Afro-Latina Artist Cristina Martinez on Painting the Stories of Black and Brown Women: 'We Belong Here'

The mom of two is shaking up the art world by doing what she does best—telling the stories of Black and Brown women.

Cristina Martinez seated in chair wearing white outfit
“My work lets Black and Brown women know that they’re seen, heard, and understood—we are powerful.”. Photo: Victoria Kovios

Cristina Martinez may be petite in stature, but the Afro-Mexican artist's most famous work towers over the city of New York. Located on the 79th floor of 3 World Trade Center, the 52-foot mural The Roots is a celebration of Black and Brown sisterhood. The project depicts a row of 8-foot-tall women rocking hoop earrings, full lips, curly hair, and a wide range of skin colors. All of them may resemble flowers, with delicate stems for necks, but they look unflinchingly at the viewer, as if sharing their struggles and dreams, without saying a word.

It's a show of resilience that's deeply personal to Martinez. "I've seen my family push through challenges despite feeling like we're wilting," she says. "And I've learned that you will always bloom again. You just have to do the work and take care of yourself."

Working hard is in Martinez's DNA. Her grandma labored in Texas farm fields as a child, raised six kids by herself, and became the matriarch of a family that includes 35 grandchildren. Her mother, who had Martinez at 15, held down three jobs to give her daughter the very best life possible.

These are the kinds of stories Martinez aims to tell. "Black and Brown women are powerful despite often being ignored," she says. "The trials that we face, and the way we have to protect ourselves and the people around us—all that needs to be showcased."

With that goal in mind, Martinez has fought hard to leave her mark on the white-dominated art world. "I'm continually getting myself to a space where I understand, feel, and believe that I deserve to be here," she says. And right by her side are her son, Marcus Jr, 10, and daughter, Marley, 5. "For them to see people coming to my shows and buying and appreciating the art I made in our living room confirms that they, too, can do anything," says Martinez, whose clients include music stars Ciara and H.E.R. "You just have to stay true to yourself."

It's a lesson that has certainly determined the course of her own life.

Cristina Martinez portrait
“The diversity of my audience has motivated me to be really intentional with what I create.”. Victoria Kovios

When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

As a kid growing up in Tacoma, I used to watch Bob Ross painting on TV all day long, and I felt an urgency to create and express myself, whether it was drawing on paper or painting lasagna noodles! When I was 8, I made all these watercolors and hung them up in the kitchen and dining room to surprise my mom. There were huge nail holes in the walls, but she wasn't mad. She just said, "Never change. Always find a place to do what you love." I never forgot that. Still, I didn't think having a career in art was possible because I never came across artists who resembled me or pieces in museums depicting Black or Brown faces like those of the people around me. One exception was Frida Kahlo. From the day I saw her self-portraits in an art book in the library when I was 14, she has always spoken to me. Like the women in my family, she turned the trials she experienced throughout her life into something beautiful.

You went on to study fashion design and eventually left school to follow your passion as a single mom with two kids.

It was in school that I realized I was giving souls to my fashion illustrations. I wanted to know their hopes and fears. I wondered about who they would become. Their beautiful Black and Brown faces called me to tell our stories. That's when I realized I needed to paint. It was really hard at first. I didn't want to sacrifice my children for the sake of my dream. I wondered whether they would suffer. But I have a very strong connection with God, and I really believe in myself and his plan for me. And when your passion is calling, you either listen or it starts to taunt you a little bit! I couldn't ignore it anymore. Once I decided that it was time, I knew that I would do whatever it took to make my kids' lives better, the same way my mother and grandmother did for me.

How did they do that?

My mom had me at 15 and nearly put me up for adoption—she even picked out a family. She was prepared to be selfless but couldn't go through with it when I was born. Instead, she took on the responsibility of raising a child with no resources. We struggled, but she never let me know it, because she always figured it out—she'd sneak me into her radiology lab job and have me sleep in a hospital bed while she finished her shift. It was all fun and normal for me. Between my mom and grandmother, I always had what I needed.

Including a strong connection to your Mexican heritage. How did you navigate being both Black and Brown?

Strong Mexican women molded me and made me what I am today. I was raised surrounded by the culture. But I knew that my skin was darker and that my dad was Black. As I've gotten older and moved through the world, I've made it a point to learn more about each of my cultures. When people see my name on paper, they're not expecting someone like me, a Black girl with a Latin name, to show up. But I've always appreciated knowing that I was different.

Did that inspire your artistic focus?

Featuring Black and Brown women in my work is the best way to let people like me know that they're seen, heard, and understood. I focus on those who are normally quieted in some way. That's one reason the fashion in my work is always very intentional. I make the figures bold because it's okay to stand out. We command the room and demand attention, and we must channel that to make positive change. I'm encouraging Black and Brown women to take up space because we belong here.

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement had a profound effect on your work. Why did you feel compelled to make a print and donate the proceeds to the cause?

Art is a tool for me to get my feelings out. I didn't know how to express verbally the many emotions that come with witnessing the senseless killings of Black and Brown people time and time again. So I found every shade of brown paint I owned and created a piece out of pure emotion. The message behind Black Lives Matter—Keep Blooming is to continue pushing even when it feels as if the entire world is against us. It raised $20K for two community-based organizations working to right the wrongs of racial injustices.

Cristina Martinez and kids
Victoria Kovios

How do you explain BLM to your kids?

I've tried to be open with Marcus Jr and Marley about everything. I coparent with their father, and I asked him if he was okay with us giving them this information. I've talked to them about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and I give them the space to ask questions. After one of those conversations, we walked into a store, and there was a female cop, and Marley was scared. "Is she here for you?" she asked. I told her the police officer was probably getting cereal for her kids. I try to explain all sides. There's a way to inform your children and protect them at the same time. I can't have my kids being afraid of the world.

Has the pandemic made you all closer?

It's allowed me to connect with my children on a different level, especially because I've made so much art with them during this time. Marley is artistic, and Marcus Jr is really into music. When I was a kid, creating was always inside of me—I could never get away from it. So when my daughter wants to paint at 9 p.m., right before bedtime, we make sure she gets to. If my son wants to hear some crazy rock song on the way home from school, we do that, because you never know what that will spark. I really love being responsible for the upbringing of another human.

They must be proud of their mom.

There's really no greater job than motherhood. It's the most special, beautiful thing. What I preach to my children more than anything is going after your dreams. And having faith in themselves. With kids, we tend to focus on learning letters and numbers and colors, but a confident child is capable of anything. My life is proof—when you believe in yourself, and feel loved by your family, the possibilities are endless.

This article originally appeared in Parents Latina's February/March 2021 issue as "In Full Bloom."

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