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Inspiration from the melting pot

Updated: 2013-06-05 23:33
By MIKE PETERS ( China Daily)

Mexican artist Patricia Calvo's fascination with other cultures — especially Asia's — started in kindergarten.

"My family lived in Havana when I was small," she said. "It was very cosmopolitan, and I was actually in a Vietnamese kindergarten, so I got sucked into Asian culture right away.

Inspiration from the melting pot

Efren Calvo with his daughter Patricia at Beijing's new Latin America and Caribbean Center in May. Mike Peters / China Daily

"Also, we had this wonderful black woman living with us, Selina, whose parents were from Cuba and Benin. She was like a nanny, and she took care of us kids. She was a huge lady," the artist said. "And she was courted by this tiny man who was third-generation Chinese — with blue eyes!

"He would always bring flowers and porcelain for her, and stories about Asia for us."

Cuba was a melting pot for the big mix of people who arrived there: Latinos, Africans, Chinese, whites. Calvo didn't appreciate how unusual that was until she was older.

An exhibition of her photos opens in Beijing on June 13, after a recent showing in Addis Abbaba, Ethiopia. "It's generating some surprise in China just like it did in Africa," she said, because people in both places are among the least likely to intermarry with other races. But in the Caribbean and Mexico, she says, women like her nanny didn't think such cross-cultural romances were a big deal.

Her father, Efren Calvo Adame, is now the president of the Mexican Chamber of Commerce in China.

"My father opened the first commercial section for the Mexican embassy in Havana," she said, noting that similar posts took him and his family to the Dominican Republic and Haiti before Patricia was out of her teens.

In those countries, and now in China, she has found that "the more you are outside your own culture, the more you identify with it, embrace its traditions, idealize it — no matter how much at home you feel in your adopted land".

She came to China in 1998 after studying painting and art history in Italy.

Now, she is eager to present her upcoming photo exhibition to a Beijing audience.

"It's the story of Chinese tropicalization," she said, smiling. "I went back to Cuba in 2007, which was 160 years after the Chinese came to the island, to document the lives of the current generation of Cuban-Chinese."

She has been making new prints — about a dozen portraits, as well as historical images such as tombs in old Chinese cemeteries and Cuban ration cards in Chinese, which were given to her to photograph.

"I appreciate the Chinese legacy in Latin America more now, when I go back," she said. "There is a saying you hear a lot in the region: ‘I have Chinese in my background'."

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