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Protecting Chinatown — The Story of Trisha Obsequio

Updated: Oct 17, 2021

Q&A with Trisha An Obsequio

Interviewed by Andre Weiss

So just tell me about yourself.

My name is Trisha Obsequio. Trisha An Anaras Obsequio. It's a very long name. I grew up in Boston, part of West Roxbury. My family's from the Philippines. So, my parents and my dad both immigrated here. And they're both nurses. So, because of that whole nursing family tree, I decided to major in it too, but I'm still figuring out what I want to do for college. I’ve just kind of been doing a lot of schoolwork. I’ve been taking a break from a lot of, like, my activism and artwork since I did a lot of that during the school year last year, and I want to get back into it, but I’m still trying to adjust back to university.

So, what type of art mediums do you practice?

So, when I was four, I started with colored pencils, markers, printer paper, you know the vibe. But in the last year, I've been working a lot with oil pastels because I really love the concentration of the color, it's so bright and you can create a lot of different textures in it. Besides pastels, I've been dabbling a bit with film. I like doing videos because you can really interact with stories. It's a lot more engaging than just staring at something and you can be a lot more direct with what you wanna say with what you want.

Since you started pretty early, what has kept you creating art?

Honestly, part of it is that when I was younger, people were like, wow, you're such a good artist [...] and it was like dogshit art, and everyone was like, you should keep drawing. I was like, you know what? I will. I learned really early on that I am very receptive to positive reinforcement.

I really enjoyed doing, like, portraits and stuff. And I liked drawing more than I did like writing. I hated writing papers in school. I also found it easier to express myself with drawing and so I was like. You know what, I’m kind of okay with it, and people can understand what I’m trying to do. Like, we had these… these journal things in class. And we would have to write about a prompt that a teacher gave us. But we also had a space to talk where you could draw a lot of stuff, so I would always add a really intricate drawing for a six year old. It was pretty bad because it was a six year old, but it was stuff like that.

And I think, as I got older, I was exposed to more types of art, as you do when you live in Boston, especially when I started doing community organizing work through GMACC, Greater Malden Asian American Community Coalition. I met a lot of really amazing artists, like Vivian Ho and Shana Lu who are very involved with the Chinatown community. I saw how art can be used to bring people or experiences to the light and also empower the community at hand. It doesn't have to be something really dark or a story in the past, it can be associated with the present and to a lot of different things.

What emotions do you feel when you create different art pieces?

It kind of depends on what I'm drawing, I guess, because usually when I did art from about four to ten years old it was just to unwind because I found it really relaxing. It’s difficult to describe, because I don’t really remember what I’m doing when I’m making art. Like, I feel very motivated. Once I get into drawing, it feels great, just being able to transfer my thoughts through my hands onto the paper. I also feel productive. I feel like I’m able to channel myself into something, which is really fun. Cause, it’s been hard for me to focus lately, but with art I always am able to revert all my attention to it. And then just seeing progress; I like taking progress shots to see how I go from point A to point B. But usually, with my art, I’m never super frustrated with it because I feel like I know where I’m going with it. And if it doesn’t end up like how I want it to be, I'm able to quickly turn it into something that I want to go into.

What types of emotions do you want to evoke when people see your art?

I like making people feel empowered by the art that they see, but also, I think part of that comes with doing art, like, you see something and you’re like, wow, that really fucking sucks. I wish I could do something about that. And that, you can turn that into, I guess, motivation to do something more. So, that's kind of what I want people to feel when they look at my art. Yeah. Not just directly anger, but the feeling that they can or should do something. [...] I wanted the readers, the viewers... audience, to feel an urge to respond; or, do they want to protect what they see? Do they want to, like, punch it? Do they wish they could be there?

When did your art start bringing you closer to your community?

Definitely high school—freshman year is when I felt myself slowing down with art, and I would be hanging out with all of my friends more, and I would go to Chinatown specifically; I've been talking a lot about Chinatown because Chinatown's the place to be. And by sophomore year, we had to do a project on economic inequality, and this is when my art started to center community more. I then realized that they kind of overlap.

So, there's community organizations like ACDC, Asian Community Development Corporation, that do a lot of work with empowering Chinatown residents, and when I saw that, I was really taken aback by how art was used to fight against something that they were facing. And it was a huge part of it, and I thought that was so cool. Especially, like, we have this one mural that used to be in Philip's Square, where I think they might have taken it down, but it was a mom and a boy; they were like blowing bubbles together. It had, like, the strings that tied the community together, and I really felt connected to that piece. I love being in Chinatown, it was a comfort spot for me because it's where I spent a lot of time with my friends. It was somewhere that I didn't live but I worked and played there and when you see that you can use art to show how much you really see, that's something that I really wanted to capture in Chinatown.

I think when I started doing community work, there were a lot more artists that encouraged me to use my art to build people up to foster a sense of community.

Do you have situations in which you personally have done artwork to try and improve your community?

My friends and I have been thinking about how we could help get through the pandemic, and what if we did something with art. So we thought let's make mutual aid a thing, but instead of it being just learning about grammar, vocabulary—you could do something with how art can be used to express yourself. [...] It was all about giving access to kids with a bunch of art supplies, and also teaching them that they could use it to be a channel for what they want to say.

Going back to senior year, I was in the Asian Students in Action [ASIA] club and wanted to do something more with the club, as it was not a very politically active club. It didn’t focus on a lot of solidarity work. So we collaborated with a bunch of other cultural groups in our school—Talented and Gifted Latinos (TAG), BLACK, and MESA Society? We wanted to create a video documenting the experiences of people of color in our school; students of color, specifically. You know, where you can find a community, what kind of instances of discrimination you might have faced, and also what your hopes are for the school going forward. That was my focus for the last brunt of the school year, because I really wanted it to be something that the school could continue to use when it was orienting new students. So we made the video. I made it, I edited it, and then we showed it to the rest of the school. We're very proud of the work that we did with it. We also made a Google forum for kids to like say what their reactions to it, how they felt about it, just so that we could create a dialogue in our community about, like, what could get better, not just, like, the voices that were already there, because we knew that there wasn't all perspectives represented in the video so we wanted as much as possible.

So, based on all the work you've done, do you feel like you've made an impact?

I think it has made an impact because at least with the video, I know that people were forced to see it. And I know the BLS was thankful to have it in their records. But I hope that with my other work, when people see it, they are curious to learn more about the reasoning behind it. They learn about what inspired and which are a lot of issues that plague Boston currently, like the Haitian community is trying to stay together. So in that way, yeah, I hope it was impactful.

There was stuff that was directly impacted by me, like the guard project and a mutual aid initiative. I think that was the most immediate one because you got to reach out to those communities that you wanted to. Throughout those sessions, you can see all the kids loving art more or improving their skills.

What extra advice would you have for POC artists who are new to the scene?

I would say it's hard to stay motivated when you do art. I find myself falling into this slump for the past year. It’s like, I want to do art again, but I don't know where to start and it's just don't be afraid to make mistakes. It also doesn't matter what art supplies or the skill of the caliber coming into it, it's not about comparing yourself to others. Don't compare yourself to other artists that you see in how they're improving, the only progress that you should be focusing on is from how much you've grown from where you started and practice practice practice. YouTube is a great place because there's so many different creators out there that you can find what you're trying to do with your art and you could imitate them at first and then just take it with you where you want to. And don't really give a fuck about what you're drawing just do it throw it onto the thing and then reflect afterwards on what you liked about it.

What’s your advice for POC artists who want to get started in helping their community?

It depends on where you live because like I'm from Bostonso it's easier for us to find community organizations that are near us. You can literally walk to them. Boston is also huge, there's a lot of places that you can go to and there’s opportunities to get involved.

You also gotta work with those communities you want to represent because you don't want to cause all kinds of exploitation, when you just want to use it for a resume.It’s important to make sure you’re invested in the work you’re doing and the art you’re creating,