As part of Miguel Luciano’s La Mano Poderosa Racetrack, visitors to Humboldt Park’s Galeria Tinta Roja can line up pairs of Hot Wheels cars smack in the middle of a ten-foot-tall fiberglass replica of Christ’s punctured hand. Given a nudge, the cars speed down a 20-foot track as a TV monitor (“the stigmonitor”) rolls looped footage of cockfights paired with a sound track of revving engines and screeching tires. The first car to cross the finish line, marked by a large wooden sacred heart, wins a prize–a shiny plastic trophy shaped like a plaintain, with wheels.

“Between 1999 and 2000 somebody got this idea to start racing Hot Wheels in Puerto Rico,” says Luciano, who’s 31 and lives in Brooklyn. “There were Hot Wheels racing tracks everywhere, from people’s patios to parking lots of strip malls and fast-food restaurants. There were more Hot Wheels sold in Puerto Rico than anywhere in the world.”

In 2000, at the height of the Hot Wheels craze, sales of the cars quadrupled on the island, with 250,000 sold in six months–and that was just the official tally. Stateside travelers brought back their own inventory to sell or trade as well; the most sought-after models fetched as much as $50 on the street. “My little brothers were really into it,” says Luciano. “And then my father got super into it. The adults became really engrossed in this whole pastime.”

Puerto Rico’s enthusiasm for Hot Wheels wasn’t the result of some guerrilla marketing campaign–in fact Mattel executives told Luciano, who interviewed them as part of his research for the piece, that they didn’t even want to sponsor local races because of the betting that went hand in hand with many competitions. Luciano thinks the fad took off due to police crackdowns on the island’s more macho pastimes of cockfighting and drag racing.

The popularity of Hot Wheels racing has waned over the last three years, but the trend isn’t in danger of dying out. It’s got strong roots in another Puerto Rican tradition, says Luciano, one that some islanders would rather keep mum about. “It’s a colonial sort of dilemma. The majority of the island lives below the poverty level, but we consume more per capita than anywhere else in the U.S. There’s four million people in Puerto Rico, and we buy a whole lot of stuff.”

Luciano’s art takes jabs at both old and new Puerto Rico. In La Mano Poderosa Racetrack, for example, he incorporates the long-standing practice of carving saints on the fingertips of depictions of the stigmata. But in his sculpture the Virgin Mary is replaced by Mama Ines, the Aunt Jemima-like mascot for a popular brand of coffee. Ronald McDonald, a Powerpuff Girl, and Colonel Sanders stand in for saints Joseph, Anna, and Joaquin. “I had to explain it to my grandmother a lot,” says Luciano, who adds that he’s not interested in taking on either Mattel or the Catholic Church. “From the carved saints, which are an authentic Puerto Rican tradition, to Hot Wheels racing, which is definitely a Puerto Rican innovation, I was looking at the whole project as a sort of adaptation of colonial practices.”

Luciano was brought to Chicago by Jorge Felix, director of the Institute of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, who saw an exhibit of his work in New York last year. He spent much of the past week in town leading workshops at the Puerto Rican Cultural Center that relate to another installation at Tinta Roja, Cuando las Gallinas Mean.

“It’s an old vending machine,” he says. “I modified it and changed it into a chicken that pees.” The Spanish phrase painted on the face of the machine translates as “You can speak when hens pee,” a Caribbean version of “children should be seen and not heard.”

Chickens, of course, don’t pee–waste product from their kidneys and intestines is combined. But after you put in a quarter, this bird produces water (through a pump that Luciano installed) and then dispenses an egg filled with a prize created by a workshop participant.

Both pieces have a carnivalesque aspect that Luciano says is critical to his work. “For me, the piece works best when it can re-create a festival-like atmosphere,” he says of the racetrack. “It’s a lot of fun. But part of the fun is tongue-in-cheek. It’s biting as well.”

La Mano Poderosa and Cuando las Gallinas Mean, along with other paintings and sculpture by Luciano, will be on display at Tinta Roja, 2701 W. Division, through May 15. There’ll be an opening reception and Hot Wheels competition from 6:30 to 9, on Friday, March 26. Toy cars of various makes and models will be available for sale, but visitors are invited to bring their own cars as well. It’s free; call 773-486-8345.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Dorothy Perry.