What separates Chicano art from mainstream art and from the artists of color who have “made it” in the white art world, such as Bryan Kim, is that the Chicano artists did not want to be part of the white mainstream art world.  Chicano art was, from the very beginning, an art of protest, connected to social politics.  Chicano art was for the Chicano people, about the Chicano people, and made by Chicano people. Chicano Art was public and community orientated; Chicano art could not be bought or sold; and above all, Chicano art was a critique of Anglo society.  Nothing could be more antithetical to a non-political and commercial gallery system.

From the very beginning, Chicano art could not be separated from the labor movement led by Cesar Chavez and the Chicano Civil Rights Movement. By 1972, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), founded in 1962 and the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC) came together as the United Farm Workers. These two groups, one Chicano and one Filipino, had joined forces against the Delano growers and Chavez led a years long grape boycott which finally brought about a historic agreement with the group that would later become the United Farmworkers Union (UFW). Early victories were not the end but the beginning of a struggle towards self-determination that lasted for decades, with the labor movements expanding to political activism.

By the 1980s, the conservative Republicans attempted to both roll back labor gains, affirmative action, and the growing political clout of the Chicanos. However, in a political miscalculation of mass proportions, Governor Pete Wilson, seeking reelection to a second term, supported the now-infamous Proposition 187. This Proposition, a sort of “papers please” law was designed to deny “illegal aliens,” code for “Mexicans” government services. The law was declared unconstitutional but the Californians of Mexican descent never forgot this racial slur and today California is a “blue state,” with a large politically alert “majority/minority” population. The rising power of the Mexican-American population coincided with the mainstreaming of what was once an art of protest into major museums and into major museum collections.
But there was a time when Chicano artists were cultural leaders, outside the mainstream, calling attention to their unique culture, both Mexican and American, a true hybrid art. The protest movements of the 1960s needed mural artists, performance artists and poster artists. One of the major art forms to come out of the Chicano Movement is the poster, and one of the premier sites of print making in California is Self-Help Graphics in Los Angeles, whose name says it all—Chicano artist helping themselves to make art and be artists. No one else would help Chicano artists.   Some of the major poster artists include, Rupert Garcia, Malaquias Montoya, Ralph Maradiaga, Carols Cortez, Amado Maurilo Peña, Jr. For example, as the political pressures upon the Mexican Americans has become more focused on the issue of “illegal aliens,” artists, such as Rupert Garcia, have made graphic art works dramatizing the problems of deportation. Ester Hernandez, whose parents were laborers in the fields, also became famous for her posters, which called attention to the conditions under which Mexicans worked.

California is an important center for grape growing and from grapes come raisins, which are dried grapes.  The most famous raisin producer is “Sun Maid.”  The distinctive red box with the happy, bonneted field worker is one of the most recognizable trademarks in America.  Hernandez borrows the famous raisin icon and turns the pretty white woman into a skeleton and lists the ingredients of raisins as pesticides that kill the workers who die in the service of “Sun Mad” raisins. The skeleton appropriated by Hernandez is based upon the famous posters designed by Jose Posada, in a tribute to indigenous popular culture. This poster also refers to the long struggle for workers’ rights and the growers refusal to provide safe working conditions and a living wage and education for the children.

However, when Anglos think of Chicano art, they tend to think of murals.  Some say that Chicano murals began in Chicago in 1968, others point to a three-part mural done for El Teatro by Antonio Bernal, also in 1968.  Whenever murals began in the Chicano community they quickly became the trademark of Mexican-American territory, both marking out a sense of place but also affirming an ethnic identity, otherwise invisible.  Like all of Chicano art, murals are “poor people’s art, a form of popular folk culture that is a deliberate defiance of “fine arts” standards.  Unable to be hung in a museum, available only to the barrio dwellers, rendered in a figurative style, featuring ethnic symbols and subject matter, and not for sale, these murals create a “barrioscape” or a cultural sanctuary for the oppressed.

Murals are large visual statements of how important it is for a society of control represents of itself.  Striking back at Anglo representations of Mexicans as “lazy” or “gang members” or “wetbacks” or “greasers” or “spics” with stereotypes and racial slurs serving as racist codes for oppression, the murals were a push back against the dominant culture and assigned to the artist a social role and gave to art a social function.  Art should not just inform but to affirm and lift up and speak about the people of the community.  As was noted earlier, women were very oppressed in this patriarchal society, but Chicanas defined the males and created art careers in their own terms, even in that most public and most masculine of sites, mural art. One of the most important murals and the longest mural in the world is Judith Baca’s The Great Wall of Los Angeles, located in the Tijunga Wash Drainage Canal, once the Los Angeles River.

Scorned by men who who would later emulate her, Baca organized the young people, giving them an alternative to gang life.  They painted an alternative history of Los Angeles, the history of “minorities” and of the injustices of the American system, from the Zoot Suit Riots to the days of McCarthyism to the Civil Rights Movement to the destruction of Chavez Ravine to make way for Dodger Stadium. Bacca and her colleagues head The Social and Public Art Resource Center or SPARC, an organization that catalogues, preserves, and protects one of the city’s most significant cultural treasures—its murals.  A feminist, a teacher, and an Chicana, Bacca emerged as one of the leading mural artists in Los Angeles and wrote a book on how to construct and execute murals, published expressly for women.

The Chicano performance group, ASCO, which means “nausea” in Spanish assaulted the power structures in Los Angeles, whether unresponsive community institutions or the movie industry or the local art museums.  These four artists, Harry Gamboa, Jr., Gronk, Willie Heron, and Patssi Valdez, were performance artists who carefully documented their acts.  These were guerrilla artists, who, in the 1970s, were completely shut out of full participation in the culture of Los Angeles.  As minorities, they were invisible but repressed, unseen but watched and guarded by the authorities.  Lacking legitimation or resources, they were performance artists, using arte povera tactics—making do with minimalist means to make a point with maximum effect.

Their most famous performance was a sneak attack on the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, spraypainting their initials on the sacred walls of the museum.  Using barrio tactics of “tagging” the available space allotted to the Chicanos in East Los Angeles, ASCO made their mark on the institution, following a racist disparaging dismissive remark made by a curator about the impossibility of including Chicano art in the museum’s collection.  The issue is not whether or not a Chicano artist wanted “in” or not.  The museum is a taxpayer supported, city owned edifice, and, as such, should reflect the population that pays for it and should be served.  However, the museum felt that it could best serve the public by presenting only the “art” approved of by the experts and by then educating the public on what this (white and male) art is.  Ironically, twenty years later, the same museum gave Gronk (Gluglio Nicandro) his first retrospective and opened two shows on Chicano art, April and June 2008.  But that is getting ahead of the story.

As a conceptual art group. ASCO was part of the mainstream art world, which had shifted away from painting to Conceptual Art, but they enacted their concepts outside the doors of the museums and galleries, not in the art colleges.  Discouraged at the way Hollywood ignored the ethnic realities of America, unhappy with the way in which Chicanos got in the news only under the headlines of “gang violence,” Harry Gamboa, Jr. staged his own “death” as a result of gang violence.  The image was accepted as authentic by the media, despite the fact that the victim was covered with catsup, and was broadcast on the local news.  The stereotype that all Chicanos were in gangs was so embedded in the cultural consciousness, that the “reality” of the image was never questioned.

Strangely, Gamboa was, for years, under FBI surveillance, doubly damned as an artist and as a Chicano.  ASCO began producing their series No-Movies, staged events that were performed and recorded in film stills.  The film stills were stamped “ASCO/Chicano Cinema” and gave the impression that Chicano films were actually being  made…somewhere.  Posing as city officials, the members of ASCO toured East Los Angeles, which is actually unincorporated, and designated various sites with landmark significance.  One such site was the Asshole Mural (1975), a storm drain, where excess water, like Chicanos, were washed away and forgotten.  Although ASCO was influenced by Cindy Sherman, who referred to very real movie genres, the performers had no existing Chicano movies to look to.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.   Thank you.

[email protected]

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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