FUELED BY CORN: Artist + Activist Glenda Lissette

—interview by Bianca Betancourt @bybiancabee

Now more than ever, due to our country's current cultural and political climate, we need art. We need art that's angry, that's heartbroken, that's opinionated, and most importantly that's honest. The sake of creation can no longer be art for art's sake, but rather art that has something to say—and with a vengeance. Our current generation of young artists and thinkers are going to be one of the few groups of people that can carry minorities (women, people of color, the queer community) through the uncertainty of these next four years in America.

It's what makes artists like Glenda Lissette, so vital. The young Guatemalan artist (who photographs, illustrates, and also recently has ventured into video work) is disrupting the narrative of our nation simply by being unapologetically herself—embracing the traits that America's silent majority so badly want oppressed, ie. her womanhood, her indigenous roots, her brown skin, and her power in resilience. 

We had a conversation via email with Lissette below, venturing into her connection with nature, Chicago's slightly complex Latinx art world, and why she's fueled by corn. 

BB: Elements of nature are prevalent in your work. Can you tell us why? 

GL: I see reflections of myself amongst plants, trees, bees, and planets. Despite our differences we are all very similar and that comforts me. I’m constantly inspired by it. I love humans and their inventions but only being surrounded by manmade things can make us feel a little empty. I need to be reminded of my home, where I am, and my connection to everything. Connecting with nature makes me feel whole and less alone because it is an extension of me.

BB: Many artists choose to not ignore, but not necessarily include, aspects of their racial identity in their work in order not to be "tokenized". Why do you chose to be so outspoken about your identity in your work? 

GL: When people look at me, they have preconceived notions and stereotypes they push onto me. When I was younger, in an effort to not be tokenized I pushed myself towards assimilation and my internalized racism grew bigger and meaner. Recently when I’ve gone to my other home in Guatemala, I saw the racism clearer than I ever have and it hit me really hard. Over there, over half of the people are indigenous but the country is still extremely racist. Indigenous people are racist to their own people and it’s something that deeply pains me. In college, I started surrounding myself with people [in real life] and online who were proud of the things I was made to feel ashamed or embarrassed about—I felt like something had been taken away from me. Sadness and anger grow in me but also so much happiness and pride. “Decolonizing” my mind has been really important for me. I speak out about my identity and the issues my people face because for so long I’ve felt silenced. For hundreds of years, we’ve been silenced—no matter how loud we yell. My work is part of a movement and I hope I can inspire people, especially women of color, to reclaim what has always been theirs and to be filled with strength and pride.

BB: I love your Instagram bio—"fueled by corn"—explain what that means to those who may not understand? 

GL: Haha, thank you! It has a double meaning for me. First, it’s literal. I eat corn EVERY SINGLE DAY and have ever since I was a fetus. I eat tortillas every day and they’re good with most things. I also eat popcorn religiously and make it almost every day, usually with a lil' coconut oil. My roommates got annoyed with the constant popping, haha. I also love tortilla chips, tamales, atole, Mexican street corn, etc. I’m always craving corn and masa which I didn’t totally realize until I was older. I always kind of thought like, yeah that’s a part of my Latino culture. Then one day I was watching a Youtube video and this white guy casually said “Native Americans digest corn differently” and I was like...????? Ha, it lit a small fire in me though.

The reason why Latinos eat corn is because our ancestors invented corn. They domesticated a wild grass called Teosinte that grows wild on the Honduran/Guatemalan border and in central-southern Mexico. Scientists believe they domesticated it 7,000-10,000 years ago. In Mesoamerica, my ancestors made corn masa and with it made tamales and tortillas and so many other foods. Before people from the American Southwest were cultivating corn, the Maya people’s diet was 80% corn. Corn was and is sacred and the culture HEAVILY revolves around this sacred plant. It is and has been really important to indigenous people on this continent from the south to the north. It thrives in Latino culture because we’ve retained our indigenous knowledge. We may think it’s a Christmas tradition to make tamales but we have actually been making them for thousands of years. 

I see the state corn is in now, what it means to us now. Corn syrup, the dying species of corn plants, the fact that I go to a Mexican restaurant and they only have flour tortillas—it relates to how we are treated. This is where the second meaning comes for me; when I see corn, I see my people. Not just my ancestors, but my people now. I’m fueled by corn because my people fuel me to keep resisting.  

BB: What do you want people to feel when they look at your work? 

GL: I want my work to make feel people empowered, but I also want it to challenge people’s expectations. I want people to think about the relationship between their surroundings and self. I like showing people things that people don’t appreciate. I don’t really expect people to understand or see it my way, and I think that’s part of the beauty of art. I know everyone will take something different. 

BB: What do you want to see more of from your fellow creative peers? Latinx artists? Feminist artists? Chicago artists? 

GL: As far as Chicago goes. Sometimes, Chicago feels so small, but it’s also huge. I still have so much to learn about what artists are doing here that I don’t think I really have any expectations.

There aren’t many spaces that are welcoming to Latinx artists, and the ones that do exist often focus on Chicanx identity. Obviously, there has to be a space for Chicanx people, but I have been invited into those spaces under the assumption that I am Chicanx (Mexican-American). Latinx people are coming from different backgrounds and when it comes to Latinx American identity, that looks different as well. I want people to acknowledge that we are all unique and the cultures we share come from so many places. We are Native American, African, European, and everything else. Everyone has their own perspective and they are all just as important.

It’s the same with feminism; women experience various forms of oppression that don’t always overlap with other women. It makes me incredibly uncomfortable when white feminist artists get big opportunities to speak on issues that affect women of color, but they fail to discuss them well because they can’t possibly understand. Be a good ally, stand with us, support us, but don’t speak for us. We’re already telling our story and it makes it harder to be heard when you’re speaking over us.

See more of Glenda's work at www.glendalissette.com or by following her Instagram @glendalissette and Youtube channel, here. 



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