By Marco Aquino
After causing a stir in the Texas art scene with his participation in Mexic-Arte Museum’s annual Young Latino Artist exhibition (Young Latino Artists 22: ¡Ahora!) in Austin, Jose Villalobos is shifting his energies from the world of fine art to the creation of a brand new line of LGBTQ Pride-themed novelty items. For those of us who may not be able to afford museum–quality artworks, this line of merchandise allows the perfect opportunity to support the arts while showing a bit of pride. The line, Joterías by Jose, includes stickers, jewelry, key chains, and various items all geared towards the queer shopper with a sense of humor. “The ultimate goal is to grow as an artist but also grow as a merchant,” Villalobos explains. “I think there is a lot more to be done.”
The term “jotería” derives from the Spanish derogatory term, “joto” (fag), but in recent times, it has been reclaimed by the queer Latino community to signify a collective identity. In her landmark book Borderlands/ La Frontera: The New Mestiza, the Latina feminist writer Gloria Anzaldúa embraced the term and called for others to embrace their “jotería” as well. “Chicanos need to acknowledge the political and artistic contributions of their queer,” Anzaldúa wrote. “People, listen to what your jotería is saying.”
On a more humorous note, Villalobos points to the similarities between the terms “jotería” and “joyería,” which means jewelry shop. “I remember as a kid, there was this jewelry shop and I would always read it as “jotería,” he says. “As an adult, when me and my friends would go to the gay bars, we also called that going to the ‘jotería.’ It was sort of a made up word for us…and it just became its own thing.”
Born in El Paso, Texas, Villalobos’s artwork reflects a southwest aesthetic aimed at deconstructing traditional gender norms, specifically within Mexican-American communities. In last year’s Young Latino Artists exhibition, Villalobos presented a series of wildly flamboyant cowboy hats lined with fringe around their outer edges. An icon of Mexican-American culture, the cowboy hat in Villalobos’ hands is transformed into a symbol of gay pride. While blurring the line between fashion, visual, and performance art, Villalobos creates thought–provoking work and challenges the status quo. A recent graduate of the University of Texas at San Antonio, Villalobos currently resides in San Antonio and is co-director at Clamp Light Artist Studios and Gallery.
Joterías by Jose offers a line of unapologetically queer merchandise not unlike the artist’s gallery work, but with a more lighthearted vibe. One of the more striking items is a reproduction of a Villalobos drawing titled Top Chico. Offered in the online shop as a sticker, the image is a reimagining of the popular Topo Chico bottled mineral water. A queer Latino response to Andy Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s Soup Cans, Top Chico hilariously redefines a staple of consumer culture with the absence of a single letter. Here, Villalobos replaces Topo Chico’s logo (a female figure drinking from a stream) with a nude, muscular male figure emerging from the water. The image seems to mock the way in which gay men present themselves in today’s era of online dating, a process akin to the pre-packaging of products made for mass consumption. One glance at anyone’s Grindr profile and you may notice an overemphasis on age, race, weight, and preferred sexual positions (top or bottom). “It’s pretty much selling yourself,” Villalobos says. “I don’t mean like a hooker, but I mean it’s putting yourself out there. That’s why I decided to use something that’s very well–known but also something that’s sold commercially.” Originally sold in Northern Mexico, the Topo Chico brand has developed a loyal following among hipsters in Texas and its popularity continues to spread throughout the U.S.
In Paco, also available as a sticker, Villalobos reinterprets a character from the 1993 film Blood in Blood Out starring Benjamin Bratt and known for its hyper-masculine Latino gang members. Villalobos’ Paco, however, sports a brilliantly colored gay-pride bandana on his head.
As someone who grew up within a religiously conservative family along the U.S./Mexico border, Villalobos understands the hostilities often expressed towards the gay community. He remembers being called a “puto,” a “maricon,” and a “chupa vergas.” As evidenced in his 2016 installation work, De La Misma Piel, a series of leather belts emblazoned with Spanish-language gay slurs, Villalobos has made it his duty to reclaim such terms and take away their power.
Much like his artistic practice, Villalobos’ line of novelty items is riddled with dark humor and fueled by an unabashed sense of queer pride. “I feel sometimes that we’ve become afraid of showing pride and facing negative consequences,” Villalobos says. “I think there should be more acceptance of the fact that we exist and there has to be more support.”