I was reading this Jean-Michel Basquiat biography and I got to this moment in the book where he first meets Warhol, and I started wondering: What if Warhol were Latin? And that question grew into the first exhibit I did with Goya cans, "What if Andy Warhol Was Latin?" I came up with this whole identity for him and said that if Andy Warhol was Latin, his name would actually be Andrés Warhol. You could say that was my artist statement.
I chose Goya black beans specifically because it had the word "black" in it. I'm Dominican, so we actually eat red beans, but I wanted to make a political statement by by using the word "black." I had this show at a restaurant and made a bunch of different variations—just like Warhol did—and people really reacted well to seeing the Goya can done like the Campbell's can. That's what really sparked this whole Latino Pop Art thing for me. A few years later, I wanted to do something else and Café Bustelo—being a staple in Latino homes, especially in New York City—seemed like the right choice. I also did those candles you find in bodegas. And this year I ended up doing it for Malta.
My series is not about advertising, it's about symbols of American Latino culture–these brands are so ingrained in Latino culture. I grew up drinking Malta and so did pretty much every other Latino household I knew growing up. If you're Puerto Rican, there may be a certain brand that you're loyal to, but we're all drinking it. Dominicans and Puerto Ricans love Malta El Sol, but if you look at my Instagram comments, you'll see people saying "No, I love Malta India" or Goya. In the Dominican Republic, they drink Café Santo Domingo, but I didn't grow up in the Dominican Republic, so over here our options were Pilon or Café Bustelo. My mom used to have to bring cheese in from the Dominican Republic because there wasn't any of that type around here. Now we don't have to do that because we have Queso Tropical to fill that void. Once Dominicans and other Latinos from the Caribbean starting coming here, these companies had to form and cater to them.
A couple of weeks ago, a messenger showed up to my apartment and handed me this FedEx package. When I opened it up, it was a letter from a lawyer referring to my use of Goya. Automatically I was like, "So, they finally caught on." My first reaction was a little bit of fear because I'm obviously not trying to be sued. I'm a one-man company and an artist. I'm not trying to take advantage of companies like Goya with my artwork. I was like, "Damn, I guess I have to stop doing this. Thank God I have other stuff that I've started to do." I called them up and took everything down. I'm really just happy I'm not being sued and they gave me the chance to stop.
A lot of people online were like, that sucks. Whatever. The only thing I would say is that doing this work with Goya imagery for the past 11 years has forced people to be prideful and identify with these brands. I know people are connecting with this because others are stealing the idea and using the same black beans as I am.
I'm not going to stop using other food brands, though. It's pretty funny, because with Queso Tropical, I did a shirt with "Trapical" on it and Desus and Mero were on ESPN wearing that shirt and it got back to the company. Queso Tropical ended up emailing me, and I had a conversation with them and even went to their headquarters. They were like, "Tony we love what you do. If you want to go ahead and use our logo in your work, do it." They just didn't like that it had the word "trap." I stopped doing that shirt but I still have a relationship with them.
There are things about our food that are part of our identity. Food and identity go hand in hand. Just the other day I created this graphic that I'll probably make into a print of another Dominican staple, Tres Golpes, which is basically plantain mangu with salami, fried cheese, fried cheese, and eggs. That's such a staple Dominican breakfast.
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I've really only scratched the surface of food. I've just sort of played with it. This food and these brands are a way to identify our Latino culture.
Tony Peralta is a contemporary artist and graphic designer born in New York City's Washington Heights to Dominican immigrants. He is the founder and owner of The Peralta Project. This interview was edited for clarity and length.