Bodegas are community corner stores that are chocked full of everything you need to get by in life, plus a bunch of miscellaneous stuff that you never knew you needed until you actually needed it.

Communities happen and neighbors come together often at the bodega. In the spirit of community and storytelling, Pilsen-born artist Jose Raya appropriately titled his first self-portrait “Bodega Dreams”. In his paintings, Raya tells stories about a little bit of everything. Through our conversation, which ranged from Tupac to gentrification in Pilsen, I learned that he has something to say about a little bit of everything too. With a passion not common in our phone-sutured-to-palm world, a conversation with Raya is like talking to your pastor, teacher and best friend all at once. He shows up full-bodied in his work and lays out his message of authenticity, history and education by using cartoons and pop culture references that are easy to recognize. And when reading his work, much like a bodega (or Target on some nights), you come out with more than you thought you would.

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CUSP Magazine met Raya at Mint Clothing, where he displays some of his pieces. We walked through the store, where amid socks emblazoned with Tupac’s face and “Yeezy 2020” shirts, Raya’s work sits on the walls and commands attention. We talked in detail about many of his pieces as well as his journey as an artist.

Q&A – CUSP Magazine & Jose Raya

CUSP Magazine: You’re showing your art here at Mint Clothing — how did that connection come about?

Jose Raya: I am actually the owner’s cousin, and he knew that I was doing the artwork on the side. He said, “I got a box for you [to work on].” It was actually just the register box, and it was just plain. He said, “Do whatever you want, but the only thing is that I want something to do with the store and the name.” So I came up with the concept, and there are some things that reflect that this is a register like the dollar signs on the side. I tried to make it obvious that this is where you pay, and just little things that have to do with pop culture and Chicago. I thought he might want some work that has nothing to do with the store, and he said, “Yeah, just bring whatever you want and we’ll put it up.”

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CM: How has the response been since being here [at Mint Clothing]?

JR: A lot of people like it. My cousin was telling me that a lot of people come in here to look at the work, and they don’t even look at the clothes. It catches their attention for some reason … I try to use a lot of these pop culture images that a lot of people know. What I do is I use a lot of these characters, and I incorporate real history. That one represents the Zoot Suit Riot that happened in California in 1963. I use these images so that people can say, “Oh, I know!” and then they learn something from it. They don’t get put off by, “Oh, I didn’t go to art school so I don’t understand it.” It’s easy on the eyes.

CM: You’ve been here [at Mint Clothing] for a year, but how long have you been painting?

JR: Well, I started off trying to do acting. I wanted to be an actor. I wanted to be like James Dean and Marlon Brando, that was the big dream for me. I did two things with acting: I was an extra for the show “The Boss” with Kelsey Grammer that was filmed here. [The show] got cancelled. I was a cancer patient, and I was excited meeting Kelsey Grammer. I got paid and then I was like, now what? A lot of the actors were telling me that you have to go to these casting calls if you don’t have an agent. I didn’t have the money at the time for it, so I got back into doing drawings. I thought maybe [I’d do] art. I started doing it, and I would go outside and paint in front of my house just to see what people would say. Little by little people started to notice, I just craved the attention. I had a rocky road because of a relationship that didn’t pan out, and I was actually a janitor too. I was always crying, like this is my life. But it wasn’t bad, like I was making good money, I just didn’t want to do it. It ended badly between me and this girl. And I said, “Oh, okay. I gotta get out of this funk,” and so I started painting.

CM: So it was a therapeutic “get your life together” process?

JR: Yes, and it was good. I don’t want to say “traumatic,” but you need those moments in your life to kind of wake you up and let you know that you gotta do something. You can’t just be stuck in this funk. Actually, that’s one of the pieces of the ex girlfriend [pointing at artwork]. I actually used a lot of the stories from the [cartoon] characters [included in the painting]. The witch from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, I used it because I thought … [my ex is] a witch, and I can’t believe she would do this to me. I tweaked [the witch] to represent the ex, because she had a little bump on her nose, and I added a little bump on the nose. And she’s a teacher now, so I included an apple. I took her to New York, so there’s an N.Y. The skunk is me. My nickname in Spanish is Pepe, so I added Pepe Le Pew. You know how Pepe is always chasing the girl cat and he never gets with her? She ends up leaving him for another cat, and [in the painting, the cat] has a tie representing a guy who is educated and has a career. That’s what happened to me. She ended up dating someone who was a lawyer, and I think he left her. She wrote a letter with a list of pros and cons of being with me, so I included that letter here.

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CM: Wow, that is so honest.

JR: Yes, it’s right there. Anyone can read it. Also, she lives in Bridgeport, and you can see that. Plus, she was the one who got me into being a janitor, so I felt like pinocchio with the hands controlling me. A lot of this is because I try to put my life in these pieces, even though they are cartoons.

CM: It’s amazing. So where did you paint this? Where were you at?

JR: I was at my house. I was on the porch, and I was just there like man, what am I going to do? I kept thinking that she’s out having fun and I’m here, stuck, crying, moaning. So I was like, you know what? I’m so mad that I am just going to grab this canvas and start painting.

Jose – “I’ve always wanted the artwork to represent me as well — the art and me are the same. I don’t want people to think I’m some real sophisticated, intellectual artist, because I’m not. I try to be as real as possible in the community that I grew up in and try to relate to people in that sense.”

CM: And you are from Pilsen?

JR: I’m from Pilsen, born and raised.

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CM: And are you still there now?

JR: I’m still there.

CM: What do you think of that being from Pilsen?

JR: Well, I’m very opinionated about that just for the fact that I grew up there when it wasn’t nice. I had to fear for my life. Honestly, to this day I am shocked that I made it to the age I am now. I am shocked, completely shocked. Now the people who are there are kind of care free and they didn’t have to experience that, and it isn’t fair. We built this whole culture in this neighborhood, and they just come and reap the benefits of the struggle to make a living in this community. I just don’t understand. … The Pilsen I grew up in is not the same Pilsen that is there now, which is good for the people who are moving in. The community is getting better and there are more opportunities for artists and even for businesses. But then again, the community that was there is not anymore. Families who have been there for 30 years are being kicked out because the owners and the landlords know that the new people who are coming in can pay double what you pay. You gotta go. Now where are they going to go? They’ve got nowhere. They’ve got no money. That’s the frustration that I have with the Pilsen thing.

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CM: That’s understandable. Has Pilsen affected your work at all?

JR: Growing up there, the first time I saw real artists in my eyes and in my opinion was the graffiti. I saw these kids spray painting and I thought, “Wow, I saw art.” I thought, “These kids are artistic, but they will never make it because they don’t have the money.” I didn’t have the money, but I was drawn to that. I thought I would just do the graffiti because I like art. I was drawn to art, but I had never even been to a museum until I was 18 or 19 years old. I didn’t have the money, and I did not know that there were days when it was free because of lack of information from growing up in these areas. I connected with these kids growing up, and they showed me about spray paint. Everything done here is actually done by spray paint and markers. I try to avoid brushing, just because I grew up more on that stuff. I actually learned to do it with a brush in college, and I was like, “Wow, that’s how you do it.” But in Pilsen, even the muralist — all these muralists who were there in the ‘60s and ‘70s are still there. Seeing that was like our own community. It told a story of what was going on in Latin America, but it was on the wall where the train tracks were at. It connected to that environment.

CM: You talk about your work like it has way more significance than just some stuff you painted. What is the hope behind the message that you are trying to say?

JR: Open books. Learn. Educate yourself. That’s what I want. [I take inspiration from] my perspective and my own life and real life examples from other people as well. There are some works that are about me, and then there are some works like the “California Love,” which is about police brutality. Now with Black Lives Matter, it connects and it will continue to connect over the years because it will never stop. That’s just how it is. I’ve always wanted the art to represent that and to be as real as possible. I’ve always wanted the artwork to represent me as well — the art and me are the same. I don’t want people to think I’m some real sophisticated, intellectual artist, because I’m not. I try to be as real as possible in the community that I grew up in and try to relate to people in that sense.

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CM: You have the piece over here with Che and Tupac. Tell me about that.

JR: I am a big, big, big Tupac fan, to the point where my last name is an acronym, and I got that from him. Mine is R.A.Y.A., which means Rise Above Your Anguish. Actually, the style [of this painting] was brand new. I just came up with it. Me and my girlfriend went to a movie to see “Sign Painters,” and it was [about] painters from the 1930s that would paint everything. They would paint the signs for the clothing stores, so I fell in love with that technique. I thought how about I incorporate those types of fonts in the pieces. Again, I did a Biggie version of this. I don’t have it here anymore, so I thought Tupac has a lot of tattoos, and I thought about all of those tattoos and how it connected to something with pop culture. His black panther tattoo [is represented with] a logo from a firework company from the ‘90s. I try to incorporate each piece with where his tattoo actually was. So with his “THUG LIFE” tattoo, I used the Kool from Kool Aid and the Life from Life Magazine. And his Queen Nefertiti is actually Storm from X-Men. And for his name, 2Pac, I put “Special $2.99.” The 50 tattoo, I used that and he had a gun, an AK 47. I saw this [gun] in a newspaper clipping, and I used that. He had a skull tattoo that said “heartless,” so I thought about the Marlon Brando movie “The Wild One,” and this was the logo from the motorcycle gang. I just put that in there. The Mickey Mouse hands, I thought about his life and the conspiracy that Suge Knight killed him, so I thought about the knife behind his back. Another hand was kind of manipulating him with the Hollywood life, so that is why it’s holding a martini glass. And again, I used Marilyn Monroe, who represents the tragic superstar and hero who died young. He kind of became that iconic figure as well, and now he just becomes an image that you can put on a shirt and you can sell. It kind of washes away the person that they were, and now they come to us as perfect individuals — as if he hasn’t done anything wrong, because he is Tupac now. And Marilyn Monroe is just gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous, but yet we know that these people led tragic lives and were depressed. So I know that connected with them. This other part is from a 1930s comic book strip, and it represents Death Row Records. I connect all of that to it.

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CM: Is that you? [points to another artwork hanging on the wall]

JR: That’s me! Yeah. First self portrait. It’s very difficult too, to kind of expose yourself more. Because now it’s like, this is my face.

CM: I would love to hear more about who everybody else is in the picture.

JR: So this is before the art thing. ABM was the janitor company [that I used to work for]. “Life’s a gamble” represents a time in my life when I wasn’t sure that I should get into doing the art. I was so nervous, because my whole family was depending on me for this check because I was working as a janitor. I felt like this can’t be, this can’t be my life. All I cared about at the moment was that my mom, my parents and my family were okay. I could bring the check, and we don’t have to beg for nobody to give us money. That was great — it was a great feeling, I just felt like I wanted to do more with my life, so I got fired. I remember just crying. I said that I don’t want to do this anymore, break my back for a check. I remember telling my girlfriend that I am going to do this art thing, and I am hoping that something has to happen with it. I am going to make it happen, so I took the chance. That phrase always stayed in my head: “Life’s a gamble.” It is.

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CM: What else is in the painting?

JR: So this [points at gun] is when I saw someone get murdered in front of me. I was about 11 years old, and the killers who killed the guy — I don’t know who he was. He just saw us and said hi. No one saw that these guys were right behind him. And again, it was like in a movie, the gun came out really slow and he put it on the back of his head and he pulled the trigger. The bullet came out and you saw the stuff coming out, the brain matter, and he fell down. I remember in awe, like, he’s dead. My friend grabbed me and says, “Let’s run! Go go go!” We hid in the garbage cans, and the guys came back and they said “Where are those spics? Let’s get them.” And I remember hearing the cock of the gun. While I was in the garbage can, I remember telling myself, “This is how I am going to die. I am going to die in a garbage can. I am never going to grow up. They are going to find me in a garbage can. This is my life. I die here.” That always stayed with me. This is where it happened [pointing to the painting]. 25th St. This is the CTA. I am always on the CTA. Here are the two halfs [pointing to both versions of himself on the painting]. The Raya and the other person. Before the art, I was very shy. I was kind of manipulated to do a lot of stuff, especially from girlfriends and family as well. That’s why I put “I wasn’t always Raya.” The girl represents a lot of the ex-girlfriends who used to make fun of me when I wanted to do stuff with the arts. They would say stuff like, “You ain’t gonna be nothing. You’re always going to be somebody who asks for money and works in factories.” It stayed with me, and I try not to let that happen anymore. Don’t believe what other people say. The drama masks are for the acting. I named this “Bodega Dreams.” If you have ever been to a bodega, there is everything and not just one specific thing. If you ask for scissors, they will say “Yeah, we’ve got scissors.” And if you ask for left scissors, they will say “We’ve got left scissors.”

CM: What do you want people to know about you?

JR: That I basically put my whole life in this art. You see the artwork, that is me. I want them to know that you can know me through the artwork, on and off. That’s who he is. If it’s a Monday through a Friday, he’s still the same person. He never sells out. That’s what I want. Even if it doesn’t sell, I know in my heart that I am putting my life and everything in there. I want people to feel like they can express themselves. If they see my work, they can feel like they want to do the exact same thing. I put my emotions on canvas. I just want to be real with the art, as real as possible. I don’t want to be a little note in Pilsen. I want them to know that I did everything for this art. This is all I got, I don’t have anything else. There’s no second chances for this.

There are only a handful of revolutionary artists who we trust with carrying on our history and telling our stories — Jose Raya is a fresh addition to the bunch. He’s still at the bodega in his old hood and still taking the CTA, but now he is telling his story, making his impact and living his dream.

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For more information on Jose Raya and his artwork, visit his website. Also be sure to check out Mint Clothing’s website and follow the store on both Facebook and Instagram!

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Alexandra Wedro
Rosalyn Wells