Trusting Your Blood: A Conversation with Cándida González

Trusting Your Blood: A Conversation with Cándida González

Published March 19th, 2024 by Teréz Iacovino

In a solo exhibition at Public Functionary, the artist creates altars and installations to engage with grief, joy, and memory — both personal and diasporic

“…if I hold this long enough, if I put it on my body and feel it on my skin, is that enough to activate a memory?” – Cándida González


Objects tell stories, but not without the help of a translator. When you hear the way Diasporican1 artist Cándida González talks about objects, it makes you want to listen: a cooking pot is the eldest member of a family; a golden necklace is a medium for talking with the dead; a piece of river quartz contains the spirit of your ancestor.

In the conversation that follows, I sat down over lunch with González at Public Functionary while they were installing their exhibition, Blood Memory an installation of altars, text, video, and sound that invites us to sit, watch, listen, and touch as we collectively gather, grieve, and find hope in this present moment. The exhibition opens on Friday, March 22.


Teréz Iacovino: I wanted to start our conversation by acknowledging a special person who has greatly influenced how you approached this exhibition your beloved partner Paige Coletti, who died of cancer on Feb 2nd of this year. You had mentioned in passing that this show almost didn’t happen. What allowed you to move forward with the exhibition?

Cándida González: I thought hard about it, because I wanted to make sure that I was making space for my grief, not just pushing aside my grief to push through with the show and create the things for the show. But I realized what I already knew, which is that art helps emotions move through our body. In order to be an artist, you must be emotionally, physically, and spiritually aware of what is happening in your body. I'm creating things with my hands and so that is also giving my mind space, and my body space, to be thinking about Paige and thinking about how these emotions are showing up in my art.

One thing I decided to create is a community grief altar, so that I could very intentionally and publicly work through my grief and acknowledge the fact that I am not the only person grieving in the world right now. We have so few defined spaces for grief in our society and I was really interested in creating a very intentional space where people could communally grieve. It's a communal altar, so people are going to be adding to it as they come through the show.

The structure is also designed for only one person to be in at a time, and it's semi-enclosed. When you're in the structure, nobody else is going to be able to see or hear you. You have that space to be able to really have a moment of individual grieving. There's a grief book that's going to be in there where you can write your reflections on grief to share with other people and read what other people have written. This is the most explicit intentional way that I am bringing my personal grief into the show.


TI: Thank you for sharing that with us. It’s so clear that your love for Paige has been an important catalyst of the show. And that brings me to thinking about the term "blood memory" and how we remember both those we loved and those we never knew. As I was reading about the term blood memory before our conversation, I came across an article discussing blood memory in relation to Taíno traditions — the indigenous traditions of the Caribbean. The article talked about the Taíno belief that you carry your ancestors with you always. In thinking about your relationship to the Puerto Rican diaspora, can you tell us more about your relationship to blood memory and how that came about as the title of the exhibition?

CG: Well that brings me back to 2019, when I was really intentionally on this journey to recover lost secrets about my family in Puerto Rico. I was brought up not going to Puerto Rico, but I didn't learn the reason why my dad did not take us to Puerto Rico until 2018. He was banned by his family from coming back.

I embarked on this journey of going to Puerto Rico as much as possible: talking to relatives, spending time in places where my family is from, and trusting my body to call up familiar memories that live in my blood. These memories have been passed down to me through my father and through my grandparents, more specifically memories of spaces the family farm, the places that my dad would swim, and just bits and pieces of stories. He's not here anymore, so I can't ask him, so I was just trusting my blood. Through that process, in May of 2022, I did finally find our family's farm and it was exactly as my father had described it. The memories in my blood did eventually lead me to find that place, and this show was born out of that journey.

The show was conceived in 2020, in deep quarantine, as I was laying on my floor in front of my altar lamenting the fact that I cannot go to Puerto Rico now. I cannot travel, I cannot go float in the ocean, I do not have these things that are facilitating the recalling of memories in my blood. This is a common story in diaspora, where you are so far from your ancestral homeland and you can't go back for many different reasons. What are the things then that could activate those blood memories in you?

It all started, actually, with this rock right here, which I found in the river, that my dad used to swim in, at the exact spot that he had always talked about. This rock appeared to me right at that moment. I sat here holding this and thinking, if I hold this long enough, if I put it on my body and feel it on my skin, is that enough to activate a memory? That's where the idea for the show came from.


Photo by Teréz Iacovino.


TI: It’s amazing that it all started with this one object. So essentially, this is a rock from a river that your father swam in regularly as a child?

CG: Yes, the Río Grande de Loíza. When I was there in 2022, I had been looking on Google Maps, and I found our family name, Borges. I found something like, Camino Borges, and I was like, let me search that place out. Right before I got to that place, all of a sudden, I looked over and there's this area called Playa Sector Nueve. It is a part of the river where there are huge natural pools made from all these rock formations. There are places where you can water slide down into other pools, which my dad always talked about. They would take banana leaves and waterslide down into the pools. I was like, oh my god, this is it! And I looked over and this was right at my feet.


TI: When I think about rocks, I think about how they're made through compression, and time, and movement of materials. It makes me think of the Puerto Rican writer and poet Aurora Levins Morales and her words, “What are we all but the silt of each other?” In her book, Silt, Levins Morales writes about how the silt of the Mississippi travels all the way down to the Caribbean, and essentially, “piled up over the eons and made Cuba, literally, into US soil.” There's something really powerful in terms of this physical object that holds all this history and holds all this memory, and that also holds your father in a sense. Maybe he picked up this rock, maybe he threw it in the river, maybe his foot grazed it as he was swimming by.

CG: To add to that thought, whenever I start working the first thing I do is set up little altars to oversee my work and guide my work. I have one here and it's guiding my work right now. And this is actually my father right before I was born. That photo is part of the Caldero Familiar installation, and it's all about how food calls up the blood memory in our body. Food is a way that we connect with our ancestors in their ancestral homeland. I put the breadfruit there, el panapén, because my dad always talked about how much he missed it.


Top: Caldero Familiar, installation detail. Bottom: I Wear Gold to Talk to My Ancestors, installation detail. Photos courtesy of Public Functionary.


TI: I love how different objects get translated into photographic collages and then those objects and photographs also simultaneously live in the altars. Your work also makes me think about the power of jewelry, whether we see it as a talisman or a charm for protection, or a carrier of memory. And obviously a lot of jewelry appears in the installation, I Wear Gold To Talk To My Ancestors.

CG: Yes, that installation is really about this idea that as Latinos, gold is our birthright. I was really thinking about why we wear gold all the time. I think about how so much gold was stolen from us, or in the case of Puerto Rico, they killed so many people because they were trying to get the gold that they thought was there.2 So it is a way of reclaiming our power and also talking to our ancestors. We are saying, “Look, we have the gold now!”

My work is really deeply rooted in the idea that everyday objects can be sacred, that we make everyday objects sacred. So, in this one right here, the caldero holds a place of sacredness, of holiness, in so many of our kitchens. Calderos are often passed down through families. That is the pot that you use to nourish your family on a daily basis that pot is holy. So that's why I work with everyday objects. I want art to feel accessible. Anybody can create art, and anybody can create an altar. It doesn't take special things that you have to buy from some special place. It really can be as simple as just putting a necklace on.


TI: Can you talk about the installation that looks like it will include these large rectangular planters?

CG: This installation is called ReCreation and it's a nod to how we in the diaspora try to recreate our homelands no matter where we are. If you're living in Minnesota, you might recreate a patio scene that is reminiscent of Puerto Rico. These will hold plants, and then people are invited to come in. It's an immersive experience to sit. There'll be a projection happening on the wall, and then some audio QR codes that people can plug into to hear sounds of Puerto Rico. It's like you're sitting on a patio in Puerto Rico or you're sitting on a patio in Minnesota that's trying to feel like a patio in Puerto Rico. It’s both of those things.


TI: And what will the projection be?

CG: It's a waterfall. Water is a theme that is going through all of the installations in the show, and the video was shot, half over and half underwater. I always feel like going back to Puerto Rico feels like being underwater because this whole business of being born in diaspora — you're not fully American, you're not fully Minnesotan, you're Puerto Rican living in Minnesota. Then you go back to Puerto Rico and you're not Puerto Rican you are Puerto Rican but born in the United States. It's this constant feeling of trying to move gracefully through the world but doing it almost like you're underwater. You’re moving really slowly and constantly having to come up for air, not totally understanding where you are at any given moment: underwater.


Brujeria Musical, installation view. Photo courtesy of Public Functionary.


TI: That's a really beautiful metaphor to think about and I think it goes both directions, whether you're born in diaspora or enter diaspora later in life, or you live in vaivén.3 The U.S. can also feel that way for Puerto Rican artists born in the archipelago. In thinking about this experience of always feeling like you’re existing between two worlds, can you tell us about this next installation with all the text in Spanish.

CG: This one is called Brujeria Musical, or everyday spells, which is intentionally not a direct translation. The guiding idea you’ll find in all of my work is that everything is a building block. A spell is just a reconfiguration or recombination of a finite number of basic building blocks. With this piece, everything that's on the wall are lines from songs, and most Spanish speakers would look at them and know the song immediately. What I'm saying with this piece is that musicians are spellcasters. When they're writing songs, they are creating spells. Each word is its own note, each song is its own spell. If you move those notes around you have a completely different spell. This is also rooted in the idea of maqam,4 which is an Arabic music tradition. They knew that a certain combination of notes brings a certain kind of emotion.


TI: Is there a phrase that you could point out to us that you are most feeling right now or that has been really hitting you lately?

CG: One of the lines that I think has been with me since childhood is Héctor Lavoe’s Todo Tiene Su Final.


TI: Can you translate the lyrics for us?

CG: Everything has its end
Nothing lasts forever
We have to remember
That eternity doesn't exist

There's something about that song that's saying all of these heavy statements but is also giving hope. I always felt that very deeply. I also talk back to it right now…my partner died…nothing lasts forever. I talk back to it and say, we do have a love that's going to last forever — it is going to last for eternity.


TI: That’s beautiful. I think about how nothing lasts forever in relation to how your altars might be disassembled and reassembled over and over again. They can move with you and they have their own diasporic life in that way. Through them you can always rebuild something that speaks to a specific memory or time. Whether you have a relationship to diaspora or not, we all have a relationship with grief.

Is there anything else that you want visitors coming to the exhibition to know?

CG: I've always had a really hard time with going to museums and not being able to touch the art. I want to have a multi-sensorial experience; I want to feel the art with my body. So I really work hard to create art that people feel like they are a part of, that they are helping me to create, that they can see themselves in, that is forcing them to think in a different way, and to put that thinking out into the world. I would say if you're coming to the show, don't be scared to touch the art. ◼︎ 


Underwater, 2024. Digital collage (part of installation ReCreation)


Blood Memory will open at Public Functionary on March 22, 2024 with a reception that evening from 6 –10pm. There will be mandatory masking and quiet time during the reception from 6 – 7pm, with optional masking thereafter and music. The artist recommends you bring headphones and a smartphone as there are opportunities to access audio and video through QR codes.

To see more of González’s work, visit or follow them on Instagram @candida612.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity in collaboration with the artist.

Banner image: Alicia (detail), 2023. Photo collage (part of installation Caldero Familiar)

Teréz Iacovino is an artist, educator, and the Assistant Curator at the Katherine E. Nash Gallery. She is currently researching 21st century Puerto Rican art across Archipelagic and Diasporican perspectives in collaboration with San Juan based independent curator José López Serra.

1 Coined by Nuyorican poet María Teresa “Mariposa” Fernández in her signature poem, “Ode to the Diasporican.

2 By 1530 census reports listed the existence of only 1148 Taíno remaining in Puerto Rico due to enslavement, massacre, or disease. See Yale University’s Genocide Studies Program.

3 Derived from Spanish for “back-and-forth movement,” vaivén illustrates the physical and psychological ebb and flow of the Puerto Rican diaspora between the archipelago and the United States. See Jorge Duany’s The Nation in Vaiven: Identity, Migration and Popular Culture in Puerto Rico.

4 In Arabic, the word maqam means place, location or position.

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