Freedom is a short, seven letter word with immeasurable depth. For local artist Camilo Rojas, that one word has inspired some of his most meaningful pieces.
His latest creation is on display not at an art gallery, but rather at the entrance of a new fast casual franchise of Sergio’s Cuban in Brickell. As Rojas sits in a corner table, above him is a large text piece that displays the restaurant’s new slogan, “A fresh take on Cuban.” Blink once and the sign flashes to read, “Free Cuba.”
That’s right, the first thing guests see as they walk into the spot is a declaratory statement that will have you standing and staring as you contemplate what it means to be free. At least, that’s what Rojas wants you to do. The piece is meant to have people stop and reflect on the idea of freedom, says the artist.
“I’ve been exploring the concept of freedom for many years already,” he adds. “One of the first freedom pieces I did, titled Forever Free, was in honor of someone I met a long time ago.”
He goes on to tell the story of a trip he took back in 2005. It was the first time he was back in his native Colombia after becoming a U.S. resident. Like a typical vacation story, he met a girl at a club, they danced the whole night, and then they parted ways in the morning. Two years later, Rojas was visiting Hong Kong and while in a loud, crowded venue he felt a tap on his shoulders. When he turned, he recognized the woman from Colombia.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, shocked to be seeing her again in a foreign country. With a sad smile she replied, “I was kidnapped at the airport and now I’m a sex slave.”
Rojas stood there, mouth agape. “I couldn’t even process what was happening… I offered my help but she said there was nothing I could do. I felt helpless.”
The rest of that short trip was spent contemplating the idea of freedom. As if it were kismet, the article he read while on the plane ride home dealt with modern slavery and the words “forever” and “free” jumped out to him from the text. “It was as if all the other words in the article disappeared and I was just left with ‘forever’ and ‘free.’”
Earlier this year, Rojas was one of the artists who exhibited at the Moore building for the RAW Pop-Up in May. He took over three floors of the building and each of his pieces dealt with freedom. “I dedicated that exhibition to the victims of modern day slavery. I did some research and found victims’ names and wrote them all over the first floor of the building” as the backdrop for the Forever Free light text piece.
That same piece hung on the walls of his studio when one afternoon Sergio’s CEO, Carlos Gazitua, walked in. After an impromptu meeting including their mutual friend and businessman Eli Coro, the idea for the Free Cuba sign was hatched.
The newest franchised location for Sergio’s Cuban opened its doors for a soft launch in mid-December. During the opening night event, Rojas was there to interact with guests and customize some shirts. The theme of the evening was, naturally, freedom. The artist asked guests one simple question: How long have you been tasting freedom?
Guests lined up to snag a one-of-a-kind tee shirt and have it customized by Rojas with the name of their family and the year they arrived in America.
“I heard many touching stories that night,” recalls the Colombia native. “I got to speak with people from places like Nicaragua and Venezuela, but mainly from Cuba. Everyone that night felt connected to the idea of freedom.”
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While many people just told the artist the year, he said he had one woman tell him the exact month, day, and year. While he was working on her shirt, huddled over the table and eyes focused on the work, he asked the woman to tell him her story. She began by remembering how bad conditions were in her home town in Colombia — daily car bombs and overall unsafe conditions — and how she came to America with her four young children in order to give them a better life. The story was eerily relatable for Rojas. He looked up, and sitting across from him was his mother, tears gliding down her cheeks.
“I was focused on customizing the shirt so I was looking down the whole time she was telling me the story,” says Rojas. “When I finished and I looked up, I saw my mom. It was a moment of true reflection for her as she was telling me her story… I wasn’t expecting that.”
He discovered that night something he already knew deep down: All immigrant stories share a common thread, which is the search for freedom and the opportunity for a better life.
“Many years ago, I’d never find myself saying this, but after [the successes of] this past year, I’ve finally accepted that I have a gift and that my work moves people,” admits Rojas. “All my pieces have a soul and people can see that and it moves them.”