Exclusive interview with Denise Ruíz, creator of Madre de Perla Designs
Denise Santina Ruíz is a Chicago-born, Humboldt Park-raised Puerto Rican poet, mother, agitator, and create of Madre de Perla Designs. She was a two-time finalist for the annual Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Competition, and has featured in such events and venues as the Annual Barrio Arts Festival, the Athenaeum Theater, Batey Urbano, Ponce-at-night, among others. Denise recently wrote and performed in Unnatural Spaces, from the Guild Complex’s Poetry-Performance Incubator. She has also taught poetry and creative writing to youth in the Humboldt Park community.
LR: Who is Denise Ruíz? Where did you grow up, what sorts of activities are you engaged in right now?
DSR: I am a mama bear, writer, and all around creative free spirit who isn’t afraid to warrior up when necessary against social injustice and oppression. I’m a comrade. I am also the owner of Madre de Perla Designs.
I was born and raised in Chicago, between Humboldt Park and Logan Square, my parents once owned a home on Cortez and Rockwell, and my father still resides in his home of over 20 years in Logan Square.
Right now, I am sort of full fledged into running my creative business and trying to see where I can take it. Its become obsessive at this point and my dining room table is now my work space so we officially have no place to eat together as a family. I’m trying to figure out a better system! Other than that, I’m raising my kids, and I do still write and perform on occasion.
LR: What is Madre de Perla Designs? How did you develop the concept and when did it begin?
DSR: Madre de Perla Designs provides re-mixed and re-designed wallets, purses, clutches, bags, luggage & hats using mixed media, fabric, paint, paper, embellishments etc. All designs have vintage elements and recycled materials included and are one of a kind. I never duplicate designs.
The concept was floating around in my head for a couple of years. I had seen some DIY stuff and also other artists using similar mediums and I thought, hmm, I like that, and it isn’t an overly saturated market. Maybe I can make my own style. So I slowly began collecting vintage bags a couple years before even doing it. It was a “someday, maybe I’ll try it for fun” kind of idea.
Then last July, my mother passed away from an aggressive cancer. She was diagnosed with only six months earlier. It devastated me. I felt powerless in my grief and paralyzed with how to express it. I couldn’t write. The thought of trying to convey the deep sadness inside through words, (because that was always my way of working through anything), seemed daunting. My emotions were too raw to go “there.” But I needed something, to help me work through the pain. And so one day I grabbed a few bags and wallets and vintage clothes that I cut up and redesigned them. Those first few designs were done with tears. But it felt so meditative and healing. I posted them on my Facebook page just sort of like, ‘Here’s my first few designs I did, what do you think?” I was inboxed almost immediately on prices and all of the designs sold out.
The name Madre de Perla, translates to “Mother of Pearl” in English. My mom gave me the name, she came to me in a dream after she passed and I was sleeping in her bed. My birthstone is Pearl. This whole creative venture is an homage to her.
LR: What inspires your designs? Why use images of famous Boricuas and Latina/os and our experiences in Diaspora? What kind of messages are you trying to send your customers and fans?
DSR: My inspiration is drawn from many things, sometimes the bag itself tells me what it needs to be or I can visualize it immediately. Sometimes I am very intentional, especially when considering images or if I think in terms of series and I won’t start until I find the perfect ‘canvas.’ I am very drawn to African and Indigenous prints, folklore, mythology, nature, Hip-Hop, Puerto Rican and Latin American history & culture, revolutionary movements, Diaspora, politics etc.
One of my first images I designed on a vintage bag was of Julia de Burgos. I did it because to me she is right up there with Frida Kahlo or Emily Dickenson in terms of notoriety and importance and impact on culture. She is one of the most famous poets in all of Latin America and I don’t see her celebrated the way she should be. Not here in the U.S. anyway.
I also did Rita Moreno for the same reason. I created a series called, ‘From Bomba to Hip-Hop’ which was inspired by the book of the same name authored by Juan Flores. All of those designs sold out. And I’m not talking about just Chicago, in California, New York, in Utah a woman was pleading for me to make her a custom Julia de Burgos wallet.
People are hungry to see themselves, to celebrate their culture in a place where assimilation is forced down your throat. Where you are forced to study and celebrate Western figures and our icons or historical game changers get relegated as an elective, a side dish or a few paragraphs in an otherwise fat history book. We need to know our own history, our own revolutionaries, our innovators, our ancestors, ourselves.
LR: What has been the reaction to your work so far? Why do you think folks are hungry for this type of artistic work?
DSR: The reaction has been mainly positive thus far. It’s been a blessing. It’s very inspiring when someone gets what I’m doing. I am a firm believer of like-souls finding like-souls and I feel just as I was looking for things that spoke to my spirit and culture, there are others as well. Just as I love to support independent artists of color or women, there are those out there who are on the same wavelength and we find each other and hold one another up. I’ve been able to get great advice and insight from other independent artists out there who are more than happy to answer my questions and give encouragement. It creates a beautiful community and beautiful artistic exchange.
LR: Some companies appropriate our cultures and identities for profit, but take away the meaning. How do you avoid this? Why is Madre de Perla different?
DSR: This is an excellent question and something I am constantly checking myself about. Someone once told me, ‘The intent of your heart must be pure enough to sustain all consequence.’
I am very drawn aesthetically and culturally to African and Indigenous fabric and culture, partly due to my upbringing, partly due to my own conscious awakening. There can be a fine line between cultural appropriation and cultural celebration and exchange. I think one of the major differences between the two is the intent and respect with which you go about doing it.
My intention is not to commodify a culture as some kind of trend or costume because it isn’t. I’m not a big company shelling out mass produced pictures of Che on a T-shirt ‘cause it’s cool. I understand these things are sacred and the same way I want to celebrate Puerto Rico I want to celebrate Africa and the original peoples. I love Día de Los Muertos even though I’m not Mexican. I am tremendously drawn to this celebration of our ancestors and spirits that walk alongside us, now more than ever with my mother’s transition. What an amazing holiday! I teach my kids about this and we partake in celebrations every year.
I want my line to be about something bigger than a cute bag, which is great, but this is about making a statement that where and who we come from is fly and important to recognize, and once again to celebrate. One of the ways I want to incorporate knowledge of who is on the design is by providing a short bio along with the description when I do my website. And lastly, on a personal level, it’s about drawing from my own ancestry and culture, which is rooted in African and Indigenous lineage, and learning about the different ways that is represented throughout history and the world. I’m also teaching and learning myself as I go along in this journey. These designs are done with agency and understanding and most importantly, respect.
LR: Tell us about your upcoming political prisoner line? Who are you highlighting and why? Any other upcoming designs/ series for your company?
DSR: The political prisoner line will be called the ‘Libertad Line.’ It will bring to focus the political prisoners who are in or exiled from our country today.
We are told over and over that we have no political prisoners here from the powers that be. But we do, Oscar López Rivera is a political prisoner, Mumia Abdul-Jamal is a political prisoner, Leonard Peltier, is a political prisoner, Assata Shakur is in exile in Cuba after escaping U.S. prison where she was a political prisoner. The list goes on and on.
The focus of this line will not only be about educating or using the design as a catalyst to have the conversation. I want each piece to come with information and resources on where to read up on these folks and how they can contribute to their cause or even write them.
A portion of sales will go to that particular person’s commissary or legal fund or organized committee. I created an Oscar López Rivera wallet as the first design in the line and it sold immediately. Half the proceeds went to his campaign to free him. I definitely plan to do others, but because these will require additional details I am probably looking to create more in the summer once I get done with the fashion show.
Other series I plan to do is a Part Two on the ‘From Bomba to Hip-Hop’ as well as a few other new series in the works that will be unveiled later. Some of these will cross over to other series, our experiences are not in a vacuum. But it does give me focus on what/ whom I want to highlight
DSR: My goal is to eventually have a web-site or get on Etsy. Right now I sell my designs on my facebook page and through Instagram. I just started the vending circuit and learning the ropes. So, definitely, I want to just take all the opportunities I can to grow.
I’m definitely excited about future collaborations with other artists, many times artists can be very solitary in their work and it’s good to branch out and work with someone else who can bring their own perspective alongside of you. On April 27th at the Emporium Arcade in Chicago, Madre de Perla Designs alongside Roots of Life Designs will be featured in a collaborative fashion show produced by and for Vintage Soul Customs; three independent Latina designers coming together to make magic. It’s going to be very exciting. I just want to keep getting better at this. It’s all been experimental trial and error. I’m still a novice in this design game, I have MUCH to learn. And I plan to do the work, pay the dues and continue to elevate.
LR: Also, are you doing or plan to do any more poetry writing?
DSR: As for my poetry and writing, I am getting the itch to do something in that area again. I do miss writing. La Respuesta approached me about a blog and I am excited and terrified about the possibilities of that! I also want to finally get seriously started on my chapbook this year.
I am now taking more opportunities to read at events which is something I wouldn’t do as much before, but as I said, losing my mother has created within me a different respect for life and death. And that recognition of impermanence has become the impetus of living in the present, with courage, creativity, joy and intention.