onions, peppers, and other sofrito ingredients artfully suspended above a grinder, as if ready to be sucked in
Ingredients ready to be ground into sofrito. Credit: Bernardo Medina

Bernardo Medina’s mother chased him into art with a foam rubber flip-flop.

“Latina mothers call it a chancleta,” says Medina, a San Juan, Puerto Rico-based pop artist and publicist. “It is the weapon that they use against you as a kid. I was very hyper, and since there were no medications for it, it was my mother’s slipper.”

As a lad in the rural northern coastal town of Hatillo, Medina knocked over a porcelain sheep and shepherd from his mother’s prized Lladró nativity scene, and Medina’s older sister Millie pronounced him dead. “My sister told me, ‘She is gonna kill you physically,’ so I ran outside and climbed a breadfruit tree.” Medina’s mother stationed herself at the base, slipper in hand, and he was only spared the wrath of the chancleta after his father argued for clemency.

His parents thought they’d found a productive outlet for that kind of energetic “lack of precaution” by enrolling him in art class, where he produced his first bodegón, a simple still life of an apple and a book. But before long Medina began to disrupt class as well, rendering the fruit in impossible patterns and colors, eventually painting entirely imaginary varieties. 

Medina, now 60, is still creating wild bodegónes, some of which are hanging for a few more days in Humboldt Park at the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture. “The Sofrito Manifesto” is a pop-up exhibition featuring 62 photographs from Medina’s sprawling 250-page tribute to the cooking of his late abuelas. It’s a hefty, bilingual coffee-table-sized tome full of recipes, and stories by his sister Emilia, aka Millie; it’s all illustrated with eye-popping food photography, paintings, and pull-out posters rendered in Medina’s defining style, which he calls “Jibarito Pop.”

On the island, no one thinks of Chicago’s iconic plantain sandwich when the word “jibarito” is invoked. Medina’s never heard of it, let alone eaten one. The word originally means “little hillbilly,” and in most circles it’s a pejorative, unless you’re Medina, who has come to embrace it as a “reaffirmation of the pride and beauty of my roots.”

Medina is the president of Kroma, the commercial marketing agency he founded 20 years ago after a career bouncing between the island, New York, Connecticut, and Luxembourg.

As an undergrad studying theater at the University of Puerto Rico, “I was very into musicals,” he says. “I want to produce shows and make money, and to my classmates I was extremely capitalist. So I didn’t belong there. And then I studied business and to the faculty I was a hippie. Getting into art and defining Jibarito Pop was a self-discovery process of fighting with my peers, my colleagues, and myself.”

Medina’s exhibited his artwork in New York, Madrid, Havana, Miami, San Juan, and now Chicago, where “The Sofrito Manifesto” hangs until August 13, after which it moves on to New York, Boston, Miami, and D.C.

It launched in early June with a Janellie’s Kitchen-catered spread of frituras: “all the fried foods,” including tostones, bacalaitos, empanadillas, sorullitos, piononos, and alcapurrias—the beef-stuffed plantain fritters whose Sofrito Manifesto recipe is illustrated with a photo spread of a ravishing, designer-clad couple foreplaying a romp in an antique hotel suite with this iconic street food.

“You don’t eat alcapurrias in that environment,” says Medina. “It’s not made with caviar. It’s made with ground beef by a granny.”

Neither of his grannies ever cooked from recipes, but they cooked all day, every day, with produce they grew themselves. On his maternal side in particular, Abuela Inés Alonso Montijo cooked farm-to-table long before it was a marketing concept—say, scraping out a backyard coconut and extruding its milk, instead of buying a can for the jiggly pudding known as tembleque.

“The Sofrito Manifesto”
Through August 13
The National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture
3015 W. Division

“She did everything with her bare hands and her brain,” says Medina. “It was a lot of code words.” “Un poquito de sal” for a pinch of salt; “un chinchin de sal” for a smaller pinch.

Medina and his sister wrote 50 recipes based on their abuelas’ cooking, combing through boxes of notes, clippings, and mementoes, and sitting down at kitchen tables with cousins and aunties back in Hatillo.

Medina summoned all the powers of his public-relations firm and assembled and printed 2,000 copies, of which there are about 500 left. He titled it for the diverse seasoning foundation of the food of Puerto Rico (and most of Latin America). “Sofrito is an alliance of six ingredients: garlic, culantro, cilantro, onions, and sweet and hot peppers”; they are disparate elements that form the base of a dish, much in the way different media comprise the book. 

After “The Sofrito Manifesto” closes, Medina’s returning to Chicago this fall to collaborate with the artist Josue Pellot and the design studio 408 Fabrication on an outdoor mural somewhere on Pulaski Avenue in Hermosa. In the meantime he’s working on The Sofrito Manifesto 2: Cocktails, Beverages, and Drinks, the second in a planned series of volumes and an epic Jibarito Pop undertaking motivated as much by his sense of capitalism as his sense of home. “My son wants to be an oncologist,” he says. “He’s gonna study ten years. This book and the other eight that I produce are the way that I’m gonna raise the freaking half a million dollars to call my son Dr. Medina.”