Sotomayor returns home in new exhibit
The idea of coming home, for many members of the LGBT community, is a difficult one. Facing past demons, we occupy once-familiar places and attempt to relate to once-close friends, but our hearts remain where our chosen homes have taken root.
But returning home also presents its share of opportunity, one of remembrance and influence. This is the case with A Hero Comes Home, an exhibit currently showcasing the work of the deceased gay cartoonist and activist Daniel Sotomayor at the Institute of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture in Humboldt Park.
Sotomayor, born August 30, 1958, grew up in the neighborhood, but left a troubled childhood of abuse and homophobia behind when he moved to East Lakeview. He later graduated with a degree in graphic design from Columbia College, met his partner, playwright Scott McPherson, and was well on his way out of a dark place.
But his AIDS diagnosis was at once sudden, debilitating and inciting. He became involved as an organizer with ACT UP/Chicago. He was known for his hot-headed, confrontational personality as an activist, one that eventually would prove too provocative even for the organization itself.
"[Danny] was a guy, like so many others, who was fueled by rage his whole life," explained Lori Cannon, Sotomayor’s best friend, reflecting on their experiences leading demonstrations, being arrested and bailed out together. "His philosophy was that everyone had a voice, and for him, it was in-your-face, disruptive direct action, keeping a high public profile for the issue of the lack of funding for the AIDS community."
In addition to his work on the streets addressing the issue of HIV/AIDS, Sotomayor turned to paper and pen to share his message. Becoming the first nationally-syndicated openly gay political cartoonist, he published over 200 cartoons in publications including the Windy City Times and the Bay Area Reporter over the course of his too-short three-year career.
Work still relevant
His drawings addressed the government’s inaction on the needs of the LGBT community and those suffering from AIDS. In recognition of the current debate on national health care, his work has proven unendingly relevant, prophetic even, nearly two decades following his 1992 death from AIDS-related complicated. It was the same year he was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.
"There’s no mystery that there’s contemporary relevance, and I think it says volumes about our society that these things that were problems then are still problems now," said Victor Salvo, renowned Chicago activist and another friend of Sotomayor’s.
"Danny had a message and a medium and it’s important to us that his work continues to live on."
The work’s relevance - in addition to the fact that it has never before been showcased in the cartoonist’s former home neighborhood - was a motivating factor for bringing the exhibit of 100 selected Sotomayor works to the Institute. "A Hero Comes Home" is significant as the Institute’s first exhibit of an openly gay artist, a decision symbolic of the neighborhood’s increasing acceptance of its gay community.
"It’s very meaningful for me, as a young gay leader of Puerto Rican and Mexican descent in this community, to bring him here," explained Juan Calderon, a board member of the Institute and director of VidaSIDA. "This exhibit speaks about the transformation this community has had in detaching the stigma facing LGBTQ residents."
As Cannon and Salvo spoke of the exhibit’s opening reception on World AIDS Day last month, they feel gratified of the community’s response, seemingly meeting their goal of preserving Sotomayor’s message - inspiring youth and activists alike to address the social challenges affecting them head on, in whatever way they know how.
"It’s a pleasure to share his work with people who might be motivated to say, ’Maybe I can do something,’" Cannon told EDGE. "We need to continue to be on our guards because I don’t see the galvanizing of this community on [HIV/AIDS] or any other issue. We remain second-class citizens and people are still struggling."
"Watching the look on the faces of these people who were so young, grasping the magnitude of all this, it gives us hope for the future," Salvo continued. "I hope that young people, those that have the same fire under their belly, are inspired and realize they can have long, constructive careers while being true to the issues that matter to them. That’s probably the greatest tribute to Danny that we can facilitate."
A Hero Comes Home remains on display at the Institute of Puerto Rican Arts & Culture, 3015 W. Division, through March 5, with a special commemoration of the 18th anniversary of Sotomayor’s death on Friday, Feb. 5. The Institute is closed Wed. and Sun., open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. other weekdays and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat. Visit www.iprac.org for more information.