Tlaloque: A Day of the Dead Monoprint

"Tlaloque" - Mark Vallen. Monoprint 8.5 x 11 inches. 2015 ©.

"Tlaloque" - Mark Vallen. Monoprint 8.5 x 11 inches. 2015 ©.

To mark the devasting drought of California (my home state), and to observe Día de los Muertos 2015, I have created an extremely limited edition suite of six monoprints. The prints recall the Tlaloque, underlings of Tlaloc, the ancient Aztec god of rain and celestial waters. You may consider my print a supplication for divine rain and an end to crippling drought; Tlaloque is a chromatic painted prayer put to paper in the Aztec tradition.

And what is the meaning behind my print?

Tlaloc had four water spirit assistants known as Tlaloque who lived in the high mountains where rain clouds gathered. It was the duty of these magical water sprites - who represented the four cardinal points - to gather up water in their ceramic vessels. Their jugs of water represented rain, frost, drought, and water-born calamity and disease. If pleased, Tlaloc would order his Tlaloque to break open their ceramic urns with their staffs to produce not just thunder and lightning, but life-giving rain. Just as easily, torrents could be unleashed to flood the land, or freezing sleet and snow sent to destroy crops. If angered, the rain god and his Tlaloque would punish with drought.

"Tlaloque" - (Detail) Vallen. Monoprint 2015 ©.

"Tlaloque" - (Detail) Vallen. Monoprint 2015 ©.

Essentially Tlaloque is a printed painting that depicts a watery realm. The artworks were created in oil paint directly applied onto a pane of glass, covered with a sheet of paper, and then burnished with a wooden spoon; each color was “pulled” separately. Working with a limited palette of cool colors (ultramarine, viridian, cerulean), I applied the paints using brushes, crumpled paper, cotton swabs and my fingers, to produce an ethereal female visage seemingly made from aquatic plants, water currents, and bubbles.

When buying these monoprints, remember that each stand-alone print is unique. While quite similar, no two prints are exactly alike. I cannot guarantee that your purchase will look precisely like the one displayed on this page. However, I personally pulled and curated the prints and found each one suitable for inclusion in the suite. Each print is dated, numbered, and hand-signed with the artist’s signature and title of the print - Tlaloque.

$495. Tlaloque - Mark Vallen. Monoprint  8.5 x 11 inches. 2015 ©.
Purchase your print here
.

– // –

Some of my 2014 monoprints, “Ayotzinapa: Faltan 43,” are still available for purchase.

Diego Rivera mural blocked from public view!

"The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City" - Diego Rivera. Fresco mural. 1931. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011.

"The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City" - Diego Rivera. Fresco mural. 1931. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011. The mural as it was meant to be seen.

This is an Open Letter to the Students and Faculty of the San Francisco Art Institute.

In September 2011, it was a real pleasure to travel to San Francisco for the express purpose of photographing the Great Depression era murals that exist in the city. I visited the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI), where I made photographic studies of Diego Rivera’s The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City, located in the campus gallery named after him.

This mural detail shows a monumental worker representing the working class - Diego Rivera. Fresco mural. 1931. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011.

This mural detail shows a monumental worker representing the working class - Diego Rivera. Fresco mural. 1931. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011.

Rivera’s mural is a brilliant tromp-l’oeil, showing us a mural within a mural, with Rivera and assistants on a scaffold as they paint a monumental worker representing the working class; in the artist’s words, a “Gigantic worker, his gaze fixed firmly forward.”

A number of foreign visitors were among the U.S. tourists in the gallery that day; I was impressed by their silent contemplation of the mural. Indeed, the painting is a major destination for cultural tourism, and many travel guides for San Francisco suggest a visit to the SFAI for a look at Rivera’s mural.

Wanting to share my passion for Rivera’s work, I uploaded a few of my photos of his SFAI mural to my web log in 2011, along with some of the history behind the making of the fresco. I might add that I traveled to the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA) in May of 2015, not just to see that museum’s Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo in Detroit exhibit, but to study and photograph Rivera’s magnificent Detroit Industry mural cycle painted in an internal courtyard of the DIA. Throngs of people jammed the museum for the Rivera and Kahlo exhibit, which by the end of its run was seen by well over 153,000 people, making it one of the biggest shows in the DIA’s history.

As a working painter and printmaker in Los Angeles, I write this open letter on the subject of Change the World or Go Home, an installation of scaffolding and fluorescent lighting by Mexico City-based artist Alejandro Almanza Pereda, now on exhibit in the SFAI’s Diego Rivera Gallery. I write to express my dismay that Mr. Pereda’s installation unnecessarily blocks public viewing of Diego Rivera’s 1931 mural, The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City. I also have misgivings about Pereda’s installation being placed so close to Rivera’s delicate fresco mural; I believe it poses a threat to the mural’s preservation. More to the point, I hope to explain why I believe that Pereda and the SFAI have denigrated the legacy of Rivera and his fresco mural.

Alejandro Almanza Pereda's scaffold shown during its construction. Screen grab from the SFIA short film, "Change the World or Go Home."

Alejandro Almanza Pereda's scaffold shown during its construction. Screen grab from the SFAI short film, "Change the World or Go Home."

Mr. Pereda is an artist in residence at the SFAI, and so was given a solo exhibit in the Diego Rivera Gallery. Pereda has constructed 24-foot-high scaffold, with a jumble of functioning fluorescent light tubes replacing the scaffold’s wood or steel planks. In the SFAI’s promotional material for Pereda’s scaffold, the school writes some typical postmodern gobbledygook that the fluorescent light tubes are meant to “contend with and complicate the legacy and monumentality of Diego Rivera’s fresco.” But what art institution does not know that light, even in limited amounts, can cause cumulative and irreversible damage to works of art?

Art conservators should be apprehensive that Rivera’s fresco is now exposed to light thrown from Pereda’s giant fluorescent light fixture. Fluorescent light contains high levels of UV radiation, and museums use strict guidelines to prevent artworks in their collections from being unnecessarily exposed to the dangers of UV light.

A short film made under the auspices of the SFAI, shows Pereda’s scaffold and fluorescent light fixture being built with the help of young assistants. Black construction netting was initially erected, supposedly to protect the mural while the scaffold was built. A heavy mechanical lift was used in the construction process, and upon completion the scaffold was improbably secured in place with wires anchored to the walls of the gallery. There appear to be no professional technicians involved in the work, nor art conservators to condition-check the mural. The finished scaffold looks flimsy. With San Francisco sitting on the San Andreas Fault and six other significant earthquake fault zones, there is good reason to be anxious.

I am appalled that the SFAI allowed Pereda’s scaffold to be placed so close to a priceless art treasure, not to mention exposing it to UV light. I can think of no other legitimate art institution that would so recklessly endanger an important internationally recognized work in their collection. I cannot imagine the Detroit Institute of the Arts allowing such a cheap stunt to be pulled off anywhere near their Detroit Industry murals.

Pereda apparently believes that the art and legacy of Diego Rivera is a “limiting screen,” a curtain that restrains Mexican art and confines Mexican artists. Pereda envisions his scaffold as a different sort of screen with which to see the world through. The luminous glow from the fluorescent bulbs makes it impossible to view or photograph Rivera’s fresco! The scaffold itself, even with its lights turned off, impairs a clear view of Rivera’s mural. Evidently the SFAI is titillated by Pereda’s art prank masquerading as profound artistic exploration. In the aforementioned film, Pereda attempted to explain the meaning of his scaffold installation:

“I always had kind of trouble with Mexican Muralism. The Mexican government supported Mexican Muralism, and so that more or less it became a type of propaganda. So when I see the murals, sometimes, you know, like the one here… it’s about progress, the scaffolding symbolizes progress. But a different progress, like destruction, you create something new, like a new condo over a really nice house. And that’s changing the face of the cities, so sometimes it’s terrifying to see scaffolding.”

In the quote above Mr. Pereda spouts utter nonsense. He implies that Diego Rivera and his fellow muralists, David Alfaro Siqueiros, José Clemente Orozco, et al., were propagandists for the Mexican government, which could not be further from the truth. The majority of the muralistas were political radicals, and they often publicly clashed with the government over a variety of issues. In 1922 Rivera and other important artists founded the Union of Technical Workers, Painters, and Sculptors, a group dedicated to creating revolutionary art. David Alfaro Siqueiros wrote the group’s manifesto.

That same year, Rivera, Siqueiros, and many other artists joined the Mexican Communist Party (Frida Kahlo would join in 1928). Rivera’s membership in the party put him in direct odds with the government, which banned the party and its activities in 1925; the outright ban continued until the left-leaning Lázaro Cárdenas was elected president of Mexico in 1934. Anyone with even a cursory familiarity with the history of the Mexican Muralist Movement should know these facts. Perhaps Mr Pereda should go back to art school, oh wait… he is an artist in residence at the SFAI.

It seems that Mr. Pereda’s logorrheic style of babbling was a bit thin as an artist’s statement, so the SFAI graciously assisted with some of its own postmodern prose. The school’s promotional material for Pereda describes Rivera’s mural in the following words:

“Meanwhile, in SFAI’s Diego Rivera Gallery, we have been looking at Diego Rivera’s ass for 84 years. Of course, this was the artist’s intention. Rivera’s iconic work The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City (1931) offers an epic image of the reconstruction of San Francisco, depicting laborers and fresco painters alongside the patron, on the scaffold, and closest to our eye: the artist’s high-waisted rear.”

Looking at Rivera’s ass for 84 years? It was Rivera’s intention to show his “high-waisted rear” to the public? Excuse the Pop culture reference, but the SFAI’s brassy remarks remind me of an aside from British comedian John Cleese; “It’s all about backsides with you Americans, isn’t it.”

It is interesting that the SFAI’s mocking reference to “Rivera’s ass,” is the same type of derisive scorn heaped upon Rivera and his mural by critics in 1931. In his book, Painting on the Left: Diego Rivera, Radical Politics, and San Francisco’s Public Murals, author Anthony W. Lee mentioned how reactionaries bashed the mural by accusing Rivera of having painted a portrait of himself defecating on his patrons! A less vulgar “critique,” but one no less spiteful, was made at the time by Kenneth Callahan, the painter from the state of Washington. Castigating the mural, he mentioned Rivera’s “flat rear, hanging over the scaffolding in the center. Many San Franciscans chose to see in this gesture a direct insult, premeditated, as indeed it appears to be. If it is a joke, it is a rather amusing one, but in bad taste.”

The only “ass” to be found in this story is the one who seeks to poke Rivera’s legacy full of holes.

Rivera intended his murals to be accessible to the public; that was the central tenet of the Mexican Muralist Movement to which he belonged. Many San Francisco Bay Area artists met and worked with him when he visited San Francisco, and it is because of his influence that San Francisco became a city full of murals. The evidence is everywhere, from the 1934 Chapel Mural painted at the Presidio by Victor Arnautoff, to the magnificent 1934 Coit Tower frescos at Telegraph Hill. From the 1936 San Francisco Life frescos by Lucien Ladaudt at the Beach Chalet restaurant, to the 1941-1948 History of California murals by Anton Refregier at the Rincon Center. Rivera made enormous contributions to art, and his legacy is not a “screen” that oppresses anyone.

Pereda's installation of scaffolding and fluorescent lighting is inches away from Diego Rivera's mural, hidden on the left by black construction netting. In this Screen grab from the SFIA short film, Change the World or Go Home, an assistant of Pereda's adjusts the fluorescent lights.

Pereda's installation of scaffolding and fluorescent lighting is inches away from Diego Rivera's mural, hidden on the left by black construction netting. In this Screen grab from the SFAI short film, "Change the World or Go Home," an assistant of Pereda's adjusts the fluorescent lights.

While the San Francisco Art Institute does not publish Diego Rivera’s own words regarding the true intentions of his mural, I will happily do so. In his autobiography My Art, My Life, Rivera described the intent behind his 23-by-30-foot mural. Rivera wrote that he wanted:

“to present a dynamic concerto of construction - technicians, planners, and artists working together to create a modern building (….). I showed how a mural is actually painted: the tiered scaffold, the assistants plastering, sketching, and painting; myself resting at midpoint; and the actual mural subject, a worker whose hand is turning a valve so placed as to seem part of a mechanism of the building.

Since I was facing and leaning toward my work, the portrait of myself was a rear view with my buttocks protruding over the edge of the scaffold. Some persons took this as a deliberate expression of contempt for my American hosts and raised a clamor. However, I insisted that my painting meant nothing else than what it pictured. I would never think of insulting the people of a city I had come to love and in which I had been continuously happy.”

If you type in the title of Rivera’s mural on Google - The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City - you will find that the SFAI web page on the painting is the first item to come up, but my 2011 web log article on the mural is the second. Over the years thousands of people from around the world have read my article on Rivera’s mural. It would be an understatement to say that I would have been upset if I had journeyed to the SFAI to study and photograph Rivera’s fresco, only to find the school had blocked the mural from public view by installing a scaffold made of fluorescent light bulbs in front of it. The annoyance would have been made all the worse with the SFAI promoting the installation on an equal footing with Rivera’s mural.

One arts professional that balked at the way the SFAI has treated the Rivera mural was Sarah Lowndes, a writer, curator, and lecturer at the Glasgow School of Art in Glasgow, Scotland. Having traveled all the way from Scotland to view Rivera’s The Making of a Fresco, Ms. Lowndes was aghast at finding Pereda’s scaffolding blocking the mural. She also wrote an open letter to the SFAI to express her disappointment. Since Pereda’s scaffold will block the view of Rivera’s mural until December 3, 2015, there will be many people who are going to be angry over being denied the pleasure of contemplating one of San Francisco’s greatest mural works.

You may choose to call the deliberate blocking of someone’s view of an artwork a clever act of “art intervention” or a means to “contend with and complicate the legacy and monumentality” of the artwork… but an honest person would call it censorship.

There is a larger cautionary tale to be told here regarding Rivera’s mural, one that has it roots in the history of the SFAI, but also in the chronicles of U.S. art and politics.

In 1931 Diego Rivera painted his mural at the SFAI, then known as the California School of Fine Arts (CSFA). Douglas McAgy was the school’s director from 1945 to 1950, and he transformed the institution into a center for the non-objective school of abstract art. McAgy hired abstract artists like Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko, and Richard Diebenkorn as instructors, and tirelessly promoted abstract art through exhibitions and forums. To McAgy, figurative realism in art was passé and on its way out.

The “enlightened” McAgy was so offended by Rivera’s social realist mural that in 1945 he had a wall constructed over the fresco to prevent the public from ever seeing it [1]. While history has noted the total destruction of Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads mural at New York’s Rockefeller Center by the order of Nelson Rockefeller in 1934, the censorship of Rivera’s mural at the CSFA is barely known or acknowledged. In retrospect the suppression of the mural by McAgy has been forgiven by those who simply think the school director acted as an overzealous apostle of abstract art. As if that is an excuse for his blatant act of censorship.

But here is the delightful irony in this whole messy affair. Just as the director of the CSFA revamped the school into a citadel of abstract art on the West coast, putting the kibosh on figurative realism in the process, so too has the current leadership of the SFAI turned the school into a bulwark for today’s oh so fashionable postmodern art. As Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest, “What’s past is prologue.” Douglas McAgy covered Rivera’s mural in an open act of censorship; the SFAI covers Rivera’s mural and justifies it in the name of “ambitious new works.”

"Pereda thinks his scaffold provides a different screen with which to see the world through. The luminous glow from the fluorescent bulbs makes it impossible to view or photograph Rivera's fresco!" Screen grab from the SFIA short film, "Change the World or Go Home."

"Pereda thinks his scaffold provides a different screen with which to see the world through. The luminous glow from the fluorescent bulbs makes it impossible to view or photograph Rivera's fresco!" Screen grab from the SFAI short film, "Change the World or Go Home."

But I do not believe for a moment that McAgy’s censorship of Rivera’s mural was an act solely based on an extreme bias against realism in art. McAgy acted in full accord with the “Red Scare” that had seized control of U.S. national politics.

In 1938 the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) attacked Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Work Progress Administration (WPA). Specifically, HUAC went after the WPA’s Federal Theater Project, a government effort to provide work for unemployed theater professionals in the midst of the Great Depression. HUAC concluded the project was dominated by communists and demanded Roosevelt fire the project’s leadership because they had “associates who were Socialists, Communists, and crackpots.” Roosevelt refused to fire the leaders but HUAC convinced the U.S. Congress to cancel funding to the project on June 30, 1939.

In 1945 HUAC became a permanent Congressional committee that launched investigations into “subversive” activities in the U.S. It undertook an anti-Communist witch hunt in Hollywood in 1947 that placed over 320 actors, directors, and writers on a blacklist forbidding them work. In the same timeframe Joe McCarthy, Senator from the state of Wisconsin, led his own crusade against the hundreds of communists he alleged had infiltrated the U.S. government. The manic anti-Communism that gripped America in that period became known as “McCarthyism” due to the pathological anti-communism of Senator McCarthy and his political allies in official circles.

HUAC repression in Hollywood destroyed careers and purged the entertainment industry of those perceived to be “un-American.” Ten prominent screenwriters and directors who refused to cooperate with HUAC were found in contempt of Congress and each was sentenced to a year in prison; after their release they were blacklisted like all the rest. Government bullying not only purged Hollywood of the left, it ushered in an era of political submissiveness and conformity in U.S. cinema; The Red Menace from Republic Pictures is a perfect example [2].

McCarthyism impacted all facets of cultural life in the U.S., it was not just the entertainment professionals in Hollywood who suffered; visual artists were also targeted. It is beyond the scope of this article to list all of the painters and printmakers who were persecuted by McCarthyism, but Irving Norman, the painter of social surrealist images comes to mind. U.S. artists would do well to remember the reactionary assault on art during the McCarthy years led by Michigan Republican Congressman, George A. Dondero. On August 16, 1949, Rep. Dondero gave a speech before the U.S. Congress titled, Modern Art Shackled to Communism [3]. He spoke of the “isms” that he said were promoted by communists:

“Cubism aims to destroy by designed disorder. Futurism aims to destroy by the machine myth. Dadaism aims to destroy by ridicule. Expressionism aims to destroy by aping the primitive and insane. Abstractionism aims to destroy by the creation of brainstorms. Surrealism aims to destroy by the denial of reason. All these isms are of foreign origin, and truly should have no place in American art. While not all are media of social or political protest, all are instruments and weapons of destruction.

We are now face to face with the intolerable situation, where public schools, colleges and universities, art and technical schools, invaded by a horde of foreign art manglers, are selling to our young men and women a subversive doctrine of “isms,” Communist-inspired and Communist-connected, which have one common, boasted goal - the destruction that awaits if this Marxist trail is not abandoned.”

Today Congressman Dondero’s words may sound utterly ridiculous, but between the years 1946 and 1956 this was a deadly serious matter. Congress never rebuffed Dondero’s claims; he had very powerful friends and allies. Together they condemned and suppressed modern art exhibits while leading campaigns to censor and destroy “communist” WPA murals located in government buildings. In 1953, acting as the chairman of the House Committee on Public Works during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Dondero was involved in a congressional push to destroy the murals of Anton Refregier that were painted in San Francisco’s Rincon Annex Post Office.

While Congressman Dondero and his supporters were attacking abstract art for being “communist because it is distorted and ugly, because it does not glorify our beautiful country, our cheerful and smiling people, and our material progress,” a few powerful opponents of Dondero both in and out of government were defending abstract art as anti-communist.

The advisory director of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Alfred Barr, wrote an essay titled Is Modern Art Communist? for the New York Times in 1952. Barr proclaimed abstract art to be anti-communist and an expression of American freedom and individualism! [4] Here I must remind the reader that Nelson Rockefeller, a major proponent of abstract art, was the president of MoMA in the 1940s and 1950s, and that he initially approved of, but then ordered the destruction of, Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads mural in 1934.

For twelve years Rivera’s mural would remain hidden behind McAgy’s wall until after Rivera’s untimely death in 1957. That same year McCarthyism and Abstract art began to ebb; the CSFA decided it was safe to take down the wall that hid the fresco mural and rededicate The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City.

As conservative anti-communists and liberal anti-communists fought over how to defeat communism in the arts, as well as how to combat it with the arts, there stood Diego Rivera in the midst of the clamor, painting his mural at the California School of Fine Arts. It is little wonder why Rivera’s fresco was targeted for censorship in 1945. Douglas McAgy’s decision to wall off Rivera’s mural was undoubtedly motivated by the “liberal” anti-communist view, coupled with his being an exponent of abstract art.

In this mural detail Diego Rivera depicted steel workers constructing a modern skyscraper. Photo/Mark Vallen © 2011.

In this mural detail Diego Rivera depicted steel workers constructing a modern skyscraper. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

What may astonish the reader is that the CSFA, renamed the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) in 1961, makes absolutely no acknowledgment online of CSFA director Douglas McAgy being responsible for building a wall over Rivera’s mural and keeping it covered for a dozen years. Mention of McAgy’s censorship is not even broached on the SFAI website page that supposedly presents the institution’s history.

I have a few rhetorical questions for the students and faculty of the San Francisco Art Institute, as well as for the larger arts community in the U.S. and beyond.

Mexico is in deep crisis, it is in a political, economic, and moral tailspin; since 2007 over 164,000 Mexicans have been killed in the so-called drug war; 10,000 Mexicans have been kidnapped and “disappeared” by death squads since 2012; over 41 Mexican journalists have been assassinated since 2010 for seeking the truth.

I write this on the one year anniversary of the kidnapping and forced disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Guerrero, Mexico, who were seized by corrupt police officers and their drug gang accomplices. Ayotzinapa has become a dagger in the heart of the Mexican people, and millions of them know who is responsible for conspiring against them.

My questions are - do you really prefer Alejandro Almanza Pereda and his fluorescent light scaffolding over Diego Rivera and his socially conscious mural? Do you actually think Pereda’s is the appropriate artistic response to a Mexico awash in blood and corruption? Do you genuinely believe that art and artists are above the fray, and need not dirty their hands with real world issues? And, faced with all of the inequality and barbarity of this world, do you regard it as apropos to “contend with and complicate the legacy” of these conditions by attacking Rivera?

If you answered “yes” to any of my questions, then I think it safe to say that the arts community is in its own moral tailspin.

– // –

ADDENDUM:

[1] Art Subjects: Making Artists in the American University. Howard Singerman. University of California Press. 1999.

[2] The Red Menace - Director, R.G. Springsteen. Republic Pictures 1949. The film offered an over the top fictional account of how the Communist Party USA supposedly operated in the city of Los Angeles, using deceit and thuggery to recruit the weak minded. The film is narrated by Lloyd G. Davies, a member of the Los Angeles City Council. One of the film’s villainous communists was played by actress Betty Lou Gerson, who would be the voice actress for Cruella De Vil in Disney’s 1961 animated feature, 101 Dalmatians.

[3] Law, Ethics, and the Visual Arts - John Henry Merryman, Albert Edward, Elsen, Stephen K. Urice. Published by Kluwer Law International, 2007.

[4] The Rise and Fall of American Art, 1940s-1980s: A Geopolitics of Western Art Worlds - Assoc Prof Catherine Dossin. Ashgate Publishing. 2015.

007: The Spectre of Ayotzinapa

Daniel Craig and Stephanie Sigman wear skull masks in the opening Day of the Dead sequence of "Spectre." Screenshot from the movie's official trailer.

Daniel Craig and Stephanie Sigman wear skull masks in the opening Day of the Dead sequence of "Spectre." Screenshot from the movie's official trailer.

Four minutes of dazzling footage comprises the eye-popping, jaw dropping opening sequence of Spectre, the latest James Bond film. In the first scene, James Bond (played by actor Daniel Craig), is seen walking through a Día de los Muertos procession in Mexico City wearing a skull mask. He sports a Top Hat as befitting a bourgeois Mexican gentleman of the early 1900s. Strolling with 007 is “Bond Girl” Estrella (played by Mexican actress Stephanie Sigman), who wears a painted mask of La Calavera Catrina, an iconic female figure from historic Day of the Dead celebrations.

Stephanie Sigman playing the character of Estrella in "Spectre." MGM promotional photo.

Stephanie Sigman playing the character of Estrella in "Spectre." MGM promotional photo.

The dapper two weave their way through a huge crowd of people dressed as skeletons and carrying giant skeleton puppets; they all make their way to the capital’s main square, the Zócalo. Bond spots the villain Marco Sciarra and a fight ensues. To rescue their boss from Bond, Sciarra’s henchmen land a helicopter in the Zócalo, but when Sciarra hops on, so does 007. A desperate onboard fight takes place as the chopper soars over the modern skyline of Mexico City in a death defying display of flying.

Spectre is a perfect example of film being used to influence public opinion for political reasons. How so? Apparently the government of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) paid MGM studios millions of dollars for the scene described above; the studio accepted the money in order to bring production costs down. A collaborative effort, the Mexican government wanted positive “spin” to improve its deplorable human rights record, and MGM wanted tax breaks. I will address this government-studio deal in the second half of this essay, but first, some background.

"Spectre" movie poster from MGM. Daniel Craig strikes a classic pose as Agent 007, dressed in a white tuxedo jacket and holding a Walther PPK .380 pistol with a silencer. Can you spot the poster's colossal blunder?

"Spectre" movie poster from MGM. Daniel Craig strikes a classic pose as Agent 007, dressed in a white tuxedo jacket and holding a Walther PPK .380 pistol with a silencer. Can you spot the poster's colossal blunder?

Let us not forget that in the Mexican state of Guerrero, 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ Collage were assaulted and kidnapped by the police on the night of September 26, 2014. While in the act of kidnapping the 43, the police shot and killed three bystanders and three other Ayotzinapa students. One of them, the 22-year old Julio César Mondragón, was found dead on the street the next day; his eyes had been gouged out and the skin peeled from his face. Recall that in the official government version of the story, the police turned their 43 captives over to the criminal drug gang Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors) to be tortured, killed, and incinerated in a huge bonfire at a garbage dump; their ashes allegedly put in plastic bags and dumped in the San Juan River. Remember that millions of Mexicans marched in the streets to protest these outrages with a slogan that identified the guilty - Fue el estado (”It was the state”).

The production designer for Spectre, Dennis Gassner, told the press that producing and filming the Dia de los Muertos opening sequence was “a magical experience.” He went on to say: “This culture is saying something here. This is a statement about their world and how they want the rest of the world to see it. This is a format that the world can see it in, that’s what all these people are doing. They’re passionate about what they want to do and they want to share it with the world. They want to show people that they should come to Mexico.” [1]

The creative individuals involved in the making of Spectre may talk about the movie’s opening sequence as a “magical experience,” but their eyes are tightly closed to the truth.

Yes, there certainly are those who work to present “how they want the rest of the world to see” Mexico, but in the case of Spectre, it is not the Mexican people but the crooked regime of Enrique Peña Nieto and the PRI that plotted and colluded with Hollywood. Mr. Nieto was “elected” president on July 1, 2012 through massive fraud. The PRI bought votes as well as positive press from the country’s dominant TV networks. Even before Mexico’s official election results were in, President Obama called Nieto to congratulate him on his electoral “victory,” and to applaud Mexico’s “free, fair, and transparent election process.” [2]

At the time Mr. Peña Nieto’s most shameful scam was the distribution of pre-paid gift cards for the Soriana supermarket chain; each card was worth 500 pesos ($37.50) and was to be used in purchasing food. Some $8.2 million dollars worth of the cards were distributed. In Mexico City the average worker’s daily wage is just 67 pesos ($5.12). No friend to working people, the World Bank reported that 52.3% of the Mexican people lived in poverty in 2012 when Peña Nieto’s election took place. [3] Right after the fraudulent election, tens of thousands of people swarmed Soriana markets to find their gift cards were not valid, or worth only a few dollars!

Approximately four months after the kidnapping of the Ayotzinapa 43, the Mexican government announced it had “officially” concluded that the students were dead. The phony investigation had been conducted by Jesús Murillo Karam, a functionary of the PRI and President Peña Nieto’s attorney general. At a Jan. 27, 2015 press conference given by Karam, he stated that government “interrogation” of detained suspects provided “legal certainty that the student teachers were killed.” Karam offered no conclusive evidence to back up his claim, but stood firm in avowing that the government findings were the “historic truth.” He repeated that federal forces were in no way involved with the kidnapping. On the heels of Karam’s press conference, President Peña Nieto urged Mexicans to accept the government’s conclusion, saying: “We have to move forward with greater optimism.” The words of Mr. Nieto and his attorney general were utterly worthless.

The day after the government press conference, José Miguel Vivanco, the director of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch, denounced Karam’s findings, calling the government’s investigations “negligent” and “difficult to trust,” given that confessions are “based on coercion, torture, and irregularities.” Vivanco said the government claim “is not a historical truth, it is an official version.” [4]

Needless to say, the parents, families, and relatives of the missing 43 were infuriated with the administration of Mr. Nieto for closing the case. Taking to the streets to denounce the government’s sham investigations, thousands marched in Mexico City chanting, “¡Vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos!” (They took them alive, we want them alive!)

"Ayotzinapa Catrina, It was the State" - Rexistemx. Papel picado stencil. 2014. The anonymous Mexican art collective Rexistemx (rexiste.org), reworked Posada's Calavera as a stencil to be used in the creation of the traditional folk art of papel picado (cut paper). Aside from adding the text, Posada's work was altered by having the Calavera shedding tears, a reference to a slogan from the Ayotzinapa justice movement, Esta Dolor Llueve Rabia (This Sorrow Rains Rage). The Rexistemx papel picado was seen all over Mexican during Day of the Dead, 2014.

"Ayotzinapa Catrina, It was the State" - Rexistemx. Papel picado stencil. 2014. The anonymous Mexican art collective Rexistemx (rexiste.org), reworked Posada's Calavera as a stencil to be used in the creation of the traditional folk art of papel picado (cut paper). Aside from adding the text, Posada's work was altered by having the Calavera shedding tears, a reference to a slogan from the Ayotzinapa justice movement, "Esta Dolor Llueve Rabia" (This Sorrow Rains Rage). The Rexistemx papel picado was seen all over Mexico during Day of the Dead, 2014.

It is ironic that Spectre opens with a Day of the Dead procession, and that “Bond Girl” Estrella has her face painted as La Calavera Catrina, but the irony is no doubt lost on the film’s producers. José Guadalupe Posada (1852-1913) was one of Mexico’s greatest artists and acknowledged as the founder of Mexican printmaking. He was inspired by the aesthetics of the Aztecs, who created skeletonized depictions of supernatural beings in their art. Posada made prints of skeletons dressed as ordinary people, as well as priests, politicians, generals, and oligarchs, offering a mocking social criticism that continues to influence Mexican art and culture.

Around 1910 Posada created the etching Calavera Garbancera (Garbancera Skull). Living under the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz, Mexico was on the verge of revolution.

Posada published his print as a critique of the “Garbanceras,” those people with indigenous blood who renounced their race and culture to pass themselves off as Spanish or French. The etching depicted an indigenous woman as a skeleton, poor and naked, whose fancy European-style hat was her only claim to being European. In 1946 Diego Rivera began painting his mural, Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in the Alameda Central. An admirer of Posada, Rivera’s mural included a portrait of Posada arm in arm with his Calavera Garbancera dressed in Victorian clothes. Rivera christened his version of the female skeleton, La Calavera Catrina, and the Catrina has today become an iconic image for the Day of the Dead. However, the original critique behind Posada’s print is still pertinent today.

The filming for the opening sequence of Spectre began in Mexico on March 19, 2015. The ten-day film shoot received considerable attention in the mainstream media, but outside of Mexico the press left out the following important fact. On March 21 a group of pro-democracy activists gathered near the film shoot and held up a satiric banner emblazoned with the 007 logo, it read: “Help! 007, we request your help finding the 43 students of Ayotzinapa. Imprison the corrupt EPN gang that governs us.” The EPN abbreviation of course stands for Enrique Peña Nieto. The sign was the creation of the National Human Rights Commission (C.N.D.H.), the non-governmental human rights organization of Mexico that is accredited by the United Nations.

Pro-democracy activists near the filming location of Spectre, hold a banner that reads: "Help! 007, we request your help finding the 43 students of Ayotzinapa." Photo/Arcelia Maya

Pro-democracy activists near the filming location of "Spectre," hold a banner that reads: "Help! 007, we request your help finding the 43 students of Ayotzinapa." Photo/Arcelia Maya

One protester told the press: “It is a total irony and mockery of the system of government that the Mexican people would have to ask for help from our misfortunes from the largest representative of world imperialism, James Bond. Since you are here, save us from all the misfortunes of our people because of the corruption and impunity of the government.”

Regarding the comments made by Spectre production designer Mr. Gassner, that the Mexican people were “saying something” about their culture in the film’s Day of the Dead sequence. If you want to know how Mexicanos actually marked Dia de los Muertos in Nov. 2014, consider the following. Thousands of University students in Yucatan, Mexico held a candlelight march that evening to protest the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students. Signs were held that read: “In Mexico, everyday is Day of the Dead.” Similar marches and rituals were held all across Mexico that day involving hundreds of thousands of people.

University students in Yucatan, Mexico hold a candlelight march on Day of the Dead 2014, to protest the disappearance of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa. In the photograph a student holds a sign that reads: "In Mexico, everyday is Day of the Dead. Enough!" The slogan appeared in various artworks, banners, and graffiti all across Mexico, including on traditional alters and processions associated with Dia de los Muertos. Photo/anonymous.

University students in Yucatan, Mexico hold a candlelight march on Day of the Dead 2014, to protest the disappearance of the 43 students of Ayotzinapa. In the photograph a student holds a sign that reads: "In Mexico, everyday is Day of the Dead. Enough!" The slogan appeared in various artworks, banners, and graffiti all across Mexico, including on traditional altars and processions associated with Dia de los Muertos. Photo/anonymous.

The details of the hush-hush agreement between the Mexican government and MGM regarding Spectre, and how those secrets became public, reads like a script from a James Bond thriller.

As many readers are probably aware, on November 24, 2014, a hacker or hackers broke into the computer system of Sony Pictures Entertainment, leaving a flashing message on every computer controlled by Sony Pictures. It read: “We’ve obtained all your internal data, including your secrets and top secrets.” The cyber-criminals warned that if their demands were not met, the stolen data would be released to the public. What they supposedly wanted was for Sony to block release of The Interview, a Hollywood comedy directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg about two celebrity American journalists recruited by the CIA to assassinate the dictator of North Korea, Kim Jong-un.

At first Sony put The Interview on hold, but then reversed its decision and screened the film nationwide. The hackers made good on their threat and began to dump some 100 terabytes of sensitive information into the hands of the media, an estimated 38 million files. That info included the scandalous private e-mails and internal communications of top Sony and MGM executives. Sony and the FBI accused the North Korean government of being responsible for the hacking, but that is another story.

What is relevant to this article is that the script for Spectre was stolen in the cyber-attack and released to the media. E-mail exchanges between Sony and MGM officials were also leaked, and they revealed what the executives referred to as the “Mexican Deal.” One of the leaked communications included remarks from the president of MGM’s motion picture group Jonathan Glickman, who wrote the following regarding the deal:

“We are currently facing a budget that is far beyond what we anticipated and are under immense pressure to reduce the number to $250M net of rebates and incentives. This is not about ‘nickel and diming’ the production. As of now, our shooting period is $50M higher than Skyfall and the current gross budget sits in the mid $300Ms, making this one of the most expensive films ever made.”

According to a March 3, 2015 story published by Tax Analysts, the Mexican government proposed a lucrative deal with MGM; they offered to give the studio $20 million dollars worth of tax breaks and other incentives, if the studio allowed the Mexican government to change the cast and make significant alterations to the film’s story. A reading of Sony’s leaked e-mails indicates that the deal went through. In a memo titled, “Elements needed to preserve Mexican deal,” [5] Mr. Glickman listed the specific changes the Mexican government wanted from MGM:

Cast “a known Mexican actress” as Estrella, the Bond girl that appears in the opening sequence whose hotel room is the starting point for Bond’s search for villain Marco Sciarra. MGM gave the part to Mexican-born Stephanie Sigman.

Sciarra, the villainous character and adversary of James Bond at the beginning of the film, could not be a Mexican, or be played by a Mexican. MGM cast the Italian actor Alessandro Cremona to play the assassin, and rewrote the Sciarra character to be Italian.

A cage match duel between Marco Sciarra and Bond needed to be replaced by Bond chasing after Sciarra through a Day of the Dead procession.

Lucia Sciarra, widow of slain gangster Marco Sciarra and the chief villain of the film, also could not be a Mexican, or be played by a Mexican. MGM cast the Italian actress Monica Bellucci to play the Italian nemesis.

“Modern Mexico City buildings” had to appear in the movie’s aerial shots instead of Mexico’s notorious slums. MGM met that demand with the helicopter soaring over the skyline of Mexico City in the movie’s opening scene.

Rather than have Lucia Sciarra order the assassination of a Mexican governor, the victim had to be an international ambassador.

The November 24, 2014, cyber attack on Sony Pictures Entertainment occurred approximately two months after the kidnapping of the Ayotzinapa 43. The leaked documents reveal that MGM was already in the midst of altering Spectre to meet the demands of the Mexican government, that is, before the kidnappings. Be that as it may, the film’s opening scenes in essence serve as a cover for the shameless corruption and contemptible human rights record of Mexico’s government.

Mexico’s drug war has taken the lives of over 100,000 people since 2006, and since President Peña Nieto took office in 2012, an additional 10,000 people have been “disappeared” by drug gangs or state forces. Are they not sometimes one and the same? Most of those cases remain unsolved. There have been 81 cases of human rights activists being disappeared and presumably murdered during Peña Nieto’s administration. Some 41 journalists have been assassinated since 2010, most of them on Mr. Nieto’s watch, bringing even the New York Times to write an Aug. 15, 2015 editorial statement titled, The Murder of Mexico’s Free Press. On the same day, PEN America published a letter signed by over 500 international artists, journalists, writers, and free expression advocates. Addressed to President Peña Nieto, the letter said in part:

“PEN and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), would like to express our indignation regarding the deadly attacks against reporters in your country. An attempt on the life of a journalist is an attack on society’s very right to be informed.”

Suffice it to say, the PEN letter was not signed by anyone associated with the creation of Spectre.

In the present context, with September 26, 2015 marking the one year anniversary of the Ayotzinapa 43 being kidnapped, the premiere of Spectre in theaters November 6th, 2015 serves to whitewash the evil done to the Mexican people. There are plenty of corrupt characters portrayed in Spectre, but none so corrupt as those described in this essay.

Like the MGM poster that leads this article, this early "Spectre" movie poster from MGM shows 007 flaunting a major gun safety rule, keep your finger off the trigger until you have your target in your sights. One would think that Her Majesty's Armed Forces would have taught Bond a thing or two about the safe handling of guns, but it appears the only training he received was from Hollywood.

Like the MGM "Spectre" poster that leads this article, this early version from MGM shows 007 flaunting a major gun safety rule, keep your finger off the trigger until you have your target in your sights. One would think that Her Majesty's Armed Forces would have taught Bond a thing or two about the safe handling of weaponry, but it appears that the only military training he actually received was from Hollywood.

As I was finishing up this article, the results of a six-month long investigation into the kidnapping of the Ayotzinapa 43 were published on Sept. 6, 2015.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States (OAS), appointed an independent investigatory body called the Grupo Interdisciplinario de Expertos Independientes (GIEI), composed of five human rights experts.

The 560-page report from the GIEI could hardly be more condemnatory of the Peña Nieto administration. Jose Miguel Vivanco of Human Rights Watch called it “an utterly damning indictment of Mexico’s handling of the worst human rights atrocity in recent memory.”

The GIEI report forcefully rejects the Mexican government’s version of events. The report acknowledges that the students had commandeered four buses to take them to a commemorative event in Mexico City marking the 46th anniversary of the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre. It also found that the police and military had tracked the students from the moment they left their school in Ayotzinapa at six pm, to when they were attacked by police after midnight in the city of Iguala, in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. Police and military units sent communications to their forces on the student’s movements, and those reports were routed to C4, Mexico City’s Control, Command, Communication and Computer intelligence network, the most sophisticated security system in all of Latin America. In other words, federal authorities in Mexico City were monitoring the events from beginning to end in real time.

The GIEI said that when municipal, state, and federal police stopped the buses after midnight, soldiers from the Mexican Army’s 27th Infantry Battalion observed the police assaulting and detaining the students; contradicting the government’s assertion that no federal forces were involved in the kidnapping. The role of the federal police and the army remains unclear, but what is absolutely clear is that neither intervened to stop the shooting and kidnapping of the students. During the GIEI’s investigation, the Peña Nieto administration refused to allow the group to interview Mexican soldiers.

The official government report on the kidnapping mentioned only four buses used by the students, but the GIEI report confirmed through video evidence that the students had commandeered a fifth bus. The GIEI uncovered a still from a security camera at the bus terminal in Iguala where the students seized the bus; the photo not only showed the fifth bus, it showed the student passengers onboard. This photo was never included in the government investigation, though surviving students always maintained that five buses were involved. The government then changed its story, saying the students seized the bus, but due to mechanical failure, returned it to the terminal. When the GIEI asked the government to show them bus number five, they were shown a bus that bore a number of dissimilarities to the one from the security camera photo; leading to the conclusion that the fifth bus is now missing.

The Aztecs believed their war god Huitzilopochtli instructed them to build a city on the spot where they found an eagle perched on a cactus devouring a snake. In 1325 the nomadic Aztecs saw such a sight on a rocky outcrop in Lake Texcoco; it was there that they founded their city, Tenochtitlan. The iconic graphic version of an eagle perched on a cactus while eating a snake, first appeared as the coat of arms of the Mexican flag in 1823. An updated version was adopted in 1968. In his poster, artist José Luis Coyotl cleverly transformed the eagle and snake coat of arms into a bloody skull representing forced disappearances in Mexico. In English the words read: "Ayotzinapa, neither forgiven nor forgotten."

The Aztecs believed their war god Huitzilopochtli instructed them to build a city on the spot where they found an eagle perched on a cactus devouring a snake. In 1325 the nomadic Aztecs saw such a sight on a rocky outcrop in Lake Texcoco; it was there that they founded their city, Tenochtitlan. The iconic graphic version of an eagle perched on a cactus while eating a snake, first appeared as the coat of arms of the Mexican flag in 1823. An updated version was adopted in 1968. In his poster, artist José Luis Coyotl transformed the eagle and snake coat of arms into a bloody skull representing forced disappearances in Mexico. In English the words read: "Ayotzinapa, neither forgiven nor forgotten."

Most importantly, the GIEI believes that the police attacks on the buses were not meant to stop the students, they were meant to seize the fifth bus, because the students had unknowingly seized a bus that the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel was using to transport heroin to the United States.

What is being described here is an illegal conspiracy between corrupt government authorities and drug cartels in sharing control of Mexico’s profitable heroin trade - with annual profits registering in the billions. According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, nearly half of the heroin found in the U.S. in 2014 came from poppies grown in Mexico.

It is a fact that Guerreros Unidos have been shipping heroin to the United States. In Dec. 2014 U.S. federal authorities in Chicago arrested members of the Guerreros Unidos cartel for shipping heroin concealed “in commercial passenger buses that traveled from Mexico to Chicago.” [6]

One must ask why the Peña Nieto regime never investigated the possibility that the Ayotzinapa students paid with their lives for inadvertently interrupting a cartel heroin smuggling operation.

The GIEI report stated there was no evidence to support the government’s story that Guerreros Unidos had incinerated the dead students. The GIEI report noted that at least 500 cords of wood, or 100 tons of tires would have been necessary to create a fire large enough to turn the victims to ashes, but these materials were not available at the garbage dump where the cremation allegedly occurred. Moreover, to incinerate the bodies the fire would have needed to burn for 60 hours, yet the government contends it burned for only 16 hours. The government also claimed that Guerreros Unidos members stayed near the fire to keep it stoked, but the GIEI report stated that a fire large enough to incinerate 43 bodies would have burned to death anyone standing within 900 feet of it. Additionally, the land and vegetation at the dump was not scorched, and there was no evidence of a massive fire.

The GIEI report stated that during its investigation, the Mexican government committed grievous errors, made omissions and false conclusions, obstructed justice, used torture, cover-ups, and threats against surviving students, and ignored and destroyed evidence. For instance, CCTV camera footage made on the evening of the kidnapping had been deleted from government databases. As for the complete C4 records of police and army communications made on Sept. 26th, 2014… not surprisingly, they are “missing.”

It should be remembered that in 2014 President Obama boosted U.S. military aid to Mexico to $15 million a year, and that Mr. Obama continues to approve the bilateral Mérida Initiative with Mexico that funds the Mexican security apparatus to the tune of $2.5 billion Yankee dollars. [7] But the tyranny in Mexico is making an unlikely party nervous. In the aftermath of the kidnapping of the Ayotzinapa 43, while searching for the graves of the presumed dead students, numerous clandestine graves were found in and around Iguala, Mexico. Dozens of civilians were found in those mass graves, but none came from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ Collage. A recently declassified document obtained and published by the National Security Archive, came from U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), the Pentagon’s regional military command for the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The document read in part: “None of the 28 bodies identified thus far are the remains of the students, raising alarming questions about the widespread nature of cartel violence in the region and the level of government complicity.”

On March 22, 2015, thousands of Angelenos joined relatives of the Ayotzinapa 43 in a protest march on the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles. In this photo one of the marchers holds the poster, "We Are All Ayotzinapa." Photo/Mark Vallen ©

On March 22, 2015, thousands of Angelenos joined relatives of the Ayotzinapa 43 in a protest march on the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles. In this photo one of the marchers holds the poster, "Ayotzinapa Somos Todos" (We Are All Ayotzinapa). Photo & Artwork by Mark Vallen ©

In true reflection of the spirit of José Guadalupe Posada, working class artists in Mexico have been creating astounding posters, beautiful songs, poetry, dance, and theatrical street performances in reaction to the Mexican state’s involvement in the forced disappearance of the Ayotzinapa 43. Without the 300 million dollar budget of Spectre, these artists have created a true people’s art: one that is entirely cognizant of Mexico’s rich cultural and political history; prescient of current events, and used to mobilize the people to make history. None of these things can be said of the Hollywood fantasy-fest that is Spectre.

Standing in solidarity with the Mexican people, I have created my own artworks to draw attention to the Ayotzinapa 43 and the depraved goblins that did them harm. I am most proud of my poster, Ayotzinapa Somos Todos (We Are All Ayotzinapa), a print I am distributing for free in comradeship with the Mexican people’s movement for democracy. It is a humble effort, it is not enough, there is so much to be done. Ominous voices are rising in my homeland, ugly shouts of xenophobia that clamor for mass deportations and an impenetrable wall of steel to divide humanity. Artists must close ranks against such dangerous jargon.

Cinema has always been an art form that easily conveys ideology on the sly, but Spectre seems to have broken new ground when it comes to state generated propaganda. It is unprecedented for an American motion picture studio to have taken large amounts of foreign money in exchange for rewriting a film. The Webster dictionary defines propaganda as “ideas or statements that are often false or exaggerated and that are spread in order to help a cause, a political leader, a government, etc.” If one thinks about it for a moment, that entails quite a bit of what we experience in today’s modern society, including our cultural preoccupations. Spectre certainly fits the bill.

The Spectre of Ayotzinapa massacre opened on September 26, 2014 in the verdant hills of Guerrero, Mexico. Despite being panned by the general public, it will likely have a permanent run in Mexico due to its powerful backers. The Spectre film on the other hand is scheduled to open to rave reviews in U.S. theaters on November 6th, 2015.

– // –

SOURCES:

Read the complete, unedited GIEI report in English (.pdf)

Press summations on the GIEI report: Vice News, The Guardian, Reuters, CBCNews, New York Times.

ADDENDUM:

[1] “CS Visits James Bond in Mexico City and Learns How Spectre Begins!” ComingSoon.net/March 27, 2015.

[2] The White House Office of the Press Secretary. “Readout of President Obama’s call to President-elect Peña Nieto of Mexico.” July, 2, 2012.

[3] “Mexico” World Bank website

[4] “HRW: Ayotzinapa is not historical truth.” El Univeral/Jan. 28, 2015. Spanish language edition.

[5] “James Bond’s $20 million reason to love Mexico.” The Telegraph/March 13, 2015.

[6] “Eight Defendants Charged With Distributing Heroin In Chicago Area On Behalf Of Guerrero Unidos Mexican Drug Cartel.” Press Release: Department of Justice. U.S. Attorney’s Office. Northern District of Illinois. December 10, 2014.

[7] “U.S.-Mexican Security Cooperation: The Mérida Initiative and Beyond.” Congressional Research Service website, (.pdf) May 7, 2015.

I Did Not

The artist with his parents at Disneyland's Tomorrowland, 1959. "We're a happy family, me mom and daddy." Photographer unknown.

The artist with his parents at Disneyland's Tomorrowland, 1959. "We're a happy family, me mom and daddy." Photographer unknown.

I did not start my American life at Disneyland
but it was a close starting point
I was born September 7, 1953
Disneyland opened in California in 1955
my parents took me there in 1959
I was six-years-old.

That same year Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev
was denied permission to visit Disneyland
I liked Tomorrowland
where I rode the look-alike U.S. Navy nuclear submarines
I liked the Rocket to the Moon ride with its space age astronauts
I did not like Mickey Mouse.

The comedy album The First Family, was one of the most popular records in the United States in 1962. A lighthearted parody of President Kennedy and his family, the album was recorded on the very evening that J.F.K. made his Cuban Missile Crisis speech. The album sold nearly eight million copies, more than the debut album of Peter, Paul, and Mary. I bought the album as soon as it was released, and in the above photo I am pictured listening to it on my portable record player. Photo by the artist's father, Joe Vallen.

The comedy album "The First Family," was one of the most popular records in the United States in 1962. A lighthearted parody of President Kennedy and his family, the album was recorded on the very evening that J.F.K. made his Cuban Missile Crisis speech. The album sold nearly eight million copies, more than the debut album of Peter, Paul, and Mary. I bought the album as soon as it was released, and in the above photo I am pictured listening to it on my portable record player. Photo by the artist's father, Joe Vallen.

In 1963 at the age of ten
my parents gave me a wooden palette box
with oil paints and brushes
I painted a portrait of President Kennedy
right after he was cut down by an assassin
My painting is lost, but I did not misplace
the wooden palette box
I use it to store my paints today.

In 1967 I was fourteen when
President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke
at L.A.’s ritzy Century Plaza Hotel
outside 10,000 people protesting the Vietnam war
chanted “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”
they were attacked by a phalanx of 1,300 club swinging LAPD officers
I did not attend that protest, but it moved me just the same.

It would be a short time later that same year
that I would attend my first political demonstration
a massive protest against the Vietnam war
where thousands of people snaked their way down Wilshire Boulevard.

My father took this black & white Polaroid camera snapshot of my mother and I as we marched in the huge anti-Vietnam war demonstration that took place on L.A.'s Wilshire Boulevard in 1967.

My father took this black & white Polaroid camera snapshot of my mother and I as we marched in the huge anti-Vietnam war demonstration that took place on L.A.'s Wilshire Boulevard in 1967. The placard carried behind us that reads "Bring the Troops Home," was the theme of the march.

In 1968 I was fifteen-years-old
The Vietnam war was escalating
Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated
So was Bobby Kennedy, at the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard
At the Democratic Party National convention in Chicago
police beat and tear gassed thousands of antiwar protestors
I did not go “Clean for Gene.”

When I was sixteen in 1969
I convinced my parents to donate food
to the Free Breakfast for Children program
run by the LA chapter of the Black Panther Party
We drove the family car full of food stuff
to the L.A. Panther headquarters at 41st and Central
A week later on December 8, 1969 the Panther H.Q.
was raided by officers of the LAPD SWAT team
They dropped a bomb on the rooftop of the Panther H.Q.
It was the first military operation by a SWAT team in the U.S.

On August 29, 1970 I watched live TV coverage
of the Chicano Moratorium in East Los Angeles
30,000 Mexican-Americans marched against the Vietnam war
The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department attacked the people who
gathered in Laguna Park to listen to speeches
Police gunfire killed four that day:
Brown Berets José Diaz and Lyn Ward
a Jewish supporter of the movement named Gustav Montag
and L.A. Times reporter Rubén Salazar
Salazar was shot in the head with a wall-piercing teargas canister
as he calmly sat in the Silver Dollar Bar and Café on Whittier Blvd.
I was seventeen-years-old and my blood boiled.

kfgjfhfhfjfjfj

Yours truly at eighteen years of age, standing on my home turf of Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, California, 1971. Photographer unknown.

mfgmvmfvm

My first public art exhibit, an open-air display of pen drawings, watercolors, and collage. The art was displayed at a 1971 counterculture festival sponsored by the L.A. Free Press that took place in the San Fernando Valley. The art included tributes to Hippie, Native Americans, psychedelic rock, and the Black Panthers. I was eighteen at the time, and yes, I made the tie dye backdrops myself. Photo/Mark Vallen ©

In 1971 I published my first street poster
a pre-Watergate print titled “Evict Nixon
I did not vote for George McGovern
In 1972 when traveling in Europe
To avoid the condemning stares of an unapproving public
I hid my ponytail under my collar
Appropriately, I was standing in the Roman Coliseum
when I got the news that Richard Nixon had been re-elected
The Italians were furious; I told them I was Canadian.

In 1973, a U.S. backed fascist coup destroyed Chile’s democracy
sending shock waves around the world
A Chilean family friend told me the coup made her feel “secure”
I did not concur. I preferred Victor Jara.

ffjfjfjfkgkfhdgsgf

"Self Portrait" - Mark Vallen. Pencil on paper. 1973 ©

At twenty-years-old I ate tofu, wheat germ, sprouts, and yogurt
before they could be found in mainstream grocery stores
The fast food culture was driving me insane,
I had a growing interest in T.Rex and David Bowie.

In 1975 the war in Vietnam finally ended
The alternative culture flew apart
I was twenty-two-years-old
A new conformity began to rise
I did not think it would be long before another war started
In 1976 I did not vote for Jimmy Carter.

When I was twenty-four in 1977
I did not listen to the Bee Gees or the Eagles
To provoke the condemning stares of an unapproving public
I writhed and frothed in the birth of LA’s
nihilistic punk rock scene
my hair whacked off and my clothes torn to shreds.

gdgddfdfssgss

"Self Portrait" - Photo/Mark Vallen Feb. 1983 © Punk rock portrait on Sunset Blvd near L.A.'s infamous Whisky a Go Go.

By 1984 Orwell’s words had already come true
I made art against the policies of President Ronald Reagan
I feared the world would end in a nuclear holocaust
I did not vote for Walter Mondale.

In 1985 I created the silkscreen print, Free South Africa
a poster created to support the anti-apartheid movement
I worked with UCLA students that demanded the
university divest its funds from apartheid South Africa.
Despite the “Reagan Revolution”
I did not vote for Michael Dukakis in 1988.

I was thirty-eight in 1991
I made art against President George H.W. Bush’s Gulf War
I became a vegetarian
In 1992 I did not vote for Bill Clinton
And with the indigenous people of the Western hemisphere
I condemned 500 years of colonialism in the Americas.

In 1996 I was forty-three-years-old
I worked at a top advertising agency
I offered to build the company’s website,
saying the internet was the wave of the future
The CEOs told me the internet was a “passing fad”
There was no future for me in the 9 to 5 world
I did not vote for Clinton’s re-election.

I was forty-five-years-old in 1999
In the spring of that year, I made art against
the war President Clinton waged on Yugoslavia

I liked the film Wag the Dog
and was amused by “The Billionaires for Bush or Gore
I did not vote for Al Gore
In 2000 my chad was not hanging.

My grief was not a cry for war in 2001
I made art against the war in Iraq
In 2003 I joined 100,000 anti-war protesters
on the star studded Hollywood Blvd Walk of Fame
distributing my artwork Not Our Children, Not Their Children
I did not vote for John Kerry in 2004, the former “anti-war” activist
known in the UK as “The Haunted Tree”.

nfdjfjhdhdh

I am pictured standing before a John Heartfield reproduction at the 2006 J. Paul Getty Museum exhibit, "Agitated Images: John Heartfield and German Photomontage." Photo/Jeannine Thorpe 2006 ©

In 2008, friends and associates asked me
to create and exhibit artworks to support
the presidential campaign of Senator Obama
I declined, and I did not vote for Obama
but dared not publicly say so until now.

I was fifty-eight-years-old in 2011 when President Obama
without Congressional approval, began a war against Libya
Antiwar activists said the war would being democracy to Libya
I lost friends because I thought the war illegal & unwise
Today Libya is overrun by al Qaeda affiliates and ISIS

In 2012 I attended the first day of Occupy Los Angeles
then got back on the subway and went home
The movement coined the phrase “We Are the 99%”
but in L.A. it degenerated into a squabble about
camping on the lawn of City Hall. Another missed opportunity
I did not vote for Obama’s re-election.

I will be sixty-two on September 7, 2015
I make no apologies for my life thus far
I am the most un-Baby Boomer person in existence
born between the execution of the Rosenbergs
and the premiere of the radioactive monster-movie, Godzilla
Given my crown of thorns in the punk rock summer of hate in 1977
This is not a nostalgic poem
all of this and more made me what I am.

goggkfdgdgdshs

Yours truly at sixty-two years of age, still standing on Ventura Boulevard, but it is now an "upscale" street awash with corporate logos. Photo/Jeannine Thorpe 2015 ©

I’m still clawing my way to the bottom,
as an artist and a counterculturalist
because “radical” means “the roots”
Sometimes saying “no” is not a negative but a positive.
Just think of what I will be writing about after
the lyrics to the Beatles’ song When I’m Sixty-Four
actually fully apply to me.

All this started for me years ago
when people were optimistic enough
to work at creating a new world
While that optimism has lapsed for many
the need continues to be great
This is what inspires me to create my art
to transform horrible circumstances into a world at last livable.
So dear reader, I am not a cynic after all
I did not think that at this late date
I would still be saying
“be more than a witness.”

– // –

All photos and text are the property of artist Mark Vallen ©