HICCUP creates positive disruption to bring visibility to Hialeah

The souvenir is as much a time-honored vacation tradition as is taking photos standing awkwardly next to world-renowned historic landmarks and tuning out the kids in the backseat as they continually ask, “Are we there yet?”

But here’s the thing with souvenirs: they’re typically mass-produced in China and in no way actually reflect the local identity of the place you visited.

“Initially souvenirs were unique to a place,” says Ariana Hernandez-Reguant, cultural anthropologist and co-founder of Miami’s Hialeah Contemporary Culture Project (HICCUP). “Now, in the last two decades, they’re all made in China, and now anywhere you go in the country it’s all the same [mass-produced items].”

While America has been swept up in a newfound (or perhaps we should say rediscovered) passion for all things local, handmade, and artisan; and while the new cornerstone of most travel-oriented media is the appeal to all things local (“How to Eat Like a Local in Paris, According to Actual Parisians“) for the savvy travel who seeks an “authentic” experience; the souvenir industry is still full of cheaply-made, mass-produced tchotchkes with no authentic ties to the local community, city, even country, outside from the fact that they have the country’s name plastered all over them and can be found in just about every souvenir shop, drugstore, and gas station you should stumble across.

Hernandez-Reguant, along with her fellow HICCUP co-founder and contemporary artist Ernesto Oroza, is currently in the process of launching Hialeah Souvenir, a HICCUP project that was inspired by research conducted by Oroza and fellow contemporary artist Gean Moreno.

The two artists collaborated on a research-driven project called Drywood, an installation that was displayed this year at Art Basel inside the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM). The research behind this project dealt with object typography, specifically the souvenir, and how this object reflects modes of contemporary production, urban identity, user engagement and the concept of sacred artifacts.

“[The research was] on the notion of the souvenir as an object that embodies memory and the connection someone has to a place. They remember that place through these trinkets,” says Hernandez-Reguant. “[Oroza and Moreno] did this research and posted their ideas and reflections of the souvenir as a unique object that people fill with meaning. [Through this we came to ask], does the souvenir have political potential?”

This opened the doors for them to consider the social impact of the souvenir, and how the object can be used to change the dynamics between person and place, culture and consumption.

Through the HICCUP collective, Hernandez-Reguant and Oroza use creative social practice and cultural theory to showcase and highlight the blue collar city of Hialeah in South Florida’s Miami-Dade County as a center of artistic talent and creative production, engaging Hialeahns and surrounding communities directly with a variety of research-focused, dialogical, and place-based projects of varying sizes, from architecture preservation efforts to placing benches in various spaces throughout the city to foster informal social interaction. A “hiccup” is a sudden spasm, a jarring disruption, and that’s the effect they want their HICCUP projects to have in the community – something unexpected that disrupts (in a positive way) the regular, everyday flow.

During the process of Oroza’s and Moreno’s research into souvenirs as cultural artifacts, they ended up right back where they conceptually started: in Hialeah.

The predominantly white Hispanic city is known as a blue collar industrial town, and as such it has a souvenir factory of its own. This factory once produced souvenirs for Miami; now, because production is so much cheaper in China, the generic souvenirs are made there, shipped through this factory that now serves as a distribution center, and are sold in Miami. Hialeah is completely invisible in the process.

“Hialeah is invisible in this view of souvenirs. It is invisible in this international transit because the souvenirs are made in China and sold in Miami Beach,” explains Hernandez-Reguant. “At the time [Oroza] and I were already working a lot in Hialeah [on issues of value culture], so we asked, ‘How can we made Hialeah visible and make these souvenirs highlight this place – the manual workers, the small companies?'”

As a cultural anthropologist, Hernandez-Reguant works within the intersection of arts and labor and society, focusing on Cuba and Cuban diaspora (Hialeah is the second-largest ethnic Cuban city outside of Cuba). She notes that, in addition to Hialeah’s relative invisibility in production, there is also a distinct shame attached to being from Hialeah. “Hialeah is 99.5 percent white Hispanic but is very conscious of its whiteness. Spanish is the first language here. People hide the fact that they come from Hialeah because it reveals humble origins in the immigrant journey.”

Because Hernandez-Reguant is interested in social practice, she wanted to explore how they could take Oroza’s and Moreno’s research and take it beyond the installation level, doing something that will foster a reflection on object-making. They decided, “Let’s come up with objects that then modify the relationship. Instead of having a connection to a place that becomes representative of a memory, create a relationship with place through object.”

She hopes that Hialeah Souvenir can also instill a certain amount of pride, aiming to reverse the traditional person-object souvenir relationship in which the souvenir represents a memory of a place the person has visited and instead comes to represent a new relationship to the place through the object. And this is not unheard of: consider people wearing sports jerseys for teams from cities they’ve never been to, collecting shot glasses from Hard Rock Cafes around the world from friends who do the actual traveling, or donning the once-ubiquitous “I [Heart] New York” T-shirts that could be seen from coast to coast. Having actually been to a place is not necessarily a mandatory prerequisite for having a relationship to it.

Currently Hernandez-Reguant  and Oroza are thinking about textures, materials, and everyday objects, asking, “What sort of objects will people feel represented by? What could people identify with Hialeah?” Hernandez-Reguant says, “It could be anything from a wrench to a spatula for a cake. If you make it in an interesting enough way, it might be sold God knows where and show off Hialeah.”

This project involves working with different groups of people “investigating what sort of objects would transcend Hialeah to foster new types of connections between the objects and this place these people have never been to.”

They are raising money for a small design shop where they can work with youth and local people, for which they have already received some funding from the Knight Foundation. With the theoretical and historical research already done, they are now conducting social research: working with local people and gathering them together, going to different trade places and seeing how they work and what they do. Ever the anthropologist, Hernandez-Reguant notes, “Now it’s sort of everyday ethnography research.”

Thanks to the work of HICCUP, soon you too might be able to own a piece of Hialeah, and know that the object is imbued with a local spirit much more holistic than a pewter Eiffel Tower paperweight with a “Made in China” sticker on the bottom.