Carnaval, Culebra, Encanto: Alexa Rivera Explores Puerto Rican Culture in Textiles

Alexa Rivera, a recent Textile/Surface Design graduate who took Prof. Susanne Goetz’s advanced screen printing class last semester, created a collection of designs inspired by Puerto Rico. The collection combines the island’s Taino culture dating back to before Columbus arrived, local architecture, and florals, to beautifully merge history and textile design.

This stripe print invokes a desire to explore the streets of Old San Juan and heritage of the Taino.

Rivera (’22 AAS) says she had never created something that told a story about her culture. She set out to do just that. “Initially, I wrote down a list of things that come to mind when I think of Puerto Rico, such as Old San Juan, El Morro, coqui, dominoes, and La Carnaval.”

Puerto Rico is commonly known as La Isla del Encanto or Island of Enchantment for its beautiful beaches, mountain terrain and inviting climate.  It’s the name Rivera chose for her collection.

Each house in this print has texture and depth as it would appear in Old San Juan. A second stripe shows Taino symbols, a reflection of the island’s past.

The culture of Puerto Rico has been a big part of her life despite growing up in a military family that moved frequently before settling in Suffern, NY. “When I was given this assignment, I had no idea the journey it would take me on.” she said.

“Alexa did a great job,” said Prof. Susanne Goetz, “bringing together Taino culture, architecture, and florals in a way that combines history and textile design in a really beautiful way.”

A blotch print, one of three in Rivera’s collection, which focuses on Vejigantes masks, a feature of the pre-Lenten Carnaval.

The assignment’s objective was to develop a collection in three color combinations for a specific market. Carnaval, for instance, is an exhilarating festival with bright greens, lively magentas, bold yellows, and blues. Culebra invites viewers to escape into the soothing Caribbean waters with warm neutrals and calming blues. Encanto brings light to native island colors — deep blues, warm reds, crisp white, and accents of gold.

Rivera prefers to draw by hand when designing, “simply because I like the process of using pencil and paper.”

She started by drawing about 30 motifs that would then be used in her three designs. She sketched doors, houses, cobblestone, coqui (frogs), dominoes, Vejigante masks (typically worn during the carnival), bongos, and other objects in detail.

Hand-drawn motifs

Most of the motifs are hand drawn on tracing paper with black micron or sharpie. This makes it easier for Rivera to see how they layer together in Photoshop.

Hand-drawn motifs

“Puerto Rico has such a rich culture I wanted to incorporate as much of it as I could,” she said.  She then scanned each individual drawing into the computer, thresholding and designing her layout in Photoshop.

Each of the three prints was designed around the same story but each has a different layout:

“The first design is a ‘tossed layout’ that incorporates a multitude of different motifs in different shapes and sizes. The goal was to create interest: Everywhere one’s eye sees something new to be curious about.“

“There’s so many motifs to incorporate, so a ‘tossed’ print seemed most appropriate,” says Rivera.

The second print was a stripe design inspired by Old San Juan’s streets. San Juan, founded in 1521, is the capital and a city far older than any European settlement in North America. There exists El Morro, a fortress built by the Spanish, blue cobblestone streets and colorful, intricate architecture.

Screen printing starts with a design, in this case a stripe layout, with each dye color separated and printed onto vellum or some sort of transparency to make the “screens” for printing. Fabric areas that overlap appear as a third color, or “trap.”

Rivera says she felt compelled to represent Native American history as well. Taino were the indigenous people of the Caribbean; especially large populations inhabited Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica. About two-thirds of all modern-day Puerto Ricans carry evidence of Taino ancestry.

The Taino used symbols to represent different deities, animals, and words. Rivera says she took some of these symbols into her designs to reflect the history of the Caribbean.

Vejigantes motif

Her third design was a blotch print that focuses heavily on the iconic Vejigantes masks, a major feature of the pre-Lenten Carnaval in Puerto Rico. The masks represent demons and can be quite scary. But they are often juxtaposed with bright, playful colors.

vejigantes masks with florals

This print plays with vejigantes masks, softened with florals. Rivera says it is one of her favorites, despite the challenges of drawing the movement and liveliness of the expressions.

vejigantes masks with florals

“I wanted to create a print that showcased the variety and intricate details of the masks, she said, “while softening them with floral elements and keeping the design lively with the addition of musical notes and dominoes.”

Rivera is currently a textile buying intern for URBN Anthropologie. “Seeing the process of cross functional teamwork has been super rewarding,” she says. “As a designer on a merchandising team, I was able to listen to customers through a sales perspective and to implement changes through design. I had the opportunity to design a beach towel collection for summer 2023.”

Alexa Rivera in Central Park

To see more of Alexa Rivera’s work, visit her website: AlexaRivera2MyPortfolio.com.

To learn more about the Textile Surface Design AAS and BFA programs visit: Textile/Surface Design at FIT.

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