Ella García, 21, Manitoba, Canada / Texas, USA
Photographer / Illustrator / Oil Painter
As a part of an ongoing series, García, a junior at Bard College, is shooting womxn / femme students of color on campus. Against a honey-brown backdrop, García captures the essence of her subjects through her lens and through the conversations she has with subjects as she shoots them. Their skin shimmers and shines. Their looks smolder and sparkle, and ask the questions and tell you the answers.
In her own words, García says: “The result is a collective conversation nuanced enough to be called diverse, but held together by shared moments of lifelong grief, confusion, frustration, and unfiltered discovery. ”
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Do you ever feel like you’re exotified or fetishized because of the way you look? How has this affected your perception of yourself?
I do, especially being a dark-skin girl. When people identify me as beautiful, they always say “for a dark-skin girl” at the end — like it’s rare for a dark-skin girl to be beautiful. This has deeply affected my perception of myself: for a long time, I thought that I was not as beautiful compared to other girls of a lighter skin tone.
What kinds of ideas about yourself do you feel you have had to work to unlearn? Ideas that there is a specific type of beauty: light, long hair and skinny. The idea that beauty could not come in multiple shapes, sizes and tones. I have been very insecure about things such as my hair and body type, especially as a professional dancer. I was constantly wishing to be taller or skinnier, and not loving myself because of it. My body is something that I had to learn to love.
Do you ever feel like you’re exotified or fetishized because of the way you look?
As a young girl, I was the chubby brown girl in a sea of flacita, white-skinned, blonde and blue-eyed girls. It wasn’t until I was 16 when I became aware that I was being seen as sexual.
I was still thick, but had come into my body and men made me extremely aware that they considered me attractive. When I was 17, I had experienced my first severe sexual assault. Being still young and naive, instead of healing, I hyper-performed my sexuality, because I thought that I was for the taking. I felt that my body was something for others to claim. For a long time.
So. I played into men calling me “spicy,” “mamita” and any other type of stereotypical catcall you can think of. Once a guy asked me where I was from, I told him I was Venezuelan and he said, “Oh yeah, I thought you had a lil’ something going on, but you know — not too much. That’s good.”
What? That’s when I realized I was the “right” kind of Latina in terms of the male gaze: light-skinned and white-passing, but still exotic enough to be desirable. It disgusts me, honestly. Not only did it take years to reclaim my body, my sexuality and my ownership over both, but it took a lot of work to feel comfortable owning being Latina— because I didn’t want to be taken as a desirable object for any reason.
Honestly, being exoticized and violated in these ways has affected me greatly. I love my caramel thick thighs, but honey, they’re mine. You know? Now, I don’t take bullshit and I do not allow anyone else — specifically men — to define me.
What has been your experience as a mixed person? Do you identify more with one of your “sides” than the other? What kinds of difficulties have you faced?
I find that being mixed adds much ambiguity to my life. I am not sure where I fit in, or how to feel comfortable in this space of feeling as if I am in between two sides of myself.
I feel a lot of shame for not looking “Nigerian enough,” which then causes me to feel disconnected to that side of myself. I feel pressured to disconnect from my Nigerian side, due to the fact that I don’t physically look it enough — and as if I am “faking” being Nigerian.
My struggle to embrace, recognize and be proud of the differing sides to myself continues as I face assumptions and attempts of defining what race I am, based on other’s ideals or expectations of who I should be.
What is the myth of the angry black womxn? Why is it okay to be angry?
The stereotypes created by a white hegemonic society are always the product of fear. But, I will not say I’m not angry. Clearly, I’m furious. Most of us are pretty furious.
However, the differences between the angry black woman stereotype and me being a black woman who is angry, are more than evident. The former is meant to demonize, categorize and limit who the black woman is. The latter, however, is a necessity in my opinion.
People of color get angry because we are disrespected, killed, and dehumanized. At least for me, this anger, spurned by learning the many different faces of injustice, has been an incredible fuel in my pursuits to learn about the system we are living in. Furthermore, I believe the anger is important because it keeps us from being silent. Silence is death and we are not here for it.
How do you think hair shapes identity? How has your hair been a facet of your identity?
OMG. I hated wearing my hair natural when I was younger. I didn’t start until I was 16 years old. And I remember that entire day I was having a literal panic attack, because I was going to hang out with some boy and I was worried if he would’ve thought my hair looked ugly. So stupid.
Hair shaped my identity when I was younger, in that it was some kind of way to remove myself from an identity I didn’t want to claim as my own. As I’ve grown to love my hair, it is now one of my favorite parts of myself and it’s so big! It’s huge! It takes up space! It’s so wild and does its own thing and I love it! It makes me feel so confident when I see me and a bunch of other fro’d up shawties just chilling with the coolest hair in the room.
It’s an identifier. It’s a friend. It’s a statement to everyone else in the room and it says, “I’m here, bitch. I hope you’re ready.”
Yamilet Cortes Gil
What kinds of ideas about yourself do you feel you have had to work to unlearn?I’ve had to unlearn the notion that I’m not “Dominican enough,” because I have my half Puerto Rican features. I definitely recognize my light privilege.
I grew up in a full Dominican household, a relatively conservative Catholic Latino home and Spanish was my first language. I’m not saying this to prove I’m “Latino enough,” I’m saying it because it’s just the truth.
I do everything for my family and I live my culture, and I had to unlearn that my melanin was indicative of my identity. Because my melanin isn’t.
I haven’t had a terrible time with learning to love myself. My mom raised me with really thick skin, because usually I was ostracized for being a nerd or being one of the only Latino kids in my middle school class. As much as kids made fun of me for watching anime or liking whatever other things they deemed “weird,” I still watched it and I still loved it.
I didn’t get funny until like 8th grade, so then all of a sudden people liked me, and at that point they were all replaceable in my mind and I didn’t care for friendships — because I spent a lot of time alone growing up. If any of the kids in school made me feel bad, I just stopped going around them and did my own thing. My mom taught me not to trust anyone and there was power in that, especially at that age when kids are the worst.
I think my huge ego started to be born around the age of 14. The lack of fucks I had for what people thought of me started at an early age. I remember I was getting bullied a bit and I was super quiet in elementary school and my mom was like, “Yamilet nadie se come a nadie,” and something clicked in my brain. Literally like a switch. It clicked that I could react and I’d be alive the next day to tell the tale.
So then I became a little problematic, but I didn’t give a damn. It was like all of a sudden, no one had power over me. I owe all this to my mom, man: she’s a hard ass and she raised me to be a hard ass, but we are also unconditional lovers and we love to serve the ones we love, so there’s a healthy balance.
How have your connotations of confidence changed since you were a child? What does being confident look like for you?
Being confident means telling myself that if I don’t put myself out there and do whatever the fuck I want to, I will never be able to live my truth. The amount of times that I have been told to sit behind, to watch and wait, have only stunted me in my journey toward self-fulfillment. I have to tell myself everyday that if I don’t go out and do what I want to do or say what I need to say, I am only limiting myself.
What kinds of ideas about yourself do you feel you have had to work to unlearn?
A major part of accepting who I am has been unlearning these conditionings that are so deeply rooted. For most of my life (and I still struggle with this now), I have internalized so much about how I should look or act. Reconciling what I wanted to look like or be, with the reality of my situation that I was disappointed with, took a lot of effort and still does.
I have learned that what I’ve digested are social conditionings and expectations of what it means to be a womxn — and especially what it means to be a womxn of color in a world that is unwelcoming to you.
One part of the problem is that I was not only experiencing this in the outside world, but also within my household and especially within my own mind. Body dysmorphia became such a big part of my life and at times I really wanted to be invisible. I think that as a young womxn of color, our expectations are two-fold: in both our position as womxn but also as people of color.
We are marked by society and demanded to be invisible, although every aspect of the way we are viewed renders us completely visible and vulnerable. I spent so many days wishing I was not the person I was, wishing I looked like someone else.
Ultimately, it took a real awakening to see the underpinnings of a system that gains power through submission and oppression. I can’t deny that I am still affected by these expectations and I believe it will take a full lifetime to ultimately feel comfortable with who I am.
I think self-love is the most powerful weapon we can hold, because we are conditioned to view ourselves and our peers through a lense of negativity. This cycle inevitably maintains that those who enable this oppression remain in power. Self-love is not only a means of growing and learning— but it’s a way to survive.
What do you think of sisterhood and the responsibility of sisters?
In this world that we live in, womxn are constantly being torn down — especially womxn of color. We are being brought down by the rampant patriarchy that influences all aspects of life, and the worst thing is when we internalize this patriarchal thinking and bring each other down.
Loving and supporting other womxn, even if you don’t know them, is one of the best ways to combat the prevalence of misogyny throughout society. To me, sisters are the womxn in my life who I look up to. They are the people who push me to be better and they are the people I know I can always rely on.
Being an only child and having lost my mother at a really young age, I have found myself relying on the womxn around me a lot, and I am so grateful to all the girls I have been able to build relationship with. I think it is so so important for womxn to be around other womxn. It’s so important to have your sisters’ backs and support them, and it’s so important to be reliable and have people you can rely on.
However, it’s also really important to try to treat all womxn like they are your sisters, because in the long-run, that’s how it is. Some of us experience much more severe hardships than others, and because of this, its even more important to have this mindset of sisterhood. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to love every womxn that you meet, it just means that you’re not going to tear down other womxn, especially not for sexist reasons.
More about the series
García released these photos as a part of TRUTH Collective. Teaming up with fellow Bard students Livy Marie Donahue and Fleimster, García started TRUTH’s online publication to highlight creatives from marginalized backgrounds at Bard.
“There is no shortage of wonderful artists at Bard, but often times it may feel as though the same voices are being heard, and the same kinds of images are being presented. We’ve been in writing workshops, film production courses, and studio arts classes and have seen first hand the amazing work myriad artists are creating.
“Yet often times it feels like there simply is not enough representation, and perhaps even a lack of artistic community,” the TRUTH editors write in their mission statement.
“Perhaps participation is not the perfect word as quite often folks on the margins are speaking, but are simply not heard or seen by the hegemonic majority. We hope this platform will serve as an emboldening force through which all can have a seat at the table.”
Read and see full interviews here.