The writ­ing’s on the wall Iconog­ra­phy and iden­tity in East LA mu­rals


Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS -

IN De­cem­ber, a mu­ral in progress on the Santa Fe County Hu­man Re­sources build­ing sparked a city­wide con­tro­versy about the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of pub­lic art. The scene on an out­door wall of the of­fice on West Alameda Street showed a Spa­niard on horse­back point­ing a sword to­ward a seated Indian, who held a cross in one hand. Mu­ral­ist Glen Strock con­ceived the im­age as an homage to colo­nial Santa Fe gover­nor Tomás Veléz Ca­puchín, whose rel­a­tive com­pas­sion to­ward Co­manches at the Bat­tle of San Diego Pond in 1750 was said to be in­spired by a wounded Na­tive boy who pre­sented him with a cross made of reeds. But for many, the de­pic­tion of a sword-wield­ing Spa­niard above a sup­pli­cat­ing Na­tive seemed to glo­rify the colo­nial op­pres­sion of Na­tive Amer­i­cans, and af­ter wide­spread pub­lic crit­i­cism, Strock agreed to mod­ify the mu­ral, paint­ing out both fig­ures and the sword.

The heated ar­gu­ment sur­round­ing the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of New Mex­ico his­tory re­calls de­bates that first arose dur­ing the 1960s and ’70s mu­ral move­ment, which be­gan with the rise of Chi­cano ac­tivism in sev­eral Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can bar­rios from El Paso to Los Angeles. In Univer­sity of New Mex­ico pro­fes­sor

Holly Bar­net-Sanchez’s new book, Give Me Life: Iconog­ra­phy and Iden­tity in East LA Mu­rals, coau­thored with Tim Drescher, his­to­rian Ben Keppel calls these early mu­rals “part of a quite pas­sion­ate pub­lic de­bate about ques­tions press­ing hard upon the present. But this pres­sure also com­pelled com­ing face to face with those parts of the past from which present in­jus­tice orig­i­nated.”

Give Me Life, pub­lished by Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Press, has its roots in Bar­net-Sanchez’s back­ground in Chi­cano art his­tory with a fo­cus on mu­rals and graphic art. In con­junc­tion with the So­cial and Pub­lic Art Re­source Cen­ter (SPARC) in Venice, Cal­i­for­nia, Bar­netSanchez and Drescher — who has been pho­tograph­ing pub­lic art since 1972 — cre­ated a slide ar­chive of his­toric LA mu­rals. Their re­search, specif­i­cally fo­cused on the hous­ing-project mu­rals of Estrada Courts and Ra­mona Gar­dens, along with a few other ar­eas of East Los Angeles, is doc­u­mented in Give Me Life and spans the ini­tial years of com­mu­nity mu­ral-mak­ing through to the tourism and restora­tion ef­forts of the 2010s.

In the late 1960s, the mu­ral move­ment arose nearly si­mul­ta­ne­ously in Den­ver, Chicago, and Los Angeles. By 1976, the pro­lif­er­a­tion of com­mu­nity mu­rals around the coun­try, though par­tic­u­larly in the South­west, was such that a na­tional con­fer­ence was held in New York City. In Cal­i­for­nia and es­pe­cially East LA, com­mu­nity mu­rals linked up with the aims of what Bar­net-Sanchez calls chi­can­ismo, “the ways through which be­ing Chi­cano were ex­pressed po­lit­i­cally and cul­tur­ally.” In an in­ter­view with Pasatiempo, Bar­net-Sanchez sin­gled out the 1979 mu­ral We Are

Not a Mi­nor­ity!!, which was painted along Olympic Boule­vard in the Estrada Courts hous­ing project of the Boyle Heights neigh­bor­hood, as a prime ex­am­ple of chi­can­ismo. In the mu­ral, the fa­mous Al­berto Korda pho­to­graph of the rev­o­lu­tion­ary Che Gue­vara is mod­i­fied so that Gue­vara’s eyes look straight at the viewer, and his fin­ger is pointed in the same di­rec­tion. Bar­net-Sanchez said the mu­ral’s po­tency comes from “the idea of [Chi­canos] iden­ti­fy­ing with any­one of color glob­ally — that sense of brown power.” Bar­net-Sanchez pointed to other preva­lent mo­tifs of chi­can­ismo in these mu­rals, in­clud­ing the de­pic­tion of raised fists, flags, farm­work­ers (cor­re­spond­ing to the ac­tivism of Ce­sar Chavez and the United Farm Work­ers), pre-Columbian im­agery, and the Vir­gin of Guadalupe.

An early Estrada Courts mu­ral, Vir­gen de Guadalupe, painted by Steve Del­gado in 1973, shows how re­vi­sions over time in­di­cated gen­eral po­lit­i­cal at­ti­tudes. The first de­pic­tion showed a crowned Chi­cana Vir­gin sur­rounded by a cloak of stars and a shel­l­like en­clo­sure; in 1975, the crown was re­moved and the Vir­gin’s de­ter­mined ex­pres­sion was made to look more youth­ful and hum­ble. By the mid-’80s, roses and a moun­tain land­scape were added, as Bar­netSanchez writes, “pos­si­bly to com­pare the Val­ley of Mex­ico with the mu­ral’s site by in­vok­ing the San Gabriel Moun­tains im­me­di­ately east of Los Angeles, thus declar­ing a sim­i­lar­ity (or iden­tity) of Mex­ico City with East Los and Estrada Courts.” But in a 2004 re­vi­sion painted un­der the su­per­vi­sion of a lo­cal priest, she is “moved to the top of the wall as if soar­ing up­ward, no longer grounded in the com­mu­nity as she had been be­fore but now ris­ing above it.” No­tably, the re­vi­sion is based on a 17th-cen­tury de­pic­tion that does not show the Vir­gin as a Chi­cana. In the ’70s, the Chi­cano move­ment em­braced the Vir­gin of Guadalupe as an in­car­na­tion of the Aztec god­desses To­nantzin, Coatlicue, and Coy­olx­auhqui; there­fore, that orig­i­nal de­pic­tion, ac­cord­ing to Bar­net-Sanchez, “re­it­er­ates the mythic as­pect of Chi­cano cul­ture.”

His­tor­i­cally if not stylis­ti­cally, these mu­rals owed a debt to the in­flu­ence of the postrev­o­lu­tion­ary Mex­i­can mu­ral­ists known as “los tres grandes”

We Are Not a Mi­nor­ity!!, 1979, painted by Mario Torero, Zopi­lote, Rocky, and two other artists (Con­greso de Artis­tas Chi­canos en Aztlán), Estrada Courts hous­ing project, Boyle Heights; all photos Tim Drescher, cour­tesy Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Press

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