The writing’s on the wall Iconography and identity in East LA murals
ICONOGRAPHY AND IDENTITY IN EAST LOS ANGELES MURALS
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