Chicano Artists, Part Two

CHICANO ARTISTS

and

POPULAR CULTURE

Part Two

Chicano Art and Chicano artists are, definitionally, part of a political culture of outsiders, people of color, individuals who were crudely grouped into an inaccurate and racist designation “illegal aliens.” Chicano artists, by definition are American citizens whose families have inhabited the Southwest for thousands of years and citizens of the United States for generations. But due to their belonging to a non-European or non-Anglo culture, these artists were “outsider” artists in the sense that they were kept outside of the fortresses of art galleries and art museums. Working on the margins, these artists produced a distinctive group of art works centered on their own history and their own hybrid culture. The performance artists, ASCO was a group of “second generation” of politically active Chicano artists who allowed themselves to dream of success because of the political work of their elders.

One of those exemplars was Luis Valdez who began as the founder of and a playwright for El Teatro Campesino for the striking agricultural workers in 1965. A graduate of California State University, San Jose and a former member of a mime troupe from San Francisco, Valdez toned down his admiration for the communist cause and became responsible for consciousness-raising and moral-raising for the marchers. In 1978 he wrote Zoot Suit, which debuted at the Mark Taper Forum and enjoyed a long and successful run. Perhaps the play was too much about Los Angeles, for it ran only 41 days in New York City. In 1981 the play became a movie, which, because of the playwright’s roots in political theater, was deliberately staged like a theatrical production. Despite the title, the film is not about the Zoot Suit Riots but another, earlier, incident in the history of the city, the Sleepy Lagoon Murder. The year of the murder of Juan Diaz at the Sleepy Lagoon reservoir happened early in 1942, only months after the round up of Japanese-American citizens. Ordinarily a routine killing of a Mexican would have been ignored by the Anglo press, but in a time of war hysteria, the local news papers responded by printing enflaming stories about Mexican gangs. In reaction to the sensationalism, the police rounded up 600 (or 300, depending upon which source you read) young Pachucos for the murder of Diaz.

Sleepy Lagoon was a popular spot for young Mexicans, denied access to public pools and was thought by Anglos to be a site of gang confrontations. Improbably, twelve young men were convicted of the murder of Diaz and five were convicted of assaulting him. (Or three were found guilty of first degree murder, nine were guilty of second degree murder, five were guilty of lesser offenses, and 5 were acquitted, depending upon which source you read.) Faced with unconstitutional trials and lack of due process, liberal-minded citizens of Los Angeles formed a defense committee, including historian Cary McWillliams and actors Anthony Quinn, Rita Hayworth and Henry Fonda.

In 1944 the convictions were overturned. The play, Z00t Suit, starred the mythic Pachuco, played by Edward James Olmos, who is a voice in the head of the leading character, Henry Reyna. Olmos broke the “fourth wall” by speaking directly to the audience, confronting Chicanos with their own history and Anglos with their own guilt. The play and film softened certain aspects of Mexican American life in Los Angeles in the 1940s, but humanized the feared zoot suiters, revealing them to be headstrong teenagers. Any taint of gang affiliation was washed away for the larger point: the injustice of the justice system towards people of color. Zoot Suit is still Valdez’s signature piece and one of the few films in its day that attempted to focus solely on the Mexican-American community. Since then, several films have emerged, Bound by Honor (1993) (also known as Blood In, Blood Out) and Ma Vida Loca (1993) and Mi Familia (1995).

The first breakthrough for Chicano artists in an Anglo museum was the exhibition of Los Four at University of California, Los Angeles, 1974, an opening crashed by the irrepressible ASCO. Los Four was a collective of Los Angeles artists that included the late Carlos Almaraz, the founder, Gilbert “Magu” Luján, and Frank Romero, and an unofficial fifth member, a Chicana, Judith Hernandez. Almaraz and Romero were mualists and Luján became famous as one of the leading members of the Kar Kulture community. His highly decorated cars, part of the “Low Rider” culture, are ethnic statements of cultural pride with their elaborate interiors and candy flake finishes. The term “Low Rider” refers to the simple fact that these highly decorated cars ride low to the ground, but they can also hip and hop upon command from high performance hydraulics.

These magnificent machines date from the same era as the Anglo “hot rods,” the Depression era when the only cars were old (and restored) and the Low Rider cars come straight from the Zoot Suit culture. These stylized family cars are deliberately different from the “California rake” styled cars with high backs and low fronts, the “muscle cars,” designed to be driven fast. Due to their precarious mechanical preciousness, these Chicano works of art are driven slowly and are for display only. This culture of display of young people comes from Mexican villages and the Paeso is a procession of young men and women, showing themselves to each other, men walking in one direction, the women in another. In Los Angeles, the paseo was called “cruising” and Whittier Boulevard was the place to be. The authorities look with disfavor upon such displays of cultural otherness, a display they linked to gang culture and in 1979, the police closed down Whittier Boulevard to cruising and event mourned by the painter Frank Romero.

Romero is best known to commuters of Los Angeles for his Olympics mural (1984) along the 101 Freeway and to the pedestrians along Broadway for his tiled sidewalks. He is also a painter of the history of Los Angeles. Working as an easel artists, on a smaller scale than Bacca, he painted famous incidents of Chicano alternative history, such as The Killing of Ruben Salazar and The Closing of Whittier Boulevard, both events of the Moratorium of 1970. Los Four, active between 1973 to 1983, are credited with inventing spray can murals and with blending politics and graffiti to create Chicano icons. Another major group was the Royal Chicano Air Force, originally the Rebel Chicano Art Front, consisting of two art professors from José Montoya and Esteban Villa and their student, Ricardo Favela, from Sacramento. Taking as their slogan, “Craziness is its own cure,” they affirmed Chicano culture while not forgetting their Mexican heritage. Coming from San Francisco was the all woman group, Patricia Rodriguez, Garciela Carrillo, Cosuelo Mendiz, and Irene Perez, calling themselves Las Mujeres Muralistas.

Despite the sexism in Chicano culture, women artists have managed to hold their own. Amelia Mesa-Bains was one of the founders of the Art Department at California State University, Monterey Bay and became well known for her signature installations of home alteres or domestic altars covered with cultural and family icons and mementos. Mesa-Bains exemplifies Chicano art, from a woman’s point of view and calls her installations, “domesticana.” Her work is mestizaje, that is, mixed or hybrid, in culture and her art shows the results of blendings and borrowings in the assemblage approach. Many of her home altars celebrated famous female Mexican-American movie stars and artists and female religious figures.

The role of the Chicano artist is to address the Chicano people and to promote a revolutionary culture of nationalism. Recently Chicano artists have moved into the mainstream and with success comes change. The art became less political and less activist and more in line with mainstream Anglo art. Even so, there are the occasional defiant gestures. For example at the Whitney Biannual of 1993 (known as the Biannual of Color, because artists of color were well represented for the first and last time), Daniel J. Martinez created a series of museum tags, given out as a sign of admission. Put together, these different colored pins said “I can’t Imagine/ Ever Wanting/ To Be /White.”