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Orlando Sentinel

Island's Disabled Artists Join Forces To Gain Respect, Not Pity

By Iván Román | San Juan Bureau

November 17, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Orlando Sentinel. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Ay, bendito!

This signature phrase for Puerto Ricans is meant to bring forth kindness in many ways.

It literally means, "Oh, blessed," but it's really like saying, "Poor thing!" or "Oh, what a shame" or "Oh, dear!"

It fosters an attitude that makes it OK for people to screw up several times before getting it right. It is used to take pity on the "bad luck" of others. It also gives voice to a sense of resignation that at times can be a pillar of strength, other times just an easy cop-out.

For Luis Felipe Passalacqua, a blind sculptor, that kindness is really a curse.

So he crafted a piece depicting a person smashing through a clay wall with the words Ay Bendito in white letters. Black vertical lines like a jail cell symbolize none too subtly the tyrannical confinement of kindness laced with pity.

"It's a symbol of the discrimination disguised as the 'Ay, bendito!' " said Passalacqua, 42. "Other people exclude us with that phrase and with that attitude. We have to destroy that wall of discrimination, and I made that wall like that, old, because the pity has been around for centuries."

Passalacqua, a medical illustrator before he became blind six years ago, has found a way to express his anger through the local Art Without Barriers program, a for-profit venture in which artists with disabilities strive to make and sell their art to become more self-sufficient.

Collectively, by securing exhibits as a group or designing calendars and Christmas cards for sale, they not only try to make money, but pool their voices to knock down the mental, social and economic barriers that wheelchairs and walking sticks trigger in many minds.

Their brush strokes are part of an often-ignored group's broader, everyday struggle to be accepted as they are, treated like everyone else and be taken seriously when fighting for their rights -- depicted by the figure smashing through the wall in Passalacqua's piece who appears to be yelling.

"Sometimes you have to scream," said Passalacqua, who did his part by suing the island's School of Fine Arts to successfully bring about changes in teaching methods for blind students. "We have to put an end to this pity they have of us."

The 2000 census estimates there are about 1 million people with some kind of physical, mental or sensory disability in Puerto Rico--about 28 percent of the population.

Lack of employment, housing, transportation and adequate health care, particularly for those with mental disabilities, tops the list of complaints, according to Altagracia Ruiz, planning director for the Office of the Representative of People with Disabilities.

Employment discrimination and architectural barriers are growing complaints as people with disabilities become more visible and strive to integrate more into society. A campaign to show that people with disabilities can be independent and compete in society has had some results, Ruiz said.

"But there are still people who tend to overprotect them," Ruiz said. "Those who tend to have that kind of attitude are people who are religious. They always think God is going to do a miracle."

These artists wait for no miracles but take the bull by the horns. Training is limited to a fewbecause government funding was pulled a few years ago. But before changing society's attitudes, they first work at changing -- and healing -- themselves.

In her piece of digital art "Face without a Face," Julie Rondón shows her inner change, her process of realizing all the things she can do with the cerebral palsy she has had since birth. The woman on dark-brown paper first has a mask on, then halfway off, and then the mask is gone.

"The first woman shows all the negative things within me, that I couldn't draw, that I just couldn't do it, and in the second one, I began to see my identity more clearly," said Rondón, 51, who has sold several pieces and whose designs grace the group's Christmas cards. "I felt inside that I was worth nothing, worth nothing. And now I am worth a lot, and I have no mask."

The involuntary jerking of her hand on the mouse sometimes forces her to redo pieces many times, but it doesn't keep her from kayaking in the island'spristinenatural reserves. She dropped pursuing a special-education degree to pursue the personal -- and, she hopes, financial -- freedom that art can provide.

"I want to be self-sufficient, which has been my dream all my life," said Rondón, who moved out of her mother's home three years ago. "I don't want to be a burden on the government. I want people to see that people with disabilities can do marvelous things."

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