Despite having left Cuba at age 5, Brooklyn-based designer Deroy Peraza recalls his early life with surprisingly vivid detail. From the vintage 1950s cars to the art deco houses, the vibrant visuals of the small island nation left a lasting impression on Peraza, but what he recalls the most were the personal connections.
“What I remember most from my first five in years in Havana was that I was surrounded by family and friends all the time. It was such a warm and expressive place. Everyone’s front doors were always open.”
Though his memories of his childhood in Cuba are fond, Peraza’s parents had tried and failed to leave the country several times before eventually securing passage to Panama City. They stayed in Panama for 8 months before finally coming to Miami.
“When we were leaving Cuba, my parents told me we were going on vacation. They couldn’t risk me saying we were leaving permanently if someone asked me at the airport. They were convinced they needed to leave for me to have any kind of future.”
Rubber Stamp Hustle
For the Perazas, the transition to life in the United States was made easier by the large Cuban population in Miami and by the support of many members of the extended family already living in exile. According to Peraza, it was his family’s industrious and ambitious nature that helped them to acclimate more quickly—together they operated like a machine where everyone had a role to play.
“My parents and grandparents are all very entrepreneurial people. My maternal grandmother, Nima, lived with us and was like a third parent to me. She was the family's business mastermind. When we were in Panama, she made cone shaped candies called pirulis. I'd bring them to school and sell them during recess. When we got to Miami, she and my mother started sewing clothes and would go to the sell them at salons on weekends.”
After their first 8 months in the country, Peraza’s parents both secured jobs at a small printing company. Ever the visionary, Peraza’s father José soon found a niche in fabricating rubber stamps after tinkering and scraping together his own stamp-making machine. A few years later, the family began running their own typesetting and rubber stamp business out of the Florida Room of their Miami home. Peraza recalls sitting with his mom at one of their light tables, working on intricate Rubylith color separations by hand (the old school way). As always, everyone in the family had a role to play, Peraza included.
“I would go through the phonebook and write down lists of potential clients. By 15 I was traveling door to door with a little shirt and tie, selling the rubber stamps. I think one of the lessons I inherited from my family is that in order to get ahead you have to take advantage of every opportunity. You’ve got to be proactive and persistent.”
Whatever It Takes
As time went on, Peraza started to feel a keen sense that there was more to the world than what Miami had to offer. Though he had already lived in three different countries before high school, Peraza felt as if he was living in a Cuban-American bubble in Miami. When it came time for him to apply to universities, Peraza set his sights on a place he knew would broaden his perspective.
“New York just felt like it was the center of the universe. I knew I had to do whatever I could to get to New York. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, but in high school I had this one teacher, Ms. Touzet, who encouraged me to pursue my love for drawing. Thanks to her I developed the skill that ended up being my ticket.”
With the support of his teachers and family, Peraza was accepted to Parsons School of Design and was able to secure enough financial aid to make the move to New York. A new life full of opportunity opened up before him.
“New York is a walkable city, whereas in Miami everyone drove everywhere. Walkable cities let you learn so much more about the culture because you’re out there talking to people instead of sitting in your air-conditioned car. New York streets are teeming with people, so I became allergic to suburbia very quickly while I was here.”
True to form, it didn’t take long before Peraza found himself deep in projects outside of his main studies. After a chance meeting with professor John Blackford in an elevator, Peraza was offered a gig to assist on a photo shoot for Time magazine. Peraza accepted and Blackford quickly became his mentor.
"Working with John was always an adventure. I'd get assignments like, ’I need you to find a bunch of super strong looking guys because we’re doing a Roman gladiator photoshoot for a book cover. Go down to Broadway and offer people $50 and see how many you can get in an hour.’”
Peraza recalls one time in particular that the duo had to break the rules, all in the name of art.
“Once we needed a photo of a palatial home for the cover of a book set in 1920's Sri Lanka, then Ceylon. There was a beautiful old convent in the woods near his childhood home in New Jersey, but men weren't allowed anywhere near it. Asking for permission never really crossed John’s mind. We snuck in a back gate like a special ops team, ducking behind walls and staircases. We got the shot and hightailed it out of there.”
Though his methods were unorthodox at times, Blackford’s “whatever it takes” approach to producing art provided Peraza with a valuable life lesson.
"He taught me to take risks. Sometimes making great art requires defying authority and not following the rules. I already had a bit of that in me, but he made me realize it was okay to embrace it.”
In his third year at Parsons, Peraza again decided it was time for a change of pace. After spending a semester abroad in Winchester, England, he decided to take a year off school and live in Barcelona. He had no money, no plan, and no job. Peraza was able to cobble together a living waiting tables. It was a year of creative exploration without the guard rails of the art school environment.
"Barcelona marked me for life. It was where I fell in love with design and architecture. For the first time I saw them as a marriage of creative expression and public service. It was an incredibly productive year."
After returning and completing his degree, Peraza spent his first year out of school trying to make it as a freelancer. Though he entertained a mild degree of success, the entrepreneurial spirit in his blood soon spurred a push for something more.
Peraza had stayed in close contact with Julia Zeltser (Hyperakt's other partner), a fellow student he had met on day one at Parsons. Zeltser, who had come to New York from Ukraine a few years before, shared Peraza's hard-working, immigrant values. Throughout their studies, they had built a friendship based on the tremendous respect they had for each other's work..
"I knew Julia wasn't very happy at her job and I knew we would make a great team, so I suggested that we team up and start our own studio.” The stars aligned and Hyperakt was born on September 7, 2001 - 4 days before 9/11.
After 8 years working on projects of all sorts, Peraza and Zeltser took on a new challenge – transforming Hyperakt into a sustainable communication design business focused on social justice, equity and the arts. In the decade since, the studio has produced work for ACLU, UNICEF, Amnesty International, The National Endowment for the Arts and many more. Peraza explains how his upbringing and experience has guided the studio’s direction.
“Everyone comes to this country because they're searching for freedom, independence and a fair chance to succeed if you work hard for that success. That's how I define the "American Dream." For Julia and me, that American Dream materialized, but for many people it's a myth. Hyperakt works with clients fighting to ensure that everyone has the opportunities we've had to live fulfilling lives. We believe everyone deserves a fair chance.”
Having now been a resident of New York for over 20 years, Peraza recalls how it wasn't until he left the Cuban-American community in Miami that he discovered a newfound appreciation for his Cuban heritage. The distance pushed him to dive deeper into his culture—the books, the music, the food. All of this history has shaped his present. Where he had once felt forced to assimilate to American culture, he know sees his Cuban roots as a source of strength and pride.
“Hold on to your cultural identity. What makes people memorable is their otherness, the thing that makes them different from you and authentic to themselves. I love being surrounded by people with diverse backgrounds because there is richness in seeing the world through different perspectives. Celebrating our otherness and seeing each other for who we are, for all our differences, is what brings us all together to find common ground and push for opportunity.”