot of people reach out and tell me things like, “Anytime you speak about the work you do to reconcile with your body, I feel seen and it inspires me to do that kind of work too.” It’s very emotional work, so that kind of response is very motivating for me. I’ve been very vocal about my journey on social media which actually landed me one of my artist’s talks. It’s been very gratifying. 

What was the talk that you did at the Rotunda?

I showcased and spoke about some of my work, mainly the long exposure self-portraits. Long exposure photos require the model to be really still for a long period of time, otherwise it’ll come out blurry. So in essence you’re staring at yourself for an extended period. I started doing it because it really pushed me to work on the relationship I had with myself and cameras my whole life. For so long, I avoided getting my picture taken, I hated seeing pictures of myself. I would literally run if I saw someone coming with a camera. As I started writing I decided that it was time to challenge myself, and doing the self-portraits has really changed me. I’ve since been photographed by other photographers and even had a painting done. My friend Santiago did a portrait the size of a wall, and I couldn’t imagine allowing myself to do that before. 

Something a little different, who would you contact in a seance?

My mom is Mexican and my dad’s Honduran. I feel like I know a lot about the Mexican side and not so much the Honduran side, so I’d want to check in with those ancestors and learn more about them. 

What’s a favorite non-curse word?                                                    

[Laughing] The word that I use the most is coño. It’s like a filler word, like damn it. It’s so commonplace in Miami, I don’t think it’s considered a curse word. 

What was the worst job you ever had?

I was an admissions counselor and that was worst. Between the traveling and the faux marketing and getting people to take out loans, it felt ugly. 

You mean dealing with parents who were convinced that their kids were a gift to the world wasn’t fun?

Uh, that’s a no. 

What’s the biggest indulgence you’ve spoiled yourself with?

When I really want to spoil myself I get a tattoo. 

What was your first?

Oh no, it was terrible. Okay, so I’m a Gemini and my first tattoo is of the Gemini constellation, and to be honest, it’s my least favorite. 

What’s the most meaningful?

They all are but I’m most excited by the one that I just got. It’s a small bouquet of cempasúchil, which is the indigenous name for Aztec Marigolds, and epazote ,which is an herb that’s native to certain Mexican regions. I feel very connected to them. There must have been a lot of them around my mom’s hometown when I went to visit, because every time I smell them I’m transported back there. I went to Mexico when I was 26 for the first time and it almost felt like a myth! 

Are you involved with anyone now?

No, I’m single, and available! 

Good to know. Let’s talk about coming out.

Woooo! Okay, so that happened last year. With my parents that is. You know there are always layers of coming out. I’ve been out to my community and siblings and cousins for years. I first told my friends in college. I was in a lot of denial and I went to an all women’s college, so…I really had no excuse. I then told my siblings and cousins, but I had put it off with my parents. They’re both very traditional and very religious. Actually, I knew my dad would be okay with it but I didn’t tell him first. My parents are separated, and I felt that if I told him first my mother would be more upset that he got to know first than she’d be about my coming out, not that she’d be happy with that either. It’s funny, I just woke up one day and knew in my bones it was time to tell them. I went home for my birthday, which I always do, to spend it with my family, and the first night I was walking in circles in my room. A friend had given me a little lapis stone because it’s supposed to improve wisdom and clarity and communication, so I was gripping that stone really hard. My mom is the most important person in my life, I love her tremendously but it wasn’t quite as well-received as I might have hoped. It was easily the hardest conversation I’ve ever had, and I’ve had to have the conversation with her a couple of times. We’re still very close, I just think she needs a little time. My dad on the other hand was super cool. I called him while I was shopping at Nordstrom Rack, and he was really chill. I told him I was gay and he just said, “Okay, that’s cool.” Opening up to them, even with my mom’s reaction, was incredibly freeing. I felt like they finally knew who I was. 

First crush or inkling that you were LGBTQ?                                                        

It was in college with someone I’d become close friends with very quickly. I just remember feeling so giddy around this person and so excited to see them. I was so crushy, but it took me a while to come around to it. Growing up in Miami, as much as I love it, it can be a very homophobic city. So for a long time I was in denial that that was what I was experiencing. I had a friend who said, “You sound like you’re in love with this person” and I was like, “Meeeee! No! Not meee!” And then one day I woke up and was like, “Oh shit, I am in love with this person.” When I said it to that friend she was like, “No shit, I’ve been telling you that for months!” As far as early signs are concerned, I look back to childhood friendships and in hindsight, I’m like, “Hmmm, I thought it was real cute to be holding hands with this person all the time!” And I do have very vivid flashbacks of the first time I saw Kate Winslet in “Titanic.” I was completely mesmerized and I will say that I’ve now come to recognize that Kate Winslet was probably my first gay crush. 

Well, she’s in town shooting Mare of Eastwick. I was on the set when she was doing a scene, right before the pandemic shut things down, but I understand that they’re shooting again. Maybe you’ll run into her! 

Whaaaaaat!!! Oh my God, I would pass out then and there if I saw her. 

Ha! Maybe she’ll pose for you like in the Titanic. I’ll ask if I see her again.