Shades of Brown Around Rebeka Pech Moguel

Note: Mason Kilpatrick, the author of the article, is employed by Charlotte Street Foundation as the Marketing + Communications Manager, which is discussed in the article.

Amongst all of the suits, briefcases and professional jargon you encounter on a daily visit to downtown Kansas City’s Town Pavilion, you will occasionally run into an artist carrying a bag of art supplies, various recycled materials and maybe even some homemakers tools. This is because a very unique and rare community exists within the tall and intimidating structure of Town Pavilion, a building mostly known for its professional purposes and strong association with businesses like Bank Midwest and the National Association of Insurance Commissioners.

Within the confines of Town Pavilion and tucked away on the building’s sixth floor (placed next to the building’s exercise gym for tenants) is Charlotte Street Foundation’s Studio Residency. Every year, 30 artists are selected into the program for at least 1 year in residency that comes with free space, 24/7 access, a community of artists for you to collaborate with, social media promotion, and networking opportunities on a local and national scale. Artists range from dancers, musicians and theater performers to installation artists, painters, textile-makers, and sculpturers. This constant turnover of such a large and creative pool will almost guarantee that you will meet somebody whose work peaks interest.

One of the current studio residents is Rebeka Pech Moguel, a photographer who is currently focusing on craft-based work (specifically with embroidery). At first glance, Rebeka fits the typical stereotype of what you would expect from a young and up-and-coming artist: spent a majority of their developing years in Kansas City, attended the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI), and also works contracting gigs for locally respected institutions like The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.

However, through multiple conversations and analysis of her recent work, I knew there was something that I could identify with in Rebeka over other peers in her similar situation: her recognization of Mexican-American influence and her sense of being an “other” within a culture and community that is already othered by larger forces and communities that exist. As a first-generation Mexican-American artist, Rebeka could share plenty of experiences that can be archived for daily empathetic decision-making and thought.

I walk through the maze of artist studios on Town Pavilion’s hidden sixth floor and walk into Rebeka’s space, which has salmon pink walls and is covered with photos and fabric. Old carpet lines the floor but is smothered with various materials that Rebeka uses consistently in her daily practice, including a hot glue gun, scissors, construction paper, plastic bags, and fast food wrappers. I assume the food wrappers were for her stomach and not for her upcoming exhibition at the Spiva Arts Center on June 30th.

I sit on the floor criss-cross applesauce, right next to Rebeka. We both are exhausted from working our day jobs and are still gauging to see what each other’s moods are. Behind Rebeka’s goofy smile is always a strong confidence that can also be found in her work. However, despite the confidence, there is usually a nervous uneasiness when Rebeka attempts to respond to questions regarding her craft. Luckily in this exchange, our conversation for the evening is calm and reflective.

Mason Kilpatrick: Rebeka, what do you currently do?

Rebeka Pech Moguel: I work at The Nelson-Atkins where I do independent contract work for now. That work is in the lighting department but I have also done exhibition prep as well. I am also a senior editor for the Informality Blog, which is a website for critical writing about the KC arts.

MK: How long have you been practicing your art and what forms of art do you currently practice in?

RPM: I guess I started in high school. I graduated from the photography department at KCAI and I also studied art history as well. I am photo-based but I have been incorporating different mediums over the last couple of years. I make my own backgrounds and I usually paint them. I am also using felt. I’ve also begun to embroider and I love printmaking.

MK: In a previous discussion with me, you were talking about how your parents had recently moved to America from Mexico a few years before you were born. Could you describe your parents and what specifically motivated them to move to America?

RPM: My parents were both accountants in Mexico. They are from Chiapas, which is all the way south near the border next to Guatemala. My dad worked for this coffee company and there was some trouble there. My mom was not working at the time we moved here. My father came to America looking for a job and six months later, my mom and sisters followed in 1992. They moved to Wichita, KS where they knew my mom’s cousin. Claudia, my oldest sister, was eight years old when the family moved to Wichita and Adriana, my middle sister, was four years old. The family then moved to Kansas City in 1994. By the time the family moved to KC, I was already two years old.

My dad has worked many different jobs since. Once he was working maintenance at a building we all lived in. It was government housing for old people. The apartments were located in Midtown, by the CVS Pharmacy on the corner of 39th Street and Main Street. That was weird because all of our neighbors were older. There was an old couple that lived next to us and would hear us entering or leaving our home. Every time they heard us, they would come out into the hallway and talk to us. The man would sometimes just come out in his boxers.

MK: Wait, what? What would this couple say? Just some dude would come out in his boxers and say, “Hey, how is your day?”

RPM: They would just talk. One time he came out and told us that is was his birthday and that he liked peach pie…so my sister ended up making him a peach pie. Another time, this old couple made us a cake but we did not eat it because there was a cockroach leg sticking out of it.

My father also worked as a house painter. He recently got his residency two years ago and now he has a job at a warehouse where they ship out sportswear. My mom has been working for the same guy who owns the warehouse and she cleans houses.

When my father came here, he came with a visa. When my mother and sisters came over separately (with visas), they were accompanied by two other girls. Those two other girls were currently in the process of getting their citizenship and came over illegally. My mom could apply for residency but she would have to go back to Mexico for seven to eight years.

MK: I imagine that is something your family does not want to go through, right?

RPM: It is a funny thing because she wants to go back and see all of her family. All of our family is in Mexico. She wants to see everyone but going back, financially, would be hard. She would not have the same job there as here, as housekeeping is much better in America. She also has not worked in accounting for years. My sisters are with DACA so they couldn’t see my mom and go back. It would just be my dad and me.

MK: Do you go back and see your family in Mexico consistently?

RPM: I have only visited twice. The first time I was fourteen in the summer of 2008. I went with other family members and we drove for five days. It was a unique experience. I was seeing people I only ever talked with on the phone. Two years ago, in the December of 2016, I went with my dad. That was significant because that was his first time coming back since leaving Mexico. It took us three planes to get there, which was expensive.

MK: There is a lot of removal of culture and identity happening in regards to your family as they live in America. Especially for your parents, who are living away from all of their family in Mexico. Do they ever talk about how hard that is for them or that makes them feel? In America, if I wanted to see my grandmother, I just have to drive three hours to see her. We take that for granted here.

RPM: They used to talk about how hard it was. They wish they could go back and see family. They even discussed moving back to live with family in Mexico. But they would want to be able to see the sisters and me. But my sisters cannot go back. When I went back with my father, we realized how different it was. It was a bittersweet experience for my father to go back and see his family. However, he went back and saw how his town had changed drastically. Storefronts and homes had moved. He literally got lost the first morning we were there in the capital of Chiapas.

MK: Of the three sisters, the older two were born in Mexico. You were born in Kansas. Has that contributed to the family dynamic and relationship between you and your sisters?

RPM: I am not sure how it affected them directly but long term, there have been times where I know I feel bad that I have opportunities they do not have. All three of us are close. But for instance, I was able to go to Mexico with my dad two years ago. One of my sisters not seen that family in twenty-five years. They do not have the choice to travel and see loved ones like I do. For college, I was able to go and get scholarships. When my older sister, Claudia, went to college, she had to pay full tuition because she could not apply for government scholarships or grants. It was hard for her to pay off school. After a few years, she was able to find a private sponsor but tuition was still expensive.

My middle sister was unable to finish college. She wanted to be a social worker. She had to intern with a government institution but she could not do that and she was not able to finish her degree. This makes me feel guilty. I know this is not my fault but it is still something I feel.

MK: How does this guilt influence the decisions you make on a daily basis? Or even through the art that you make? When you think back on these experiences, is it just guilt you feel?

RPM: Yeah, it is mostly guilt. I have never ignored an opportunity because of the guilt though. I was able to do a residency in Iceland last year and I was able to travel a little bit in Europe as well. I know my sisters were living vicariously through me because they do not have to those opportunities. I feel like I need to be conscious around them.

MK: Previously, before the interview, we were talking about the sense of “otherness,” and how you feel that currently with you being brown in this current political atmosphere. You were also talking about how there are multiple levels of otherness. For example, your sisters were born in Mexico and you were not. Even in that cultural context, you are an “other.” And when you go back to Mexico and see family, you still feel a detachment from that culture. When did you start feeling this way and noticing this sense of otherness? Have you been feeling this a kid?

RPM: I remember feeling this as a kid. At the school I went to, there were only two Latinx students at any given time in my class. I went to a small private school in Shawnee Mission so this school was not big. I remember being asked, “How do you say this in Spanish?” I was asked questions like this all of the time. I knew I was different right from the bat and it was even harder for me when I noticed that all the kids were from Lenexa and I was from Westport. I was on a different socioeconomic level from all of my peers. I also remember, when I was a young kid, I was with my mom’s friend. My mom’s friend was looking at little sombrero key chains and she bought both of my sisters a keychain. However, she did not get me one and she told me, “I am not getting one for you, you are not Mexican.” She said it as a joke but even as a kid I remember thinking, “Oh yeah, I am not like them.” My father was always an advocate for me though and he would proudly claim that I am Mexican. However…there are those who would not agree.

MK: How often do you think of the keychain experience?

RPM: I think of it every now and then, especially if I am talking to people about experiences of being different. I consider myself a person of color and to many I am. However, to other people of color, they place me aside and say, ”You go over there.”

MK: Like, if we had to visualize this otherness, if we had you on a scale, you wouldn’t be considered far left as a Mexican. But you also are not far right as an American. You are in this murky middle. Does this lead to any other feeling or sensation you have?

RPM: You are right, sometimes I find myself in the middle. At the time I noticed this, I felt very isolated. At an early age, I felt the difference and I knew that me being born here was that difference. But I did not know why it was a significant factor. Now, I know who I am and I am okay with this. Growing up, it was unsettling.

MK: Taking all of this into account, how do you feel about your life now?

RPM: I feel pretty okay. With the current political state, like with DACA, it is stressful. I am not in the program but my sisters are. It is scary. My biggest fear growing up was the deportation of my parents. When I was really young, it seemed like it could happen. After a few years, my fear for that calmed down. However, within the last year, those fears have heightened again over the transportation of my family.

MK: What does it mean when you say “heightened?” What does heightened fear look like and how does this affect your daily experience? I ask this because there are people who don’t ever have to feel this or live like this so they might not understand.

RPM: I think this started when the current president was elected. I remember my older sister freaking out about it. She would call and we talk about her feelings. She would feed me all of her anxieties and worries. At first, I was chill. As I spoke with my sister more, the more anxiety I felt. Now, mostly whenever there is extensive talk on the news, I get anxious over this. I think about this for my sisters. When I listen to NPR in the car, I will have to turn it off when the broadcast starts talking about Trump’s immigration policies sometimes. We have had all this talk for so long with no big changes. This has been such a long conversation and the uncertainty of not knowing is anxiety-inducing. It is a guessing game. The fear comes from the talk of family and friends who have experienced deportation. It is harder to hear how my friend’s cousin got deported compared to what I hear on the news.

MK: You recently graduated from KCAI last year and you are currently transitioning from student life to full-adulthood. Has this transition been as scary as you thought it would be? Has this transition period been rough for you?

RPM: It has been scary. I am currently living at home and saving up my money. Part of the transition has hit me personally because I still have my family close to me.

MK: Your early artwork started with photography, yes?

RPM: I began to take photos in eighth grade. My parents gave both of my sisters a photo camera in eighth grade so I received one at that age. My older sister received this gift because she was going on a class trip and my family wanted her to take pictures. Since then, my parents gave each sibling a camera at the same age.

MK: So was your early photography what motivated you to go to art school? Did you go to KCAI for photography?

RPM: Part of the reason for my focus on photography was that I felt stronger about my photography skill than my skills in other media. I still had classes in other departments so I could learn other mediums and processes. This gave me more confidence in myself.

MK: What are some of the common themes that we can find in your work?

RPM: You can find a lot of self-portraits in my photography. These portraits portray me as something or someone else. The first time I attempted this, I had taken a photograph of myself in the guise of La Virgen de Guadalupe? My self-portraits started there and I have been developing my craft based on this idea for a while now. This has also spread into my other practices too. For example, I am currently embroidering my hand. I snapped a photo of this and now I am embroidering myself from that photo. I am also embroidering an old photo of my face as well but that is a long-term project.

MK: So first you started with photography but what other mediums do you experiment with now, besides embroidery?

RPM: Lately, I have been working on creating my own backgrounds for my photography. I try this with every photo now. I also did some experimentation with foam core pieces that I photographed. At the end of the day, it all starts or ends with my photography. With my embroidery, it is different from my photography because of my family practice. My mother and grandmother taught and influenced my embroidery practice. This is how I tie my personal history with my photography.

Embroidery, for me, is meditative, though I do not like using that word. It helps me relax and keep calm. I am stitching continuously and the motion keeps me busy. I really enjoy the physical action of embroidery.  When it comes to photography, most of my images are constructed and prepared beforehand. Hardly do I just snap a photo. I think of these prepared images daily through my various experiences. One memory or experience will lead me down a rabbit hole of memories. A lot of my images are heavily influenced by memories of my youth, which does not surprise me because old photos of my family surround my life and studio. My work is very reminiscent, much like my family photos. I plan on working towards an immersive installation that people can relate to or discover in terms of my life experience.

You can check out Rebeka Pech Moguel’s work at the Spiva Arts Center in Joplin, MO from June 30th through August 11th.

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