How This First-Generation Latinx American Artist Honors Her Heritage on the Fourth of July
When I think of the Fourth of July, the first thing that comes to mind is the big American flag decorating every store, home, and public building. The Fourth of July is the embodiment of American patriotism; however, all too often, we forget about the immigrants who left their countries and families to move here and chase the big American dream. To each one, that dream represents something different – whether that's better education, better job opportunities, or a better place for their kids to grow up. To many, it also means freedom. Today, almost 14 percent of the US population immigrated from another country, according to the Pew Research Center – and they too are Americans.
That's what Manuela Guillén – a teacher, painter, muralist, digital illustrator, and daughter of Salvadorian and Cuban immigrants – wanted to highlight when she designed the very first Fourth of July tee for Old Navy in Spanish. The tee consists of an American flag surrounded by the words "Old Navy Para Todos," which translates to "Old Navy For All," a movement she feels very passionate about.
We chatted with Guillén about what the Fourth means to her, and what designing this tee represents for her and her community.
What inspires your art?
I think the majority of my inspiration comes from my background, culture, and stories from my friends and family. I get a lot of inspiration from tropical plants — to me, they're very symbolic. I think they represent growth and diversity because they're imported from foreign countries like Mexico, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, etc. Plants just remind me of super cultural, exotic places. Because I lived in the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Miami, those are all things I grew up around and are familiar to me.
What does the American flag mean to you?
When I was a young child, I remember my mother reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to practice for her citizenship exam. She would look proudly at the American flag and recite the English words in her Salvadorian accent. I admired how proud she was to be one step closer to her citizenship and that I would join her side. For us, a family of immigrants, the American flag represented the American dream.
However, today as a first-generation American of immigrant parents I have mixed feelings about the American flag. I believe the American flag can represent the best parts of American ideals, like bravery, overcoming oppression, and pursuing a better tomorrow. However, I've also seen how the flag has become a tool for nationalism — dividing people into "real Americans" (white, heterosexual, Christian, conservative) and outsiders (Black, Brown, Indigenous, queer, disabled, undocumented). People within the margins, immigrant populations, and minority communities are seen as outsiders. As a first-generation American, I've been told a few times that I don't belong here despite this being the only home I know.
I still think about that childhood memory when my mother and I embraced the American flag as a symbol of inclusion for all who wish to call this place home. I have hope that it can one day truly represent the values it purports to embody, for everyone.
What does it mean to you that the tee is the first ever to feature Spanish?
It's such an honor to see the iconic Old Navy flag tee in Spanish! Growing up in Miami, the Spanish language was always heard and celebrated. However, sometimes I noticed the moment you stepped out of the Latinx pocket of the city, you may be ostracized for speaking your language. Being able to create a T-shirt celebrating my first language [Spanish] brings me so much joy. Recently, Old Navy sent me the tee for my Latinx students, and the students were so excited. But for me, hearing them say "para todos" with their accents was a truly special moment to be a part of — because like me, this too was their first language. I hope this tee can serve as a gentle reminder that America is para todos, for all people with all backgrounds.
How do you celebrate the Fourth of July?
I celebrate the Fourth of July by remembering all of the struggles that have taken place and continue to take place in this country, for basic human rights, equality, and freedom. I also think about all of the Indigenous people who have suffered unspeakable losses at the hands of colonization, and who continue to fight for sovereignty of the little land they have left. I celebrate this holiday with friends and communities who are also pushing for a brighter future while honoring and remembering all those who came before us.
What does being American mean to you?
Being an American means to value and support all communities — to create a better tomorrow by holding space for marginalized communities. I believe being an American means wanting to see your community thrive and not just survive. To me, it means making space to educate ourselves so that we may be diverse in experiences and grow stronger together both as individuals and as a country.