Seeing Ourselves at the Intersections: Interconnected Histories, Culture, and Art at the Cheech and Riverside Art Museum
by Celia Viramontes. Posted April 25, 2023.
“[The] Japanese Mexican experience…there is very little documentation, there is very
little record, and it’s not part of the national history so it’s hard for us to engage with these kinds of histories.” ”[i]
Fig. 1. Photo: Kingo Nonaka, Tijuana 1933. (Courtesy of Nonaka Family Archive)
The black and white photograph of a community posing in front of a parade float in Tijuana in the early twentieth century tells a story of migration largely forgotten to history, an image that inspired artist Shinpei Takeda’s virtual reality sculptural installation, Float for Reclamation: Limit of Your Safe Space Iteration II, 2023, now showing at the MexiCali Biennial Land of Milk and Honey exhibit at the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture of the Riverside Art Museum. Taken by Kingo Nonaka, the first documentary photographer of Tijuana, it captures the Japanese community in the years prior to World War II (fig. 1). As Takeda shares with me, many of these individuals were migrant workers, “coming from countryside of Japan, initially to Chiapas. The idea was to work in café [coffee] plantations, and send money back, like an immigrant, like braceros.” When opportunities disappeared there – and in Oaxaca’s coffee plantations as well – many of these migrants would eventually move north to Tijuana. With the advent of World War II, this growing community in the U.S-Mexico borderlands would be forcefully uprooted from their homes, like their Japanese American counterparts in the U.S. It is a history that remains largely unknown, a glaring erasure in both U.S, U.S-Mexico borderlands history, and Mexican national history.
Two lines of DNA inform this work, Takeda informs me. One is the series of virtual reality workshops he undertook called Limit of Your Safe Space, at the Oceanside Museum of Art. There, he employed virtual reality to engage with individuals across the globe who identify as immigrants or refugees to consider questions of “safe space.” The other strand is the 2008 documentary film “El México más cercano a Japón/The closest Mexico to Japan,” one of the first works he made coming to Tijuana. “I interviewed Japanese grandpas and grandmas. But they are Tijuanenses, so they are Japanese Mexican third-generation, second-generation” Takeda tells me, and “finding out about these stories of a fairly large Japanese community in Tijuana before the war, in the 1920s, 30s and 40s and how, during the war they were forcefully dislocated, displaced to south Mexico about a month after Pearl Harbor. And other stories about how lands were taken.”[ii] Drawn to these largely unknown stories, Takeda decided to convert virtual reality project of Limit of Your Space with this new knowledge and insight.
Fig. 2. Shinpei Takeda. Float for Reclamation: Limit of Your Safe Space Iteration II, 2023. (Courtesy of the artist).
“I want to add more noise. This is deeply ingrained in my soul,” Takeda tells me. “Float for Reclamation” (fig.2) – inspired by the floats that the Japanese community used to make for parades held in Tijuana from the 1920s through WWII – does exactly that, shattering the silences around a subject that has remained historically muted on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
In so doing, Takeda, who was born in Japan and has been living between Germany and Tijuana, México (the latter for more than 15 years), elevates the stories and histories of this overlooked community in the U.S-Mexico borderlands. Featuring peer to peer virtual reality sessions that engage with photographs, memory and family histories (https://vimeo.com/804956307) the project was made in collaboration with L.A.-based artist Devon Tsuno, Mexicali-based architect and cultural producer Minoru Kiyota, and Dr. Jessica A. Fernández de Lara Harada, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Center for Japanese Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “If you really zoom in on some of these personal stories, and this is what we really try to do in these virtual sessions, you look at these pictures, and zoom in, you really see the personal stories, beyond really big national stories about war, border, politics,” Takeda tells me. The float symbolically demands an apology and reparations from both the U.S and Mexican governments for this historic injustice.
In Transborder Los Angeles: An Unknown Transpacific History of Japanese Mexican Relations,” historian Yu Tokunaga provides critical context for understanding this little-known history, noting that, “In early January 1942, more than a full month before the [U.S] issuance of Executive Order 9066, the Mexican government took action to relocate more than 2,7000 ethnic Japanese residents in the U.S Mexico borderlands to inland cities such as Mexico City and Guadalajara” (157) – a population, he points out, “equivalent to about half of the entire population of Japanese nationals in México” at that time (ibid). As historian Erika Lee further describes in America for Americans, this action, taken “under pressure from the United States” would dramatically impact whole families and communities, as “some were given just five days’ notice to leave their homes” (206). That same year, the U.S and Mexico (war-time allies) would forge an agreement, leading to the contracting of Mexican bracero workers to the U.S. A consequence, Tokuda argues, is that “the large space vacated by the ethnic Japanese population in the U.S-Mexico borderlands was soon to be filled again with Mexican residents and Mexican cross border migrants such as braceros” (158).
“Float for Reclamation” urges us to make connections, to turn a critical gaze toward the U.S. and the unjust imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II, and toward a Mexican nation that in a time of war, engaged in a policy of Japanese Mexican “relocation.” (That this took place at a time when the two countries devised a set of binational labor agreements to enact the Bracero Program adds a layer of historical complexity.)[iii] How do we recuperate stories at the nexus of transnational political forces, racializing ideologies (both domestic and transnational), and governmental actions that would profoundly shape the lives of individuals and their families? Takeda and his collaborators explore these questions by engaging with memory and family histories, to discover points of intersection, contributing to historical inquiry in what scholar Ignacio-López Calvo, in his study of Nikkei writing, visual arts, and performance in Mexico, refers to as The Mexican Transpacific.
The installation’s presence on the upper level of the “Cheech” demonstrates the power of art to center stories at the margins of history. It also signals the vital space of the Cheech in presenting complex artworks that complicate our understanding of the U.S-Mexico borderlands through the MexiCali Biennial’s Land of Milk and Honey multidisciplinary program and exhibition that opened on February 25, 2023, guest curated by Ed Gómez, Luis G. Hernandez, April Lillard-Gómez, and Rosalía Romero, with assistance from Enid Baxter-Ryce. María Esther Fernández, Artistic Director of the Cheech, reflects on the unique potential for dialogue this exhibition represents: “We are going to have artists looking at theme of agriculture and land, featuring artists from the United States and Mexico. We have opportunities to engage. We don’t exist in a vacuum. That is the goal,” she says, “to have dialogue with other marginalized communities and communities where we have similar and/or different experiences.”[iv] These moments of dialogue can be gleaned through the diversity of artworks: Cat Chiu Phillips’ installation, “Barong PPE, 2020” honoring Filipino migrant workers who helped develop California’s agricultural economy and labor leaders including Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz; the fusion of photography and concrete poetry in Juan Delgado and Thomas McGovern’s “Pickers and Packers, 2022,” mixed media installation that highlights the often-invisible labor of workers in the citrus industry in Riverside, California. Also on view is the work of Janet Diaz, consisting of vinyl panels that recognize the sangre, sudor, y amor – the blood, sweat, and tears – of agricultural laborers (fig. 3). Here, on large portraits, they are elevated on the walls, standing, rather than “down on their knees.”
Fig. 3. Janet Diaz. Sangre, Sudor, y Amor: Hunger for the American Dream, 2018. (Photo: Carlos Puma, Courtesy of the artist and MexiCali Biennial) ink printed on vinyl,three panels, each 96 x 48 in.
Displayed near Diaz’s artwork is another moving image – “floating like a ghost,” as the artist, Mely Barragán, describes it to me.[v] As the granddaughter of a former bracero (my maternal grandfather), it immediately captivates my eye and stirs something inside of me.
Fig. 4. Mely Barragán. Family Legacy, 2023. (Photo: Celia Viramontes). Used with permission of the artist.
A multidisciplinary visual artist born in, and living in Tijuana, Barragán’s artwork, “Family Legacy 2023,” (fig. 4) reaches deep into her bracero family history. This piece, inspired by the Bracero Legacy Project by Daniel Ruanova, proved “very difficult for me to finish,” she acknowledges, “because it reopened memories from my childhood and the relationship with my grandfather.” It is precisely the image of her grandfather that we see in the floating flag.
Fig. 5. Mely Barragán, artist at work. (Photos: Courtesy of the artist)
Fig. 6. Mely Barragán, artist at work.
Barragán shares the sentiments behind this artistic piece: “By appropriating one of my family’s most treasured documents, my late grandfather’s Bracero ID card, and transferring its image onto a white silk flag attached to a brass pole, I am symbolizing a peace offering between an extinct culture from a long-gone generation with the progress and evolution of their current descendants” (figs. 5 and 6). The words ALIEN LABORER’S IDENTIFICATION CARD on the government-issued document capture the dehumanizing language applied to workers, whose labor was desired, but whose full humanity was often denied. As if to echo this point, a white line appears to run vertically along the young bracero’s face, creating the effect of a split, the division and family separation bracero families would endure.
What we glean from the backside of the young bracero’s mica card, or bracero ID card are the data compiled through the bureaucratic hiring process – name, origins, date and place of birth and hometown. We learn, too, date and location of issuance of such governmental document (fig. 7). It is the record of a life lived across borders, of transnational history and labor made visible here through the artistic hands of a bracero’s granddaughter.
Fig. 7. Mely Barragán. Family Legacy 2023. (Photo: Courtesy of the Artist).
Barragán acknowledges the complex layers of the bracero story, which include her grandmother, whom she describes to me as a “strong Mexican woman that suffered the struggles of being left alone with her 12 children when my abuelo traveled north.” Despite this, her grandmother lived a long life, she shares. In the hands of Mely Barragán, the bracero past echoes into the present, the flag “floating like a ghost,” an offering from one generation to the other, to honor the struggles of our grandparents, as the artist here does.
To make visible that which has been relegated to the margins also motivates the work of Narsiso Martinez. In his piece, “Don Audelio, 2022,” (fig. 8) Martinez draws from his own experiences as a farmworker and relationships built with others in the fields. Here, we see Don Audelio, who labored on the California coast, his image appearing on a discarded produce box. Martinez creates an homage to the worker, whose labor goes unnoticed and unrecognized by the larger society, a commentary on how workers are often treated as disposable, despite the rhetoric that deems them “essential.”
Fig. 8. Narsiso Martinez. Don Audelio, 2022. (Photo: Carlos Puma. Courtesy of the artist and Mexicali Biennial), ink, charcoal, and gouache on cardboard produce box, 68.5 x 77.5 in.
In their respective works, Fernando Corona (fig. 9) and Marylucille Nuñez-Delira (fig. 10) honor the laborers who do the arduous work of harvesting the foods that fill our tables, even as many farmworkers themselves go hungry or live in precarious economic conditions. In these fertile lands of the Americas, who is fed? Who goes hungry? How do our food systems and foodways perpetuate conditions of inequality? Through these artists’ hands, we are compelled to reckon with these and other questions around agricultural systems and workers’ livelihoods.
Fig. 9. Fernando Corona. Field Trip, 2023. (Photo: Carlos Puma, Courtesy of the artist and MexiCali Biennial), acrylic paint on fabric, 83 x 117 in.
Fig. 10. Marylucille Nunez-Delira. Heart and souls that harvest our fruits and vegetables in the fertile lands of the Americas, 2021. (Photo: Carlos Puma, Courtesy of the artist and MexiCali Biennial), Triptych (colored pencil on paper with concrete sculpted frame), 34 x 84 in.
The exhibition also captures the affective and cultural ties that bind generations through the music of the borderlands, as shown in the installation by Juan Luna-Avin (fig. 11). Here, on display, is an anthology of bracero music – the record albums, compact discs, and other multimedia of such singers as Pedro Infante, with his “Canto del Bracero” (Song of the Bracero), the soulful lyricism of Cuco Sanchez, and of Los Madrugadores (The Early Risers), a musical group of the 1930s, prominent during the period of the Great Depression and Mexican “Repatriation” campaign which targeted the Mexican-origin population for expulsion.’[vi] As the granddaughter of a “repatriado” from that era (my paternal grandfather, a young boy at the time), this too, stirs something inside me. To see our family histories reflected in these cultural references is deeply meaningful for communities who have historically not seen themselves truthfully reflected in the halls and on the walls of museums.
Fig. 11. Juan Luna-Avin. Recuerdos del Sitio: An Anthology of Bracero Music, 2022. (Photo: Carlos Puma, Courtesy of the artist and MexiCali Biennial), graphite, ink, acrylic, paper, cardstock, poster board,printed media, stickers, vinyl records, CD’s, cassette tapes, plastic, and wood on shelves. 35 x 75 x 16 in.
These and a myriad of other artworks currently on display at the Cheech provide fertile ground for intersectional dialogue. This is crucial for our understanding of our interconnected histories, artist Joan Takayama-Ogawa tells me. The thirty-year survey of her work, Ceramic Beacon, organized by Craft in America and curated by Emily Zaiden, is now on view at the Riverside Art Museum, next to the Cheech. For Takayama-Ogawa, the experience of viewing the Land of Milk and Honey exhibit evoked powerful feelings and reflections on her own family history. She traces her Japanese ancestral heritage and family’s involvement with ceramics back to the 15th century in the pottery town of Tokoname. The themes of migration to, and labor in, the United States run deep in her family history, the Pasadena born-and-based artist shares with me: “I have to say that this particular show was a good historic window into looking at the migrant worker experience…and yet I stood back and I said, ‘This could have been Japanese in the early twentieth century’ because many on my mother’s side were sharecroppers. My father picked grapes prior to World War II. He described it as brutally hot in the Fresno area and the San Joaquin Valley. So, as I was looking at the [Land of] Milk and Honey show, I kept thinking about this history that we all have inherited, that I personally have, my family history.[vii]
For Takayama-Ogawa, understanding the ‘revolving door of labor’ – welcoming at times for some, and closed-off for others given the prevailing racializing discourse – is at the crux of many of these intersecting histories. She reflects, with me, on how a legacy of family separation (echoing the Bracero family experience) can be gleaned from the Anti-Asian exclusionary immigration policies of the 19th century, such as the 1875 Page Act. Indeed, as historian Erika Lee notes, the Page Act “was broadly used to deny entry to all Chinese immigrants, especially women,” setting the stage for the “eventual exclusion of all Chinese laborers in 1882” (85). Moreover, the rise of anti-Asian sentiment, codified and made law, by the ban on Japanese laborers in 1908 and the Immigration Acts of 1917, 1921, and 1924, would pave the way for Mexicans to become the largest ethnic group of farmworkers in California by the 1920s (153). The histories of communities are inextricably tied, Takayama-Ogawa reflects, as when, for instance, “Japanese are relocated during WWII, creating a labor shortage. And that’s when we have the beginning of the bracero movement. I think that those are things to think about as artists because history repeats itself,” she tells me. It is a history she explores deeply in her work, for members of her own family were among those incarcerated.
“Racial Profiling, Japanese American Relocation Camps, 2001-2002” (fig. 12), speaks to this profound historic injustice. Moved to create this work in the aftermath of 9/11, Takayama-Ogawa’s mixed media piece symbolizes the atrocities born of racially profiling an entire group and the dangers of scapegoating. The piece includes a black ceramic box surrounded by gold barbed wire. A little wooden sarcophagus in the center has her “Grandfather’s ID card from relocation,” she tells me. On top of it, she describes, “is a gold crane that symbolizes freedom and flight…on the outside of the barbed wire, if you look at that picture…it has the last names of all our family members. It’s over 31 last names of close friends and family. It’s over 200 people who are relocated.”
Fig. 12. Joan Takayama-Ogawa. Racial Profiling: Japanese American Relocation Camps, 2001-2002. (Photo: Madison Metro, Courtesy of Craft in America), glazed earthenware, wood, metal, fiber 6 x 8 x 8 in.
There are references as well to the 1944 U.S Supreme Court case, Korematsu v. United States, centered on the case of Fred Korematsu, who sought to challenge the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066 and incarceration[viii] as well as text of a proclamation and letter known as “The American Promise” that the Japanese American community received from President Ford on February 19, 1976. As Takayama-Ogawa points out, regarding the latter, “a promise is not a law. It’s just a president writing a letter. But I thought I’d put that out there because I think [at] the core of everything I do in clay is that I am a teacher. And that by doing the work that I do, I hope to shed light, or be a beacon…to shine light on social injustices.”
“To shine a light” is exactly what Takayama-Ogawa’s art does, in a manner that is both intriguing and revelatory. These are beautiful works, captivating and alluring in their admittedly “theatrical colors,”as she describes them. It lies at the heart of what she aims to do – lure the viewer in, to then probe more deeply. We see this in “Miso Deflated, 2010,” (fig. 13) a piece capturing a miso shiru bowl at the top of a house spilling out sinking homes, and a collapsed fence. A commentary on the subprime lending practices that would hit communities of color, especially Chicano families, particularly hard in Riverside, Takayama-Ogawa reflects. A representation of a society and economy teetering on the edge, its playful presentation draws us in to have us think deeply about real estate practices that have historically driven communities to a precarious economic position, or excluded them altogether, as with redlining policies.
Fig. 13. Joan Takayama-Ogawa. Miso Deflated, 2010. (Photo: Madison Metro, Courtesyof Craft in America), glazed earthenware, wood, gold glaze ceramic decals 12 x 10 x 10 in.
Climactic issues take center stage in much of Takayama-Ogawa’s work as well, where themes around sustainability and “teetering on the edge” are creatively explored. Her Tipping Point Series (fig. 14) is particularly illuminating. “I suspect, for the rest of my lifetime, I will be working on climate change issues,” she tells me, adding, “it’s got to be done on all fronts, whether you are a poet or musician, through all the verbal and visual expression, and it has to happen as soon as possible.” How will we confront the environmental challenges of our times, the “storm in a teacup?” that the artist here alludes to?
Fig. 14. Joan Takayama-Ogawa. Tipping Point Series, SUVs, 2008.(Photo: Madison Metro, Courtesy of Craft in America), glazed earthenware.
Having studied with renowned artist Ralph Bacerra (fig. 15) during her student days at Otis College of Art and Design, Takayama-Ogawa is now an educator and mentor to her students at Otis, providing inspiration, even as she grapples with heavy subjects and topics. As an avid gardener, she also explores foodways, our relationship to the environment, urging us to find creative and sustainable ways to interact with our food systems (fig. 16) – themes explored in the MexiCali Biennial at the Cheech as well.
Fig. 15. Joan Takayama-Ogawa. Cup (with brushes made by Ralph Bacerra from Joan Takayama-Ogawa’s hair), 2000. (Photo: Madison Metro, Courtesy of Craft in America) glazed earthenware 3.5 x 3 x 3 in. cup.
Fig. 16. Joan Takayama-Ogawa. Fertility Pot, 2022. (Photo: Madison Metro,Courtesy of Craft in America), unglazed terracotta, 9 x 6 in.
“A lot is so dark, but I hold the darkness in check by making beautiful objects,” reads a quote by Takayama-Ogawa on the exhibition wall of the Riverside Art Museum. This is art that is socially engaged, probing, incisive. Art that illuminates communities and a society on the verge, but also of the possibilities for forging a new vision. It is a concept to which we now turn in exploring works by Chicano artists and the road traveled to make the new Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture of the Riverside Art Museum a reality.
From “On the Verge” to Visibility: Paving the Way for the Cheech
In Phantom Sightings: Art After the Chicano Movement, scholar Chon Noriega reflects on the title, Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge, first published in 2002 to accompany the exhibition of the same name. Zeroing in on the multiple meanings of the word ‘verge,’ Noriega cites definitions ranging from “border” to “an extreme edge or margin” (1). “To be on the verge is a complicated thing for any artist,” Noriega puts forth, “but for U.S artists of Mexican descent, it carries specific resonances and historical conditions” (18). The traveling exhibition – showcasing the private collection of art amassed since the mid-1980s by actor, writer, and art advocate Cheech Marin – sought to bring the term Chicano to the forefront of the art world. For, as Marin points out in the introduction to Chicano Visions, “Chicano art is American art,” what he terms a “Chicano school of painting which continues to grow without losing its essential characteristic – the visual interpretation of the Chicano experience” (8). It is an experience which is multi-faceted and complex, far from being monolithic, easily categorized or defined.
María Esther Fernández, Artistic Director of the Cheech, who brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to the field, having worked in curatorial and education departments in diverse institutions including MACLA (Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana) in San Jose and the Triton Museum of Art (as Chief Curator and Deputy Director), is keen to point out these complexities: “The word Chicano is very complicated because, you know, there are folks that really think of this in terms of its relationship to the movement, and it coming out of the movement.” Among the issues the movement addressed, Fernández notes, are those around social justice for workers, worker rights, cultural representation, among others. “We had the student walkouts in the Chicano Movement,” she adds. Many young people today are creating work also speaking to their lived experiences, and creating intergenerational dialogue between artists will be key, she shares with me. “It [Chicano] was put in a box in many ways after the movement,” she reflects, “and so we want to complicate it. I’ve had a lot of folks ask me, what is Chicano art? And I really hesitate to define it. Because even though I’ve certainly studied it, have exhibited it, and there have been a lot of scholars that have done wonderful work, there’s so much work to be done…to really unpack this trajectory, from the movement and beyond all the way to the present. so…at the Cheech, our goal is not to put it back in a box, but to open up that box, blow it open…and say, okay, [let’s] create space for dialogue, create opportunity for artists, for intergenerational dialogue, for community to come together and really think about what this means, because there are a lot of people who feel very strongly about what it is, and we need to come together and unpack that and really establish a formal art history and trajectory for it.”
Noriega proposes that “in one sense,” this is art that “has always been a project of making an experience, community, or culture visible within public culture (18). It was this quest to make visible that which occupied the margins/borders/edges of the art and museum world – and the larger society – that formed the core of Chicano Visions. Featuring mostly paintings, followed by drawings, prints, mixed media artworks, sculpture, and photography, it toured at 15 cities during 2001-2007 and at over fifty art institutions across the country. In 2017, another of Marin’s traveling exhibitions, Papel Chicano Dos: Works on Paper from the Collection of Cheech Marin arrived at the Riverside Art Museum.
Drew Oberjuerge, Executive Director of the Riverside Art Museum since 2012, holds deep roots in the Inland Empire – having been born and raised there. When Marin’s exhibition travelled to RAM in 2017 – an effort undertaken and managed with the key support of Melissa Richardson Banks – the museum exceeded attendance records, she notes. This would spark a conversation between the city and the arts community. At that time, Riverside had been trying to relocate the main library. The overwhelming positive reception to the travelling exhibit prompted a series of conversations with city officials, leading to the city’s proposal to have Cheech Marin donate the collection, have Riverside Art Museum administer and program it, and spearhead a capital campaign that would do the renovation of the city-owned building, to create what is now the “Cheech,” situated on the former site of the library. The resulting model, as Oberjuerge describes it, is “a really unique public-private partnership. I don’t know if there is another one quite like it,” she adds, because “it involved a private collector, it involved an independent 501(c3) nonprofit museum [the RAM], and then it involved the city of Riverside.”[ix]
Fig. 17. Courtesy of The Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture of the Riverside Art Museum
Reflecting on the significance of having the Cheech situated in this region, Oberjuerge shares, “The Inland empire is not thought of as this forward place, an innovation place, but if we think about it, the Inland Empire is modeling what the rest of the United States is going to be and is going to look like with the demographic trends…so it’s just so fascinating to take that perception of the Inland Empire as being this backwater place and looking at is, as well, no…actually, the Inland Empire is the United States tomorrow.” To have the Cheech open in the former city library, across from what was once the original City Hall of Riverside, adds Oberjuerge, “is just such a strong statement about what Riverside and the Inland Empire’s culture is, and the importance of elevating Chicano culture. So, I think it’s a remarkable civic statement that Riverside and [the] Inland Empire are making.”
Upon entering the Cheech, this statement comes through powerfully in one of the first sights visitors come across: the Lenticular artwork that stretches 26 feet from the ground floor to the second-level balcony (Figs. 18 and 19). It is the work of the de la Torre brothers – Einar and Jamex de la Torre. (“Collidoscope: de la Torre Brothers Retro-Perspective” exhibition premiered at the Cheech during its opening in June 2022, and was developed in partnership with the National Museum of the American Latino, and guest curated by Selene Preciado.) With its vivid imagery, the lenticular, titled “Gaiatlicue,” captivates visitors with its transformative vision grounded in Coatlicue, used here as a symbol for mother earth. The large-scale installation mesmerizes viewers, as they move laterally in front of the LED backlit lenticular. As they do so, the image of Coatlicue morphs from an earth goddess to a transformer comprised of lowrider cars.
Fig. 19. Einar and Jamex de la Torre with Cheech Marin. (Photo: Carlos Puma, Courtesy of the Cheech).
A map from East Los Angeles to Riverside depicted in the background grounds this artistic piece, with freeways covered by native flowering species. The lenticular prods us to re-imagine a greener existence, one that is sustainable and nurturing of the environment, based on ecological practices grounded in technologies that best care for the earth. References to the Inland Empire suggest the myriad ways this region – beset by environmental challenges – is positioned to lead the way in these efforts with its burgeoning social justice movements calling attention to these matters.
That the Cheech would find its home here, Drew Oberjuerge shares with me, is noteworthy. “I’ve always felt that the Inland Empire was where life was happening, and where so many trends and things that the greater California region and the United States would eventually experience happen here. And so…I think for me, I think you could say, I have an affinity toward the outsider perspective.” The confluence of factors that brought the Cheech to Riverside, she adds, were the result of “being at the right place at the right time” – and of a strong desire on the part of the community to bring the Cheech “home.” It was really “the community that led,” she tells me, pointing to the leadership of organizations that have, over the years, forged strong ties with the community and harnessed the collective power of fundraising to make the Cheech a reality.
The Collective Power of Community
Among these community groups was the Latino Network, whose co-founder, Ofelia Valdez-Yaeger, has been a visionary leader in Riverside. The first Latina elected to the Riverside Unified School District Board of Trustees local school board in 1992, Valdez-Yaeger was born in Durango, Mexico and entered UC Riverside in 1965. These early experiences would shape her eventual career path in education and civic affairs, and her volunteerism efforts.
Focused on issues surrounding the Latino community in Riverside, the Latino Network, founded in 1993, would play a pivotal role in bringing the Cheech to the Riverside community. The organization’s success – even amid the recession – in erecting a memorial to labor leader Cesar Chavez in downtown Riverside’s pedestrian mall would bring the organization in close contact with the Riverside Art Museum. As part of its activities, the organization featured Chavez days and contests that allowed students from local school districts to showcase their art or poetry. Contest winners would be presented with gift certificates in front of the statue. But when traffic noise became too much, the organization reached out to the museum to request use of a room. At that time, the Latino Network had no executive director, relied primarily on volunteers, and didn’t have the financial resources to rent a place. “They were very gracious,” Valdez-Yaeger says, “and that really was under the leadership of Drew [Oberjuerge]. But our initial contact was Todd Wingate, who was the curator at the time, and I had relationships with him from UC Riverside and he was wonderful.”[x] When the concept of the Cheech came up, explains Valdez-Yaeger, the museum would reach out to her to chair the campaign to raise funds, given Latino Network’s remarkable success in harnessing the community’s collective efforts to build the Chavez memorial.
“The community aspect comes into this,” Valdez-Yaeger points out. “We took up the charge because we said, ‘This is going to be a great thing. It will allow us to be seen in the community through the art’ – something that we all value. We recognize that the images are the images that reflect who we were, who we are, who we are going to be. At that point, because several of the members of the Latino Network were representatives of the Greater Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, the Spanish Town Heritage Foundation, and Latino Network, the three groups committed to fundraise. But “it came from various levels,” she adds. “I always mention my friend, Morris Mendoza, who was a resident of the Casa Blanca community.” She pauses a bit, as she reflects on the contributions made by Mendoza and the Casa Blanca community, a low-income predominantly Latino barrio of Riverside. “The reason I tell you that,” she begins, “is that… that to me is as important in the fundraising aspects of this.” Mendoza unfortunately died of Covid, she informs me. But his legacy lives on, Valdez-Yaeger reflects, through the community and civic-based activism he took part in, and in the eventual establishment of the Cheech.
The Latino groups would eventually create Unidos, whose “first order of business was to create the Cheech Museum” she tells me. With the enthusiastic involvement of Superior Court Judge Jorge Hernandez (who is a D.J, better-known to his listeners as “Mr. Blue”), supporters, and low-rider enthusiasts, they would go on to fundraise in culturally rich and creative ways. Cultura con Llantas, Culture with/on Wheels, for instance, organized a pachuco ball held on the Perris fairgrounds. And Judge Hernandez would be instrumental in organizing “Vinyl Rides,” a lowrider car show and record hop.
Five years later, in June 2022, the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art and Culture of the Riverside Art Museum opened its doors to the world. Valdez-Yaeger – whose life-long work in education continues to inform her present-day civic and volunteer efforts – is particularly excited about integrating young people. The Altura Credit Union Community Gallery, a dedicated space within the Cheech, features artists and curators from the Inland Empire, and holds much promise for showcasing the work of young local artists. Art, she tells me, can potentially be “an entrée into other aspects of civic life and participation.” Highlighting the critical role that the Cheech can play in fostering this, she adds, “Here, they feel at home…I think this is a huge opportunity to provide inroads to many areas of our city. If you feel like you are at home, you will be asking more questions and you won’t feel intimidated. Like you belong.”
Coming Home to the Cheech: The Power of Place
A homecoming. A sense of belonging. The strong identification with place. These are precisely the feelings co-curators María Esther Fernández and Todd Wingate, Riverside Art Museum Director of Exhibitions and Collections, sought to evoke in visitors upon entering the Cheech Collects exhibit. Featuring iconic works that toured in Chicano Visions (among other notable exhibitions), works that haven’t often been exhibited, and some on view for the first time, this inaugural exhibition represents 40 years of art production. It features nearly 100 works from Cheech Marin’s gift to the Riverside Art Museum. Reflecting on the frameworks that guided the curatorial process, Fernández shares: “The first gallery is really important to “ground” folks and have them come in and feel a sense of place because during the movement, Chicano artists looked to their communities, to represent their community, painted what they saw, created a sense of place. And that was important to me, that we have that.”
This sense of homecoming comes through powerfully in the works of Jacinto Guevara, particularly 519 N. Olive St., inviting in its lush colors and representation, identifiable to many a visitor, who marvel at its likeness to family members’ homes. (fig. 20). As Fernández shares with me: “I can’t tell you how many folks have stood in that gallery and said, ‘That looks like my grandmother’s house.’” This emotive response from viewers is a heart-warming experience, Fernández adds, noting that, “When a young child comes in and sees one of these paintings, and understands that it speaks to their lived experience…it creates this moment of magic,” she says, adding, “I get really emotional about that because I didn’t have that a lot growing up in the United States.”
Figure 20. Jacinto Guevara. 519 N. Olive St., 2020. (Courtesy of the Cheech Marin Collection and Riverside Art Museum), acrylic on wood panel, 36 x 48 in.
Place figures strongly, too, in the work of Margaret García. “Down Figueroa St,” (fig. 21) captures the beauty of a Highland Park neighborhood under a blue and pink-tinged sky. Colors swirl through the painting, reflecting the vibrancy of a street scene brought to life through the artist’s vision.
Figure 21. Margaret García. Down Figueroa St, 2009. (Courtesy of the Cheech Marin Collection and Riverside Art Museum), oil on wood panel, 10 x 12.50 in.
We come home, as well, through the cityscape paintings of Roberto Gutiérrez. Urban and community life are captured in black and white in a section of East Los Angeles known as “City Terrace,” made visible here through the artist’s creative hands (fig. 22).
Figure 22. Roberto Gutiérrez. City Terrace, 2004, (Courtesy of the Cheech Marin Collection and Riverside Art Museum), acrylic on canvas, 48 x 60 in.
“East L.A First St. Bridge,” (fig. 23) is compelling in its portrayal of the built environment, the bridge spanning the L.A river, connecting downtown to Eastside communities, where generations of families have made their home. A bridge that tells innumerable stories of the journeys Mexican and Mexican American families have travelled throughout the twentieth century and beyond to claim space in this city.
Figure 23. Roberto Gutiérrez. East L.A First St. Bridge, 2003. (Courtesy of the Cheech Marin Collection and Riverside Art Museum), watercolor and ink on paper, 18 x 24 in.
“In East L.A, Cesar Chavez Avenue and Lorena Street,” (fig. 24) Gutiérrez takes us to the microscopic street level, revealing, in vibrant colors, the people (vendors, musicians, workers, neighborhood residents, laborers) that are the backbone of a city. It is a community in motion, on the move, at the intersection of languages as depicted in the signage around the neighborhood, on the edge of Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles.
Figure 24. Roberto Gutiérrez. East L.A-Cesar Chavez Ave. and Lorena Street, 2001. (Courtesy of the Cheech Marin Collection and Riverside Art Museum), acrylic on paper 32.50 x 48 in.
We feel at home here too, at the intersections – both geographic and linguistic – reflecting how coming home can mean rooting ourselves in our multilingual realities.
These are works that capture the attitude within Chicano communities that Tomás Ybarra-Frausto put forth as “rasquachismo” in his critical 1989 essay, “Rasquachismo: A Chicano Sensibility,” – understood as “an underdog perspective, a view from los de abajo. An attitude rooted in resourcefulness and adaptability yet mindful of stance and style…’making do with what’s at hand’” (85-86). We see this resourcefulness in full display, capturing how, “in the barrio, the environment is shaped and articulated in ways that express the community’s sense of itself, the aesthetic display projecting a sort of visual biculturalism” (ibid).
How people occupy space and place is central to the artworks presented in this inaugural exhibition. The often-invisible labor of workers – undertaken in the dead of night – is illuminated in the works of Joe Peña. In “1:15 am Final Stop,” (fig. 25) the darkness of night envelopes a vendor’s stand, brightly lit from within, a beacon in an otherwise desolate street scene. Impressive in its realism, the work transports us to this place and moment in time, where individuals labor often in obscurity. The depth of perspective achieved by the artist draws the viewer in, lending an air of immediacy to the piece, as if we could walk right up and order from the menu of offerings.
Figure 25. Joe Peña. 1:15 am, Final Stop, 2016. (Courtesy of the Cheech Marin Collection and Riverside Art Museum), oil on canvas, 36 x 47 in.
Paired with Frank Romero’s iconic “Arrest of Los Paleteros,” (fig. 26) Joe Peña’s art elucidates and shines a light on a class of laborers whose stories too often fall under the radar. Romero’s 1996 painting, calling attention to the criminalization of paleteros, or ice cream vendors, continues to speak to our contemporary times. Set against the backdrop of Echo Park and lake, an idyllic naturalistic background, we are confronted with the harsh social realities facing workers seeking to make a living in the city. The reflection of palm trees on the lake is but one of many reflections we are confronted with in this otherwise tranquil oasis within the urban environment; in effect, we are called upon to reflect on what this unfolding scene mirrors back to us as a society.
Figure 26. Frank Romero. Arrest of Los Paleteros, 1996. (Courtesy of the Cheech Marin Collection and Riverside Art Museum), oil on canvas, 72 x 50 in.
Confronting the chasm between the lure of place and opportunity with its unpredictable side also figures in the work of Carlos Almaraz. An artist deeply involved in the Chicano civil rights struggle, Almaraz co-founded Los Four, a Los Angeles based art collective. Landscapes of Los Angeles figure strongly in this artist’s body of work. In “Sunset Crash,” (fig. 27) place assumes an ambivalent form, as we come face to face with exploding freeway car crashes, set against the backdrop of an otherwise lush landscape, capturing what Josh Kun in his essay, “The New Chicano Movement,” describes as “a toxic beauty” (65). This is art about place, and the beauty it contains, but also of the potential perils lurking behind an otherwise paradisiacal landscape in the City of Angels, where uncertainty looms.
Figure 27. Carlos Almaraz. Sunset Crash, 1982. (Courtesy of the Cheech Marin Collection and Riverside Art Museum), oil on canvas, 35 x 43 in.
Confronting Histories and Social Realities
Cheech Collects artworks also confront fraught histories that have long been ignored or erased altogether from public consciousness. Such is the case with the work of Texas-based artist Vincent Valdez. Depicted on a large canvas, as if to communicate the ‘monumental’ nature of this seminal moment in Mexican American history, “Kill the Pachuco, Bastard,” (fig. 28) brings to light the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, the violent clash of American servicemen and soldiers and young zoot suiters in the neighborhoods and streets of Los Angeles. In The Power of the Zoot: Youth Culture and Resistance During World War II, Luis Alvarez provides one of the most succinct histories of this period, noting that, “zoot suiters were part of a much broader network of wartime popular cultural production and consumption, social relationships, and political struggles” (5) taking place amid war-time tensions around belonging, propriety, and a host of other issues. Eduardo Pagan adds an incisive analysis to this episode in history, in his book, Murder at the Sleepy Lagoon: Zoot Suits, Race, and Riot in Wartime L.A, suggesting that, rather than a “monocausal explanation” for the Zoot Suit Riots, we can best understand this historical moment through a multidimensional lens that considers the “competing social tensions deriving from demographic pressures, city planning, racism, segregation,” (9) among other social factors.
This history would be revisited in playwright Luis Valdez’s acclaimed play Zoot Suit which premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1978. In Vincent Valdez’s painting, we come face to face with the violence and clash. In the “looking,” we are urged to not turn our gaze away from these histories, however disturbing or discomforting they may be.
Figure 28. Vincent Valdez. Kill the Pachuco, Bastard! 2001. (Courtesy of the Cheech Marin Collection and Riverside Art Museum), oil on canvas, 48 x 72 in.
Addressing pressing social issues and its present-day implications propels the work of Chicana artists, as well. Judithe Hernández’s “Juarez Quinceañera” (fig. 29) brings to the fore the gendered violence along the U.S-Mexico border and the femicides perpetrated on women in the borderlands. The voices of women artists are vital, for these are works that speak to lives at multiple intersections: spatially (the borderlands), gender, culture, and the economy. The recognition of this body of work by Chicana artists, Artistic Director María Esther Fernández tells me, is long overdue. Judithe Hernández’s pieces, she shares, were recent acquisitions by the Riverside Art Museum, through their generous donors. “That was one of the first gaps we identified. Cheech and Todd [Wingate] worked on that. Thankfully, we were able to acquire these two works, “Juarez Quinceañera” and “Santa Desconocida” that I think, kind of help anchor the future, that yes, we’re bringing works to round this out.”
Figure 29. Judithe Hernández. Juarez Quinceañera, 2017. (Courtesy of the Cheech Marin Collection and Riverside Art Museum).
Reflecting on the long overdue retrospectives of women artists currently underway and planned for the near future, Fernández adds, “The fact that we’re doing the first retrospective of Judithe Hernández at the Cheech in 2024…this show I’m working here at Berkeley Art Museum [and Pacific Film Archive] for Amalia Mesa Bains…these are women who should have had major retrospective ten years ago,” Fernández notes. Open to the public from February 3, 2023-July 23, 2023, Amalia Mesa-Bains: Archaeology of Memory at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive captures the work of the renowned artist, scholar, and art historian.
It is precisely Amalia Mesa-Bains who provides a critical framework for understanding some of the work of Chicana artists. In her 1999 essay, “Domesticana: The Sensibility of Chicana Rasquachismo,” she theorizes on feminist aspects of rasquachismo, writing, “For Chicana artists using the rasquache stance, their work takes on a deeper meaning of domestic tension, as the signs of ‘making do’ are both an affirmation of the domestic life and a resistance to the subjugation of women in the domestic sphere” (95). She highlights the work of Patssi Valdez, whose “Room on the Verge” (fig. 30) and “Rainy Night” grace the walls of the Cheech.
In these works, we are “swept” into the domestic spaces Valdez so vividly captures through bold and bright colors. It is a space that appears unstable, and fantastical – a place of tumult, but also a site of possible reinvention. Imaginative, bold, and unsettling – all these descriptors come to mind upon seeing “Room on the Verge.” As the title of the piece seems to suggest, a state of being on the verge, or cusp, of something eventful, catastrophic, or potentially transformative. As Tere Romo suggests in her essay, “Mestiza Aesthetics and Chicana Painterly Visions,” for Chicana painters such as Valdez, “the creation of their art is the exposure of imperfections” (25). Among these are the myriad ethnic stereotypes and gender restrictions women must confront. In so doing, Romo adds, “they have created their own visual language of cultural resistance and personal transformation” (ibid).
Figure 30. Pattsi Valdez. Room on the Verge, 1993. (Courtesy of the Cheech Marin Collection and Riverside Art Museum), acrylic on canvas, 48 x 72 in.
Deploying Multiple References and Capturing the Faces and Phases of Community Life
Fig. 31. Leo Limón. Hearts with Fishes. 1993. (Courtesy of the Cheech Marin Collection and Riverside Art Museum), acrylic on plexiglass, 8 x 12 in.
Artists featured in the Cheech Collects exhibition deploy multiple references, drawing on diverse forms and expressions. Such is the case with Leo Limón, whose “Heart with Fishes” (fig. 31) is awash in colors and Mesoamerican symbols that are central to his artwork, particularly el corazón, the heart; in Chaz Bojórquez’s immersive artwork in Asian calligraphy; Sonia Romero’s practice that includes papercut art, murals, and an emphasis in printmaking.
Capturing the life of communities – through portraiture, composites of characters, paintings, and various media – also figures as a strong theme in the works gathered at the Cheech. We see this in Wayne Alaniz Healy’s depiction of community life in Boyle Heights; in Yolanda González’s striking portraits of individuals captured in vivid colors; in César Martínez’s Bato Series. “Bato With Sunglasses” (fig. 32) – by the Texas-born artist and major figure in the Chicano art movement since the 1970s, captures what scholar Chon Noriega in Phantom Sightings: Art After the Chicano Movement, calls a “split identification at a formal level through figure and ground” (33). Moreover, notes Noriega, we witness, through these works, Martínez’s “effort to reconcile the political and cultural imperatives of the Chicano movement with his own formal training and personal interests in color-field painting and abstract expressionism” (31). Set against a “color-field background” as Noriega describes it, this piece is imbued with a richness of color that tantalizes the eye. We are drawn to these characters, for they are presented – through the artist’s rendering – in all their style and substance.
Figure 32. César Martínez. Bato Con Sunglasses, 2000. (Courtesy of the Cheech Marin Collection), oil on canvas, 54 x 44 in.
In presenting us with diverse composites of characters and ‘faces,’ artists simultaneously depict ‘phases’ of life. Here, we see a strong intergenerational theme at work, as artists speak to family ties and questions of memory. We find ourselves at the intersections – in this instance, at the crossroads of generations. How various artists convey these subjects is touching and tender to behold. One such piece, by Vincent Valdez, “In Memory of Great Grandfather,” (fig. 33) evokes such feelings through a subtle color palette and the juxtaposition of the two figures – interpreted here as great-grandfather and great-grandson (one framed in a picture, the other sitting in what appears to be an introspective and reminiscent mood). The piece provokes a series of questions: How do we “frame” our relationship with our ancestors? How do we “frame” memory? The faded quality of the paint on the wall serves to accentuate these deeper questions.
Figure 33. Vincent Valdez. In Memory of Great Grandfather, 1999. (Courtesy of the Cheech Marin Collection and Riverside Art Museum), house paint on wood panel, 18.50 x 25 in.
And it is to memory that we now turn, as we explore the photographic journey of Luis C. Garza, whose body of work captures histories at the intersections on the global stage and in multiethnic communities in the United States during a period of social upheaval and clamor for social change.
Shooting at the Intersections: Luis C. Garza’s The Other Side of Memory
“I had my 35 mm camera with me, a Pentax camera. I sat down, and the interview started. He said, ‘So you need a job?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I need a job.’ And he says, ‘You’re from New York.’ I say, ‘Yeah, I’m from New York.’He says, ‘You’re Puerto Rican.’ I go, ‘No, I’m not Puerto Rican. I’m Mexican. But yeah, I am Puerto Rican – by osmosis. I’m Jewish, I’m Irish, I’m Italian. I’m all the things that I grew up with in New York City,’ which…he appreciatedthe humor of that, and then said, ‘So you take pictures?’ pointing to my camera….and I said, ‘Yeah…I take pictures.’ And he says, ‘You’re a Mexican…a Chicano from New York?’ I’d never heard the word Chicano. The word Chicano was new to me. I thought to myself…Chicano, Mexicano, close enough. I said, ‘Yeah, I’m a Chicano.”[xi]
Luis C. Garza shares with me the moment that would “parachute him into the Chicano Movement” in Los Angeles in the late 1960’s – a job interview with Eduardo “Ed” Bonilla, Director of the Lincoln Heights branch of the Neighborhood Adult Participation Project. Garza would get the job – one that would center him “in the middle of the rising tide of the Chicano civil rights movement,” as he describes it. His job description? To organize the people. His primary instrument? His camera. As Garza relates the experience, he reflects on the moment and the man (Bonilla) who, as he says, “flipped my worldview upside down.”
The Los Angeles of the late 1960’s Garza was “parachuted into” would shape the young photographer’s life, bringing him into the sphere of social activism at that time – student walkouts denouncing inequities in the school system, protests against the Vietnam War, and calls for social change in economically and socially marginalized communities. The work of “organizing the people,” would give Garza what he calls “mi razon de ser” – his reason for being. From then on, he tells me, “My camera work begins to take on a new-found meaning.” He is introduced to figures like Father John B. Luce of the Church of the Epiphany in Lincoln Heights (where the first issues of La Raza newspaper were printed in the basement) and notably, organizers, activists, and editors of La Raza, the emerging journalistic publication documenting the Chicano movement in Los Angeles.
The images Garza captured during his time with La Raza newspaper and magazine have been digitized and gathered into the La Raza Photograph Collection, accessible through the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center (CSRC) Library.[xii] But a larger, more extensive collection of images from Garza’s personal archive have only recently come to light. It is this body of work, including some taken during his time at La Raza, that forms the core of The Other Side of Memory, Photographs by Luis C. Garza, an exhibition of 66 black and white silver gelatin prints mostly unpublished until now. The exhibition, recently shown at the Riverside Art Museum, is now on view at the Walter N. Marks Center for the Arts at the College of the Desert in Riverside County through May 3, 2023. Curated by Armando Durón, the exhibition is powerful in its presentation of paired images, which provokes the viewer to “read” the photographs as if in conversation with each other. The result is a photographic journey through time, spaces, and places that, collectively, capture social struggles at the intersections from East Los Angeles to the South Bronx, New York, and as far away as Budapest, Hungary. In these diverse geographic settings, Garza tells me, the “ability to interpret my surroundings becomes to me an expression of what it is that I am a part of, the society in general…the people who are in my life, regardless of age, gender, social standing, conditions. I’m photographing as much as I can see and as much film as I can carry.”
One such pairing, striking in its juxtaposition of the Chicano civil rights movement in East Los Angeles, and the Women’s Liberation Movement in New York, are the works titled “Feminestrations” and “Junto” (fig.34) The latter centers young people protesting during the March for Justice at Belvedere Park in 1971, while the former reveals women marching down New York’s Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. Garza captures the determination in their faces. The pairing encourages us to see movements for gender and racial equality at the intersections. In his essay, “Bearing Witness to a Legacy: The Fiftieth Anniversary of LA RAZA,” Garza reflects on the interconnected struggles taking shape at that time, noting that, though the Chicano activism and social justice struggles he chronicled “occurred in civil-rights era Los Angeles, [it] reflected the history playing out on the global stage” (10). Returning to the South Bronx neighborhood of his childhood, Garza also captures the activism of the Young Lords, and the Puerto Rican struggle to demand services in their community in such images as “Palante” (fig. 35). Paired with an earlier photograph taken in 1968, “East 139th Street” (fig. 36), the birthplace of the photographer, the images speak to the needs – and tenacity – of a community clamoring for social change in an increasingly unequal society.
Fig. 35 Luis C. Garza. Palante. New York, New York, 1970 (Courtesy of the artist), Silver gelatin fiber print 14 x 11 in.
Fig. 36 Luis C. Garza East 139th Street New York, New York, 1968 (Courtesy of the artist), Silver gelatin fiber print. 11×14 in.
Other images reveal the violent and tragic outcomes during these moments in which Garza was “shooting at the intersections,” as captured in “Ando Sangrando #1” (fig. 37) (I am Bleeding), taken at the March for Justice rally in East Los Angeles. We learn that the man carried away is Gustav Montag, a Jewish resident of Boyle Heights, identified as an observer and innocent by-stander, who died on Whittier Boulevard. In “Uptown Girl” (fig. 38) we look upon faces in a New York neighborhood staring out into a world that has just learned (via blaring radios) of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. Whether peering out their windows or standing on the stairway to a building, these individuals’ faces convey a search for answers in a shattered world.
Fig. 37. Luis C. Garza. Ando Sangrando #1 Los Angeles, California 1971 (Courtesy of the artist), Silver gelatin fiber print.
Fig. 38 Luis C. Garza. Uptown Girl. New York, New York 1968 (Courtesy of the artist), Silver gelatin fiber print. 14×11 in.
A world hungry for change – this is the milieu in which Garza’s photographic work unfolded. And it was during a trip to the World Peace conference in Hungary which he attended as part of the American delegation (and as the only Chicano/Latino within the group) that Garza’s path intersected with that of renowned Mexican painter and muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. The experience was a formative one for the young Garza. He looks back on that time and reminisces. “I was way in over my head,” he shares, not fully aware of the weightiness of the moment. “Who among you is Chicano?” Garza recalls a Mexican delegate asking. Garza continues, “I get up, not knowing what’s happening. And I follow him. He takes me to the Mexican delegation table where Siqueiros stands up and opens his arms and says, ‘Compañero, cuentame de este movimiento Chicano.’ That begins the conversation,” Garza recalls. “And he [Siqueiros] was asking me about the Chicano movement, and did I know about his murals that he painted in Los Angeles – which I hardly knew anything about. I’m still a newbie in terms of the Chicano Movement but yet, I’m representing the Chicano movement within this delegation. The responsibility on me is massive.”
Siquerois’ deep interest in the Chicano movement can best be understood and appreciated in light of the fact that he lived in Los Angeles during a period marked by the massive repatriation campaigns that targeted the Mexican-origin population for deportation during the Great Depression. In his essay, “Chicano Art: Culture, Myth, and Sensibility,” Max Benavidez writes that Siqueiros arrived in Los Angeles in 1932, a time in which “there was worldwide economic depression, Fascism and anti-Semitism were on the rise in Europe, and during this decade, U.S citizens of Mexican origin were being deported to Mexico (on a one-way government-issued train ticket) by the tens of thousands” (14). Acutely aware of the injustices in Mexico, Latin America, and the exclusionary forces driving out the Mexican-origin population in Los Angeles at that time, Siqueiros would unapologetically dedicate one of his most well-known murals, “América Tropical” – painted above the old plaza of Olvera Street, on the exterior wall of Italian Hall – to the Mexican working class community, in defiance of the original conception envisioned by those who commissioned him to do such a piece. Rather than the lush and romanticized depiction of Mexico and the Américas, América Tropical offered a scathing critique of historic colonialist forces. It thus challenged – both on an aesthetic and political level – the uncritical histories of people of the Américas. The mural would go on to be whitewashed by the city, but Siqueiros’ artistic vision, Benavidez notes, “set a pattern for Chicano public artistic expression in Los Angeles” (15). Indeed, the Chicano mural movement would eventually re-ignite interest in América Tropical. Over the decades, the mural would come to be restored, with the vigorous and insistent campaigning of artists, activists, historians and in partnership with El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, city of Los Angeles and the Getty Conservation Institute. These efforts culminated in the celebration of the opening of the América Tropical Interpretive Center at Olvera Street in October 2012, eighty years after the mural was first unveiled in 1932.[xiii]
The experience of meeting Siqueiros would profoundly influence Garza. “He opens me up in a whole other manner,” he says. Garza would memorialize this encounter with Siqueiros and his wife, Angélica Arenal Siqueiros, an author and journalist, with photos taken just as they were saying their goodbyes (figs. 39 and 40).
Fig. 39. Luis C. Garza. David Alfaro Siqueiros, Budapest, Hungary 1971 (Courtesy of the artist), Silver gelatin fiber print. 14 x 11 in.
Fig. 40. Luis C. Garza. Angélica Arenal Siqueiros Budapest, Hungary, 1971. (Courtesy of the artist), Silver gelatin fiber print 14 x 11 in.
As Garza relates it to me, “That moment, for example, where Angélica raises her fist…We just came out of an art school where Siqueiros gave a lecture. We’re saying good-bye. Angélica is about to get into the little Volkswagen… she turns to me, and she says, ‘Luis,’ raising her first, ‘Como dicen ustedes.’ [‘As the saying/expression goes’-] ‘Chicana power.’” For Garza, that would prove to be a “decisive moment” in his own formation as a young photographer and chronicler of the times in which he was living: a moment of unified solidarity, the recognition that struggles for social justice, while taking place at a hyper-local level, are tied to, global movements for change.
During his trip to Budapest, Hungary, Garza captured other moments that speak to the times. A photograph of a child peeking out the window in 1971 is particularly moving. Surrounded by the sharp lines, edges, and rectangular shapes of the building, the child appears “boxed in.” Titled Hide n’ Seek,” (fig. 41) the image prompts us to ask: what kind of world will this child inherit? There is a desolate quality to this image, not unlike that captured by Garza of his Bronx neighborhood in “East 139th St.” Both speak to an uncertain landscape, while asking, what is the promise that lies ahead? Indeed, Garza hints that the promise might lie precisely in the young child here, and in the many young people he captured in images that are some of the most endearing and memorable in this exhibition.
Fig. 41 Luis C. Garza. Hide n’ Seek. Budapest, Hungary, 1971 (Courtesy of the artist), Silver gelatin fiber print.14 x 11 in.
In one such image, titled “Home Boys,” (fig. 42) Garza photographs two young men posing at the Aliso-Pico Housing projects in East Los Angeles. Their countenance is enigmatic; they appear to be on the cusp of young adulthood, but there is a child-like innocence still present in their gaze. Taken in 1972, a few years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, the social unrest at the Chicano Moratorium in East L.A, and the death of journalist Ruben Salazar at such historic event, we see in their stance and style a possible reflection of the times: How to hold on to the ideals that propelled movements for change, while marching forward towards an uncertain future? In capturing these boys’ essence, Garza simultaneously captures that fleeting in-between moment, a liminal stage of transformation, a period of discovery and becoming in the face of unknowing times.
Fig. 42. Luis C. Garza. “Home Boys” Los Angeles, California, 1972. (Courtesy of the artist), Silver gelatin fiber print. 14 x 11 in.
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