Category: Chicanarte-Chicano art

The New World Border Exhibit

The New World Border traveling exhibit was originally organized in 2011 by three artists from the San Francisco Bay area of Northern California, Francisco Dominquez, Art Hazelwood, and Doug Minkler. The exhibit is comprised of prints created by thirty artists from around the U.S. who are opposed to the construction of a giant “security” wall along the U.S./Mexico border. The collection of linoleum cuts, silk-screens, monoprints, offset and digital prints has so far been exhibited in 9 states across the U.S. in sixteen different venues.

The exhibit premiered at the La Peña Cultural Center in Berkeley, California, where it ran from March 3rd to April 30, 2011, and it concluded a run at its sixteenth venue, La Casa del Túnel: Art Center in Tijuana, México, for the month of September, 2013.

"No Border Wall" - Mokhtar Paki. Digital print, 2011.

"No Border Wall" - Mokhtar Paki. Digital print, 2011.

Included in the exhibit is Mokhtar Paki’s digital graphic, No Border Wall, an anthropomorphic depiction of the barrier that scars the boundary between the U.S. and Mexico. The artist portrayed the wall as having been transformed into a goliath police force automaton.

Created from inanimate materials - concrete, barbed wire, and a closed-circuit television spy camera for an eye - the creature has been endowed with life by the national security state in an attempt to keep humanity divided. The concrete slabs that form the monster’s head also allude to the so-called “Security Fence” Israel has constructed around the Palestinian West Bank.

However, since its creation, Paki’s artwork has been given another layer of meaning. President Obama’s NSA surveillance program is currently spying on every American that sends an e-mail, views a webpage, posts a photo to social media, or uses a cell phone.

I am not a fan of “appropriation” in postmodern art. Too often the methodology is employed in such a way that the “repurposing” of another artist’s work not only leads to a facile style that does not require much imagination and even less skill, it also strips history from our collective consciousness. As a rule such works offer little more than cynicism and a supposed “ironic” view of life, concomitantly avoiding any substantive critique of the social order.

An accepted practice with today’s elite art establishment and its stables of revolting art stars, “appropriation art” is a far cry from its origins, the radically subversive “détournement” that members of the late 1950s Situationist International (SI) advanced.  For those revolutionists, it was a method of “turning expressions of the capitalist system and its media culture against itself.”

That being said, Nancy Hom’s digital print, Catalina’s World, is an example of how appropriation works best in visual art. Hom is counting on the viewer being familiar with the famous 1948 painting by Andrew Wyeth, Christina’s World, since her print would be meaningless without foreknowledge of Wyeth’s tour de force. Hom re-imagined Wyeth’s realist painting as a hard-edged, silkscreen-like image, and in the process transformed Wyeth’s magnum opus into a depiction of the sad realities now occurring at the U.S., Mexico border.

"Catalina’s World" - Nancy Hom. Digital print, 2011. "As she treads wearily towards the promised land of El Norte, the very earth she crawls upon becomes death itself."

"Catalina’s World" - Nancy Hom. Digital print, 2011. "As she treads wearily towards the promised land of El Norte, the very earth she crawls upon becomes death itself."

Wyeth painted a portrait of his neighbor Christina, a woman incapacitated by polio whose courage and will to live was not at all stricken; as Wyeth put it, she was “limited physically but by no means spiritually.” Somehow the depiction of the woman crawling through a parched field of tall grass towards a hilltop wooden farmhouse conveys a great sense of optimism; Wyeth’s brilliant treatment of sunlight and open space suggests, not a world of pain, but one of boundless freedom. Christina is an enchanted being that makes her way through a dreamlike realm where all things are possible. Wyeth’s celebration of mystery and the indomitable human spirit can easily be categorized as “magical realism,” a genre that today is most often associated with the artists of Latin America; here we begin to slip into Nancy Hom’s vision.

In Hom’s print, Christina has metamorphosized into Catalina, an archetypical Latina. As an “everywoman” figure, Catalina also displays bravery and the will to persevere, but instead of finding herself in a sunny dreamland where hope imbues every blade of grass, she is trapped in the nightmare world of the border region. As she treads wearily towards the promised land of El Norte, the very earth she crawls upon becomes death itself - a morbid reminder of the thousands who have perished from thirst or violence in failed attempts to cross the border over the years.

"Quetzal" - Fernando Marti. linocut, monoprint, and hand painted watercolor. "Complying only with the laws of nature."

"Quetzal" - Fernando Marti. linocut, monoprint, and hand painted watercolor. "Complying only with the laws of nature."

Fernando Marti’s Quetzal is a dazzling poster, for its message as well as its technical virtuosity; the print is a combination of linoleum cut, monoprint, and hand-painted watercolor.

The simple black and white linoleum cut of the border security fence is convincing in its minimalism, as is the rocky barren landscape it divides. Soaring above the scene is a magnificent Quetzal, the bird most closely associated with Central America; sacred to the indigenous people of the region, the bird is a symbol of freedom to many.

The pre-Columbian border design and the “speech glyph” emanating from the bird, allude to the role the Quetzal played in the ancient Maya and Aztec civilizations. The Quetzal flies freely over the fence, complying only with the laws of nature and ignoring the false divides imposed by nation states.

"Ningun ser Humano es Ilegal" (No Human Being is Illegal). Mark Vallen. Offset poster ©. This photo shows the poster carried at the 2010 Chicano Moratorium march in Los Angeles, CA.

"Ningun ser Humano es Ilegal" (No Human Being is Illegal). Mark Vallen. Offset poster ©. This photo shows the poster carried at the 2010 Chicano Moratorium march in Los Angeles, CA.

My own No Human Being is Illegal poster is included in the show. First published as a bilingual street poster in 1988, its title eventually became a catchphrase for today’s defenders of immigrants’ rights. The poster’s axiom is an emphatic affirmation of the inherent rights possessed by humankind. It cautions that when individuals are stripped of humanity and designated as “illegal,” then even worse abuses cannot be far behind. Not so long ago it used to be said that a child born to unmarried parents was “illegitimate.” I am hopeful that in the future, the opinion that some people are “illegal aliens” will also become an archaic expression.

No Human Being is Illegal was original published in conjunction with a 1988 drive conducted by the Los Angeles based Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), to secure the rights of undocumented Central American war refugees in the U.S. During the 1980s Central America was convulsed by revolution and murderous state repression. Seeking to escape the carnage, hundreds of thousands of people furtively entered the U.S., only to find themselves targeted for arrest and deportation back to the killing fields.

Welcome to the Land of Your Dreams by Jos Sances, takes a scatological approach to the issue at hand. Grimly sarcastic, the land of milk and honey resembles nothing so much as an enormous dung-heap, a foul pile made from the detritus of empire. Composed of discarded refrigerators, cars, TVs, disposable consumer products of all kinds… and human bodies, the enormous lopsided rubbish mound is perilously close to falling over from its own weight. The fetid mass is protected by a razor wire topped cyclone fence, the vehicle of an armed security patrol parked at the ready alongside the security fence.

"Welcome to the Land of Your Dreams" - Jos Sances. Digital and Screen-print, 2001.

"Welcome to the Land of Your Dreams" - Jos Sances. Digital and Screen-print, 2001.

At the pinnacle of the mountain of crap sits an amusement park carousel ride, except that the merry-go-round’s painted wooden horses have been replaced with grotesqueries; sitting atop the carnival ride’s rooftop is the logo for the American International Group (AIG). Formerly one of the world’s biggest insurers, AIG collapsed in 2008, was then bailed out by the U.S. government using taxpayer dollars - $182 billion worth - after which AIG used around $1.2 billion of the bailout funds to pay their CEOs lavish bonuses. The dung-heap must be maintained.

Adding a surrealist touch to the miserablist landscape, a gargantuan housefly buzzes over the rotten panorama like a converted crop duster towing an aerial advertising banner; flapping in the wind, the streamer is emblazoned with a mock advertising jingle, which also serves as the title of the print… “Welcome to the Land of Your Dreams.

On the face of it New World Border has a single focus, the border between Mexico and the U.S, but the exhibit provides an opportunity to look closer at a very complex situation; modern Mexico is in a tailspin, and U.S. governmental policy has much to do with it. Mexico is tormented by a vicious “Drug War” that has taken the lives of some 70,000 people, workers in Mexico and the U.S. have suffered immense setbacks under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the Mexico government is run by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), a corrupt political party that has held power almost continuously for 71 years. While not directly addressed in the New World Border, these facts form a backdrop for a deeper understanding of the exhibit.

A quick look at Mexico’s humble corn tortilla reveals much. The domestication of corn began in Mexico some 9,000 years ago, and it became the foundation of the great Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations. Corn went on to become a main food crop and staple in Mexico’s centuries old village-based corn economy, with the corn tortilla still reigning supreme. Then came NAFTA. Signed into law by President Clinton, Canadian Prime Minister Mulroney, and Mexican President Carlos Salinas of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), the supposed goal of NAFTA was the abolition of trade barriers between the capitalists of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico.

One result of NAFTA was that Mexico was flooded with inexpensive U.S. corn imports produced by American corporate agribusiness, so much that Mexico’s farmers had no chance to sell their corn at competitive prices. Hundreds of thousands of Mexican campesinos stopped growing corn, can no longer maintain their farms, and have lost their land and livelihoods. Today Mexico imports more corn from the U.S. than it grows; the corn tortilla in Mexico is more likely made of cheap GMO corn from the U.S. than from a Mexican farmer. To think, the Aztecs used to worship “the Lord of Maize.” As Mexico’s corn economy continues to collapse, the country’s farmers and agricultural laborers migrate to the U.S. in search of work.

Despite promises from President Clinton that “NAFTA means jobs, American jobs, and good-paying jobs,” the results of NAFTA have been the deindustrialization of the U.S. and the exportation of hundreds of thousands of U.S. jobs to the Maquiladora “Free Trade Zone” of Mexico. Mexican workers labor in those U.S. owned plants for as little as $50 for a 60-hour work week. Largely composed of women, the work force suffers from severe exploitation, miserable working conditions, a total lack of union representation, grinding poverty, and environmental hazards. U.S. and Mexican elites have made off like bandits, while workers on both sides of the border have suffered nothing but losses.

The “Drug War” fought in Mexico since 2006 has taken the lives of 57,449 Mexicans as reported in late 2012 by the Monterrey de Milenio newspaper. Let us put that statistic in context. U.S. soldiers fought in Vietnam from 1955 to 1975, and during those twenty years 58,209 U.S. soldiers died in combat. In Aug. of 2012, the Mexican non-governmental citizens action group, Movement for Peace With Justice and Dignity, put the drug war death toll at 70,000 - so far. As the Mexican government supposedly combats groups like the Sinaloa and Los Zetas drug cartels, the well armed cartels battle each other for control of turf and profits. The war is exceedingly brutal, as this photo essay in The Atlantic attests. Mass killings, torture, and beheadings committed by cartel gunmen are routine; it is all done to feed the drug habits of North Americans.

Much has been made of arms purchased in U.S. gun stores ending up in the hands of Mexican drug gangs. But the weapons seized by Mexican authorities often include the same type of weapons the Pentagon supplies the Mexican military. The U.S. has provided $2 billion in military aid to Mexico’s police and armed forces since 2009. Leftover rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and fully automatic AK47 rifles from Central America’s civil wars are also available on the black market. It should be apparent that corrupt members of the Mexican government, military, and police run a pipeline of arms to the cartels.

The Obama administration claims that it tried to smash cartel arms traffickers in 2009 with Operation Fast & Furious. Agents of the ATF allowed criminals working with the cartels to purchase guns in the U.S., then tracked the arms as they were brought into Mexico. It is alleged that the operation was to meant to identify and arrest the drug lords receiving the guns. However, the weapons were never traced to their end users, they disappeared into the cartel underground; no cartel boss was ever arrested as a result of the “sting.” The operation started to unravel when U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed in 2010 near the Arizona-Mexico border by gunmen using two AK47 rifles traced to Fast & Furious. Since then hundreds of Mexican civilians have been killed by guns traced to the operation. Of the over 2,000 guns Fast & Furious brought into Mexico, 710 have been found at crime scenes or otherwise “recovered,” the rest remain in the hands of the cartels.

"PRInocho: Peña No Cumple" (Peña Fails) - Opposition poster against President Nieto. "Pinocho" is Spanish for "Pinocchio", so PRInocho is a play on words that equates Nieto with the marionette whose nose grew longer when telling a lie, and identifies Nieto as a string-puppet of the PRI.

"PRInocho: Peña No Cumple" (Peña Fails) - This poster against President Nieto is not part of the New World Border exhibit. "Pinocho" is Spanish for "Pinocchio", so PRInocho is a play on words that equates Nieto with the marionette whose nose grew longer when telling a lie. The poster also identifies Nieto as a string-puppet of the PRI.

Then there is Mexico’s rigged general election of July 1, 2012. The contest was between Enrique Peña Nieto of the PRI, and Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the “left” social democratic Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD).

Massive vote rigging swept Nieto and the PRI into power; reports of fraud, vote buying and tampering with ballots were rife. The AP reported that the PRI distributed untold thousands of pre-paid “gift cards” in poor neighborhoods in exchange for votes.

The Sydney Morning Herald of Australia quoted Eduardo Huchim of the Civic Alliance, which is funded by the United Nations Development Program; ”It was neither a clean nor fair election, it was perhaps the biggest operation of vote-buying and coercion in the county’s history.”

Latinos Post quoted an electrician and trade unionist, Heliodoro Maciel; “Yes, the PRI has experience. They know how to steal. They know how to make pacts with drug cartels. And they know how to kill.”

President Obama telephoned Enrique Peña Nieto in the aftermath of the sham election to congratulate Nieto for winning a “free, fair, and clear” election. Nieto’s reign will not be any different than that of his crooked PRI predecessors; historically the PRI has been the party of oligarchy, repression, and naked reaction.

In 1938 left-leaning President Lázaro Cárdenas nationalized Mexico’s oil at a time when U.S. and British oil companies completely dominated Mexico’s oilfields, taking the lion’s share of the profits. Cárdenas’ nationalization of the country’s oil has long been a wellspring of national pride for Mexicans. But Nieto wants to privatize sectors of Mexico’s Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), the state-owned oil company. El Presidente wants the nation’s oil resources sold to the highest bidding foreign oil companies - which is the real reason he received a heartfelt “congrats” from Mr. Obama.

On Sept. 8, 2013, over 40,000 people gathered in Mexico’s capital beneath a gigantic banner that read, “No To The Robbery Of All Time,” in opposition to Nieto’s privatizing the oil industry. Just 3 days before Mexico’s Independence Day (celebrated each Sept. 16th), President Nieto ordered 3,000 riot police to forcibly remove tens of thousands of striking Mexican teachers who were protesting in the capital’s central plaza. Prior to seeing Nieto shout “¡Viva México!” from the balcony of the National Palace in the annual commemoration of the revolution against the Spanish Empire, the nation got to witness riot cops tear-gassing, and bludgeoning teachers.

Stories more revealing of Mexico’s excrescent ruling elite could not be told.

The New World Border exhibit has been shown at venues from Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, to exhibit spaces in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Missouri. At the end of 2012 an entire suite of prints from the show was acquired by the U.S. Library of Congress for that body’s impressive permanent collection. In mid-October 2013, a PowerPoint display of New World Border prints was presented at the Borders, Walls and Security international conference held at the University of Quebec at Montreal, Quebec, Canada, bringing the exhibit to three countries.

New World Border is also scheduled to be shown from November 2013 to March 2014 at the main library of City College of San Francisco in San Francisco, California. In addition, a full set of New World Border posters will be donated to the collection of Cal State University at Sacramento, California, were a future exhibition of the prints is currently being scheduled.

Art Is For Everyone!

On September 27, 2013 the “liberal” American magazine, The New Republic, published an article by its editor-at-large Michael Kinsley. In the piece titled If They Replaced Detroit’s Art Treasures with Fakes, Would Anyone be Able to Tell?, Kinsley suggested that a proposal made by Harvard political scientist Edward Banfield 30 years ago might be the solution to the crisis at the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA). Banfield had written that museum collections should be sold off and replaced by reproductions, his logic being that most people would not know the difference. Kinsley remarked that personally he “certainly couldn’t” tell the difference, and then went on to add his own smug ignorance to Banfield’s bottomless pit of philistinism by adding that fakes placed in the DIA would not even have to be good quality reproductions.

Kinsley claimed that “most people’s appreciation of art” comes from seeing “posters or postcards or beach towels or t-shirts,” and he concluded his piece of writing with the tongue in cheek intimation that the DIA’s masterworks could be replaced “secretly” by making “the switcheroo late one night.” Kinsley was being facetious of course, but his flippancy masked a barely concealed contempt for art and its enthusiasts. Kinsley neglected to mention that Edward Banfield was also opposed to the establishment of the National Endowment for the Arts and that he was an advisor to Republican presidents Nixon, Ford, and Reagan. So much for liberalism.

But there is a precedent to the boorish notions of Banfield and Kinsley. At the end of 1962 the Louvre in Paris loaned Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to the U.S. government for exhibit in the United States. The painting was endlessly hyped by the media, resulting in a sort of frenzy, or what arts writer and social historian Robert Hughes came to call, the Mona Lisa Curse.

On January 8, 1963 the Mona Lisa went on view at the National Gallery in the nation’s capital; U.S. President John F. Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson were in attendance. The painting itself was given Secret Service protection at the same level ordinarily given to presidents. On February 4, 1963, the Mona Lisa went on display at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where during a three and a half week run, over one million people shuffled by the celebrated oil painting. When hearing that the Mona Lisa was coming to America, Andy Warhol made the oafish wisecrack, “Why don’t they have someone copy it and send the copy, no one would know the difference.”

Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight apparently could not countenance Kinsley’s foolishness, and so fired a metaphorical “shot across the bow” at The New Republic’s editor-at-large titled, A suggestion to replace art with reproductions in bankrupt Detroit. Knight’s withering screed berated Kinsley for adding to the “rich tradition of know-nothings writing about art and museums,” and for advocating “Art for the aristocrats, reproductions for the peasants.”

Though I agreed with much of what Knight wrote, he concluded that Kinsley’s piece failed as satire because it labored under “the common misconception that art is for everyone, even though it isn’t. Art is not for everyone (that would be TV), it’s for anyone - which is not the same thing.” In those words I find an assessment as absurd as Kinsley’s. Knight contradicts himself by admonishing Kinsley for having an aristocratic view of art, then proceeds to express what is the quintessential patrician view of art - it is not for everyone.

I have no regard for the works of postmodern artist Tracey Emin, who I am told is one of Britain’s greatest living artists and a “leading light” in the circle of bloated art star frauds nicknamed the “Young British Artists.” But after she received the Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) at the investiture ceremony held on March 7, 2013 at Buckingham Palace in London, Emin said: “I think that art’s for everybody and everybody’s entitled to the best culture, the best literature, the best education, the best that everyone can have.” Emin, who has declared herself to be a royalist, voted for the Conservatives in the 2010 election, and accepted a commission from Tory Prime Minister David Cameron to create an installation piece for 10 Downing Street.  She can proclaim that “art is for everybody,” but the art critic at the “liberal” L.A. Times declares the exact opposite. My goodness… the world has been turned upside down.

If “art is not for everyone” as Mr. Knight tells us, why then is it part of the core curriculum of the U.S. public education system? Should we stop teaching children about art? Art education in U.S. public schools has suffered brutal cutbacks for the last few decades, and Mr. Knight’s unhelpful proclamation only serves to place the finishing touches on its demise. My point is that we are not born with language and writing skills anymore than we have an inborn sophisticated appreciation of art and aesthetics… all of these things are obtained through education and socialization. If, for whatever reason, we stopped teaching children the use of language and writing, we would not have to wait long to see the harmful results. Curtailing or eliminating arts education in American schools will have no less a detrimental outcome.

Knight rebukes Kinsley for his “slide into phony populism” and then stakes out the anti-egalitarian position for himself by writing: “a great thing about democracy is that it aspires to create opportunities for anyone to become an elitist (….) That’s a primary reason we even have places like the Detroit Institute of Arts.” Actually no, the great thing about democracy is that it takes power from the hands of elites and places it in the hands of ordinary people, at least in theory it does. I do not call for the defense of the DIA because it helps to develop and maintain elitism, I support the museum because making a great collection of art accessible to everyday working people is a fundamental aspect of a democratic society.

Kinsley’s open contempt towards art and its aficionados, and Knight’s doggedness that “art is not for everyone” are both unwise if not laughable positions. I find them irksome because I have always believed and advocated that art is for everyone. I say this not as an activist, a trendy dilettante, an academic, or God forbid, a bourgeois art critic. I make the pronouncement as an artist who has been creating drawings, prints, and paintings his entire life.

A foundation of this conviction of mine is partly based upon seeing how art and culture has operated on a grass-roots level in the Mexican American community. “Making due with what you have” is a partial definition for “rasquache,” a Chicano term that describes an aesthetic of necessity and defiance. Rasquache sprang from poor barrios where working class people had few resources and even less access to art, at least how the dominant society defined art. Creating something out of nothing was rasquache, it was a “people’s art” made by those untrained in art, and it became a primary force in Chicano art and aesthetics.

In this short interview with Dr. Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, a foremost scholar of Chicano and U.S. Latino art, we are given a clear definition of rasquachismo and how it has shaped working class Chicano culture. Ybarra-Frausto makes clear that rasquache is not analogous to the kitsch or low-brow art of the postmodern “avant-garde.” Rasquache has a class dimension, it is rooted in poor Chicano communities and has always been a form of cultural resistance to the dominant society.

During the Chicano Arts Movement of the late 1960s, artists embraced rasquache and exalted the sleek modernist lines and intricate paint jobs of low-rider cars, the altars and religious icons of pious Catholics, the uniquely ornate placas (graffiti) found on the street, the attire of Cholos wearing button down flannel shirts with bandanas around their foreheads, the “Mom & Pop” storefronts painted in bright colors, the iconography of pre-Columbian civilizations and the Mexican Revolution, and so much more. Chicano artists were stirred by the life found in their communities, and they distilled that experience into a unique aesthetic. Those artistic sensibilities still largely imbue and guide contemporary Chicano art.

Rasquache is a word that once referred to things tawdry and cheap, but its meaning was changed in the late 60s to describe the assortment of visual cues, histories, and cultural identifiers that made up the new Chicano aesthetic. At the time there was an explosion of murals, theater pieces, and posters that were rooted in rasquache sensibilities, works that sought to uplift, beautify, defend, and unite the Mexican American community through art. This is something my friend and artistic associate Gilbert “Magú” Luján (RIP) discussed with me on more than a few occasions. Artists like Magú felt that art was for, and sprang from, the community. Mexican Americans have developed their art and culture from the ground up, nurturing and cultivating it even as it was denied a place in America’s cultural institutions. To Chicanos, Knight’s proclamation that “art is not for everyone” sounds not only ridiculous, but discriminatory.

But there was another dimension to the Chicano Art Movement in the late 1960s. We were inspired by the likes of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros of the Mexican Muralist School. Those artists created public works in the belief that art was for everyone, and that working people would be enriched by interactions with art. Though snubbed today by those who spout postmodern gobbledygook, that democratic impulse in art still survives.

I must remind the “art is not for everyone” crowd of the 1932 América Tropical mural created in Los Angeles by Siqueiros. Preserved in situ by the Getty Conservation Institute, the mural on L.A.’s downtown Olvera Street now has its own museum, which opened to the public in October, 2012 to great acclaim. América Tropical is one of L.A.’s finest historic examples of art being for everyone; it is a work that birthed a new phase in American muralism that eventually led to Los Angeles becoming the “mural capital of the world” by the early 1970s.

In some quarters art has become a cynical intellectual exercise that is incomprehensible without an art degree and knowledge in dubious and obscurest theories. Things are really much simpler; making and appreciating art is what makes us human. Art is but one facet of an ordered human community, it has always been so. If you want to know what mathematics are all about, you might want to ask a mathematician. If curious about the stars in the heavens, talk to an astronomer. It follows that if you want to know about art, you should ask an artist.

Leave the critics to argue amongst themselves.

Sept. 11, Chicano Park & Chile

On Sept. 7, 2013, I went to the Southern California coastal City of San Diego, where I revisited the famed Chicano Park murals located in the Mexican-American community of Logan Heights. I spent a day photographing the park’s huge murals that are painted on the monolithic pillars of a freeway overpass, and in months to come I intend to present photos of the wall paintings along with essays on the how’s and why’s of their creation. But this post is more than a “sneak peak” at the photos. Sept. 11, 2013 marks the 40th anniversary of the Chilean coup, and this article will focus on one particular mural in Chicano Park titled, Tribute to Allende.

"Tribute to Allende mural" in Chicano Park. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

"Tribute to Allende mural" in Chicano Park. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Eleven Minutes, Nine Seconds, One Image: September 11 was an independent film on the subject of the al-Qaeda terror attacks that targeted Americans on Sept. 11, 2001. The movie was actually 11 different visualizations of those events, as told by 11 directors from around the world; the film won two awards at the Venice Film Festival when it premiered in 2002. The contribution to the movie from U.K. director Ken Loach focused on a Chilean folk singer named Pablo. Exiled in London as a result of the coup d’état that took place in Chile on Sept. 11, 1973, Pablo is filmed writing a letter to the American people expressing his sorrow over the 9/11 attacks. He also explains that “enemies of freedom” ravaged and bloodied Chile on 9/11/73. This sets the tone for the rest of my article.

On April 22, 1970, working class Mexican-Americans living in Logan Heights discovered that a parking lot for the Highway Patrol was being constructed in an open area beneath the just built Coronado Bridge. Already stinging from poverty, racism, police brutality, and the displacement of 5,000 families and their homes due to the construction of the Interstate 5 eight lane freeway and the Coronado Bridge, the community had had enough. The Chicanos of Logan Heights seized the land, stopped the bulldozers, drove off the construction workers, and began to build a park for their district. Activists wanted a “people’s park”, and demanded that the land become a liberated zone where Chicano art and culture could flourish. The police arrived in great numbers and a standoff over the park lasted for twelve days. Finally the city agreed to acquire the land for the development of a community park. On January 1, 2013, the National Park Service placed Chicano Park on its Register of Historic Places.

"The 'Tribute to Allende mural' is wrapped around a massive concrete column that holds up the freeway, so the artists took advantage of the architectural support and made their work three dimensional." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

"The 'Tribute to Allende mural' is wrapped around a massive concrete column that holds up the freeway, so the artists took advantage of the architectural support and made their work three dimensional." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

I was seventeen-years-old in 1970, and I had been following news of the Chilean revolution in America’s underground radical press. I do not recall how I got a copy of Por Vietnam, the 1968 album released by the Chilean group Quilapayún, but it changed my life. I had already heard of Victor Jara and Nueva Canción Chilena, so it was the work of Chile’s artists that made me pay closer attention to what was happening in their country. Of course, there was turmoil everywhere in 1970, and El Movimiento (the Chicano Movement) was at its height in California. The anti-Vietnam war Chicano Moratorium march and rally would take place in East Los Angeles on August 29, 1970, and at seventeen I was very much involved in the spirit of the day.

"Copper for Chile" - Street mural by the Ramona Parra Brigade. Circa 1972. Photographer unknown. The great majority of political street murals from the Allende years were destroyed by the U.S. backed dictatorship of General Pinochet.

"Copper for Chile" - Street mural by the Ramona Parra Brigade. Circa 1972. Photographer unknown. The great majority of political street murals from the Allende years were destroyed by the U.S. backed dictatorship of General Pinochet.

Through the Chicano and antiwar movements I learned that young muralistas in Chile like the Brigada Venceremos, Brigada Ramona Parra (BRP), and other collectives were painting vibrant political murals. I learned that David Alfaro Siqueiros went to Chile in 1941 to paint his influential mural, Muerte al Invasor (Death to the Invader) in the southern Chilean town of Chillán. The mural was painted during a time of political crisis in Chile; during a 1946 general strike in support of striking miners, government soldiers killed six protesting workers, including a 20 year old activist named Ramona Parra -  the BRP’s namesake. From afar I watched in abject horror as Chile was drowned in blood on Sept. 11, 1973.

I believe the earliest mural in Chicano Park was the 1973 Historical Mural, a panorama of events and heroes important to Chicanos. Along with muralist Victor Ochoa and a collective of others, L.A.’s own Gilbert “Magú” Luján (1940-2011) lent a hand in creating the painting. Dozens of mural works followed over the years, and some of these will be pictured in future posts. Tribute to Allende was painted in 1974 by Smiley Benavides & Team from Los Angeles, showing once more how Chicano Park served as a lightning rod for Mexican-Americans throughout the Southwest. Like many of the murals in Chicano Park, Tribute to Allende was fully restored and preserved in 2012 as a result of The Chicano Park Mural Restoration Project. The artists who restored the mural are Norma Montoya, Guillermo Rosette, and Mario Torero.

Detail of "Tribute to Allende" mural in Chicano Park. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Detail of "Tribute to Allende" mural in Chicano Park. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

I consider Tribute to Allende to be one of the finest mural works in Chicano Park. Many of the park’s murals were created by teams of non-professional artists, but while some of the murals might be lacking in artistic excellence, they all excel when it comes to expressing meaning, community spirit, and the zeal for creating a new society. Tribute to Allende was obviously created by skilled artists; Internationalist in flavor, the mural transcends Chicanismo to address larger issues and the world community. Aesthetically it takes its cue from the militant Chilean murals of the Allende years, capturing the energy of a people struggling against tyranny and oppression. Like a number of Chicano Park murals, Tribute to Allende is wrapped around a massive concrete column that holds up the freeway, so the artists took advantage of the architectural support and made their work three dimensional. Almost abstract, the mural’s nearly Day-Glo colors positively glow in the Southern California sun.

In the early morning hours of September 11, 1973, the armed forces of Chile carried out a coup d’état against the democratically elected Socialist government of President Salvador Allende. Within a few hours the military controlled the entire country with the exception of Santiago, the nation’s capital. President Allende and his loyal bodyguards were surrounded inside La Moneda, the presidential palace; Allende was defiant and refused to surrender to the military. The Air Force bombed La Moneda, hitting it with at least 17 bombs. The generals say Allende took his own life, but it was the military that murdered Chilean democracy.

Detail of "Tribute to Allende" mural in Chicano Park. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Detail of "Tribute to Allende" mural in Chicano Park. Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

What followed was a military dictatorship that reigned until 1990. Led by General Augusto Pinochet, the regime outright murdered some 3,200 people and arrested well over 130,000. Sports stadiums were used as prisons and “interrogation” centers. At the time of the coup, Santiago’s Estadio Nacional (National Stadium) held over 40,000 detainees. At the Estadio Chile (Chile Stadium) in Santiago, thousands were held by the Army, including the pro-Allende folk singer Victor Jara. Recognizing the popular singer, soldiers pulled out his fingernails and smashed his hands with rifle butts, then mocked him by requesting that he play them a song on guitar. The soldiers shot Jara in the back of the head, then raked his body with machine gun fire.

Over the years, thousands of people became desaparecidos (the disappeared), kidnapped by security forces and never seen again. Tens of thousands more were sent to detention camps where they suffered beatings, rape, and torture. The regime created the Caravana de la Muerte (Caravan of Death), an Army death squad that rounded up and assassinated dozens of political opponents. All this and more… the entire country of Chile had become a torture center.

"Rebirth of Quetzalcoatl Tolteca" - Restored by Guillermo Rosette in 2012.

"Rebirth of Quetzalcoatl Tolteca" - Restored by Guillermo Rosette in 2012. On the base of the heavy column that supports the freeway overpass, the artist painted the feathered serpent deity of the Aztecs. Photo by Mark Vallen ©

As it turned out, the Nixon administration had long plotted to overthrow the government of President Salvador Allende, who had committed the unpardonable crime of nationalizing Chile’s resources. Up until the Allende administration, Chile’s three largest copper mines were owned by two U.S. companies, Anaconda Copper Company and Kennecott Copper Corporation. On July 11, 1971, President Allende’s proposed constitutional amendment allowing nationalization of Chile’s copper mines passed the Congress by unanimous vote. The U.S. plot against Chile went into high gear.

Declassified U.S. documents show that the White House and the CIA played a direct role in the overthrow of the Allende government. In 1970 President Richard Nixon gave the CIA orders to “make the economy scream” so as to “prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him.” A 1970 memo written by the CIA deputy director of plans stated: “It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup. It is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the USG (the U.S. government) and American hand be well hidden.” On June 27, 1970, Henry Kissinger, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, infamously remarked, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.”

On Sept. 10, 2013, it was announced that Victor Jara’s family succeeded in serving a civil lawsuit to the former Chilean Army officer allegedly responsible for ordering Jara’s murder. The former officer, Pedro Barrientos Nuñez, was found living comfortably in Florida, enjoying U.S. citizenship through marriage to an American woman. In December 2012 a Chilean court charged Nuñez in absentia for the brutal murder of Jara… Nuñez had fled to the U.S. in 1989. The lawsuit brings seven claims against the ex-commander, including crimes against humanity, torture, and extrajudicial killing. It is a welcome break in the nightmare legacy of the Pinochet coup, but after 40 years, justice has still not been served. The affair however does make the Tribute to Allende mural as relevant today as it was in 1974.

Detail of "Tribute to Allende" mural in Chicano Park. "Internationalist in flavor, the mural transcends Chicanismo to address larger issues and the world community. Aesthetically it takes its cue from the militant Chilean murals of the Allende years." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

Detail of "Tribute to Allende" mural in Chicano Park. "Internationalist in flavor, the mural transcends Chicanismo to address larger issues and the world community. Aesthetically it takes its cue from the militant Chilean murals of the Allende years." Photograph by Mark Vallen ©

The young artists that created the murals in the Logan Heights Barrio, painted their spiritual, political, international, and Chicano visions onto the walls for all to see. Those murals continue to be a great source of community pride, moreover, they stand as examples of an authentic “people’s art,” the very antithesis of today’s detached, elite, postmodern art. Rather than being frozen in the past, the Chicano Park murals embody a way forward for today’s artists.

The Mexican Museum of San Francisco

I am pleased to announce that I am now a member of the Arts and Letters Council of the Mexican Museum of San Francisco. I was asked to join the council by the museum’s director, David de la Torre, and by accepting the position I have become part of a group of esteemed artists, writers, and scholars who have lent their names in support of the museum and its upcoming expansion.

Too numerous to list, my colleagues on the council come from across the nation and work in various disciplines. Some I have had the honor of meeting and or working with, others I hope to collaborate with in the future. All of us however, are united in promoting The Mexican Museum as it prepares to move into its new state of the art facility in the Yerba Buena Arts District of San Francisco. A groundbreaking celebration marking the start of construction of the brand new museum will take place sometime in 2014, and a grand opening for the new museum is scheduled for 2017.

The Mexican Museum, the only San Francisco museum that is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, holds a growing permanent collection of over 14,000 Pre-Hispanic, Colonial, Popular, Modern and Contemporary Mexican, Latino, and Chicano artworks. It is the largest such collection in the continental United States.

The Mexican Museum's new facilities as envisioned by architect Enrique Norton of Ten Arquitectos and Handel Architects LLP. Artist's conception courtesy of Handel Architects LLP ©.

The Mexican Museum's new facilities as envisioned by architect Enrique Norton of Ten Arquitectos and Handel Architects LLP. Artist's conception courtesy of Handel Architects LLP ©.

Currently located in the Fort Mason Center of San Francisco’s Mission District, the museum’s new home in the Yerba Buena Arts District will place it near the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, the African Diaspora Museum, the Cartoon Art Museum, and the California Historical Society museum. In the words of David de la Torre, the museum will be a “national center for the serious study of Latino art, history and culture.”

The museum continues to hold exhibits and events at its old Fort Mason Center as it prepares to move in 2017. To give an idea of what one can expect from The Mexican Museum, as of this writing the institution is about to open its latest exhibition, Diálogos Gráficos (Graphic Dialogues). Opening September 13, 2013 and running until April 2014, the exhibit will showcase Mexican and Latino printmaking from the past to the present. Divided into historical and contemporary sections, the show will present hand-made prints by José Guadalupe Posada, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, Leopoldo Méndez, Francisco Mora and Alfredo Zalce. The contemporary section of the exhibit will show prints by Rene Castro, Enrique Chagoya, Juan R. Fuentes, Rupert García, Carmen Lomas Garza and Esther Hernandez.

While many in the U.S. are familiar with Posada, Siqueiros, and Orozco, it is exposure to the works of Méndez, Mora, and Zalce that is essential for an American audience as the three are so unfamiliar in the United States. They all worked in Mexico’s legendary Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP - “Popular Graphic Arts Workshop”), in fact Méndez and Mora were founding members of the TGP. In my opinion, Méndez (1902-1969) remains Mexico’s most important printmaker, if you want to understand Mexico, view his prints. As for Alfredo Zalce (1908-2003), he was the last of Mexico’s great revolutionary muralists - a contemporary of Rivera and Siqueiros known for his own searing brand of social realism.

The Mexican Museum exhibiting classic Mexican prints in Diálogos Gráficos is significant enough, that it offers a platform for current Chicano and Latino artists - in the same exhibit - is quite extraordinary. It is a blessing to us all that the works of these artists are being shown, and just one out of many reasons why I think this museum promises to be a major institution in our collective future.

I urge readers to spread the word about The Mexican Museum, and consider supporting it by making a donation or becoming a member (which gives you free unlimited admission to all Smithsonian Museums no matter where you are in the United States). If you live in California, you can show your support for the museum by attending the Diálogos Gráficos exhibit… perhaps you will see me there.