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Walls of Empowerment

Walls of Empowerment
Chicana/o Indigenist Murals of California

The first book-length study of its kind, charting recurrent imagery of a fragmented past in Chicana/o murals throughout Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego.

December 2008
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324 pages | 6 x 9 | 60 b&w photos, 16-page color section |

Exploring three major hubs of muralist activity in California, where indigenist imagery is prevalent, Walls of Empowerment celebrates an aesthetic that seeks to firmly establish Chicana/o sociopolitical identity in U.S. territory. Providing readers with a history and genealogy of key muralists' productions, Guisela Latorre also showcases new material and original research on works and artists never before examined in print.

An art form often associated with male creative endeavors, muralism in fact reflects significant contributions by Chicana artists. Encompassing these and other aspects of contemporary dialogues, including the often tense relationship between graffiti and muralism, Walls of Empowerment is a comprehensive study that, unlike many previous endeavors, does not privilege non-public Latina/o art. In addition, Latorre introduces readers to the role of new media, including performance, sculpture, and digital technology, in shaping the muralist's "canvas."

Drawing on nearly a decade of fieldwork, this timely endeavor highlights the ways in which California's Mexican American communities have used images of indigenous peoples to raise awareness of the region's original citizens. Latorre also casts murals as a radical force for decolonization and liberation, and she provides a stirring description of the decades, particularly the late 1960s through 1980s, that saw California's rise as the epicenter of mural production. Blending the perspectives of art history and sociology with firsthand accounts drawn from artists' interviews, Walls of Empowerment represents a crucial turning point in the study of these iconographic artifacts.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. Indigenism and Chicana/o Muralism: The Radicalization of an Aesthetic
  • Chapter 1. The Dialectics of Continuity and Disruption: Chicana/o and Mexican Indigenist Murals
  • Chapter 2. The Chicano Movement and Indigenist Murals: The Formation of a Nationalist Canon and Identity
  • Chapter 3. Graffiti and Murals: Urban Culture and Indigenist Glyphs
  • Chapter 4. The Chicana/o Mural Environment: Indigenist Aesthetics and Urban Spaces
  • Chapter 5. Gender, Indigenism, and Chicana Muralists
  • Chapter 6. Murals and Postmodernism: Post-movimiento, Heterogeneity, and New Media in Chicana/o Indigenism
  • Epilogue
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Guisela Latorre is Assistant Professor in the Department of Women's Studies at Ohio State University. A specialist in contemporary Chicana/o art with an emphasis on gender and feminism, she has published numerous articles and curated extensive exhibitions in the field.


Chicana/o Murals and Indigenism


Two Aztec warriors, dressed in full regalia, clasp arms as they engage in a ritual dance with a mountainous landscape stretching behind them. Aside from inhabiting this idyllic environment, these heroes also physically reside within the barrio setting of East Los Angeles, where Ernesto de la Loza's Danza de las Aguilas (1978) mural is located. How did the meaning of these indigenous figures connect with the mostly Chicana/o and Mexican residents of East L.A. whose own experience was shaped by both urban life and native Mexican traditions? How was political, social, and cultural consciousness meant to be inscribed into this kind of iconography? As seen in the community murals that have transformed the urban landscapes of California since the late 1960s, the rehabilitation of indigenous history and culture became a crucial component in the growing politicization that saturated Chicana/o political thought with the onset of the Chicano Movement, or el movimiento. California became a significant site of mural activity because it possessed a mural tradition spanning most of the twentieth century, and, as art historian Shifra Goldman has written, the West Coast has led "the country in sheer [mural] quantity." But most significantly, the state had endured a bitter and prolonged colonial, expansionist, and postindustrial history that directly and indirectly informed the Indigenist subject matter of these wall paintings. The Indian of the Americas emerged within these murals as a timeless ideal and a fluid allegory of cultural affirmation that reconstructed Chicanas/os' fragmented past while providing entire communities with a vocabulary that celebrated their contemporary cultural practices. Moreover, the recognition that the continent of America was essentially indigenous territory became one of the most fundamental steps toward decolonization and liberation of oppressed communities.


Chicana/o artists employed the monumentality of the public mural to disseminate an iconography radicalized in large part through its indigenizing qualities. These murals cited indigenous culture in a multiplicity of ways and for a variety of different reasons, yet composed part of an aesthetic that continuously sought to firmly establish Chicanas/os' sociopolitical place in U.S. territory. Indigenism, in the Chicana/o context, functioned as an elastic metaphor of political consciousness that allowed for innovative articulations of cultural and gendered identity. Though many artists outside the Chicana/o community also practiced community muralism, and despite the fact that indigenous imagery was part of a larger whole that defined Chicana/o decolonial consciousness, Indigenism contributed significantly to the politicizing process of Chicano and Chicana mural production. In the social and political context of late twentieth-century U.S. history, the idea of an autonomous and independent indigenous voice necessarily posed a threat to the foundations of postcolonial and capitalist orders.


In this introduction, I lay out the theoretical framework that informed Indigenism in California Chicana/o murals from the late 1960s to the turn of the twentieth century. In the process, I argue that through the public mural, Chicanas/os found a unique and effective tool with which to assert agency from the margins. In subsequent chapters of this project, this theoretical analysis provides a methodological foundation that allows me to engage the visual vocabulary of these murals as well as to discuss the activities and aspirations of the individual artists or collectives who created them. Focusing on three major centers of muralist activity—namely, the Los Angeles metropolitan area, the San Francisco Bay area, and San Diego—the question I ultimately want to raise is not whether the "subaltern" can speak, as Gayatri Spivak would posit, for we know that Third World and First Nation communities have achieved varying degrees of agency since the onset of colonialism, imperialism, and postindustrialization. Instead, the focus of this volume is to generate an understanding of the sorts of strategies deployed by the so-called subaltern in order to create a compelling and decolonized frame of self-representation. The Indigenist aesthetic that Chicana/o artists created provides a model for ways in which marginalized communities can empower themselves against the grain of dominant ideologies.


The images of indigenous America depicted in many California Chicana/o murals engaged a long history of Indigenist aesthetics and discourse in the Americas. The words "Indigenism" and "Indigenist" here will be distinguished and differentiated from the terms indigeneity and indigenous. Generally speaking, "Indigenism" refers to the act of consciously adopting an indigenous identity—which may otherwise not be fully self-evident—for a political or strategic purpose. The Indigenist posture often seeks to overturn historical processes in order to exact radical change. Indigenism as an ideology, however, can operate in favor but also against the needs of the native peoples themselves, and thus one must be cautious when resorting to it. Indeed, individuals or institutions outside of indigenous communities have utilized Indigenism in their quest to incorporate America's native cultures into articulations of national, cultural, or racial identity. Indigenism can constitute a political posture that seeks to construct race rather than define cultural practices. When such institutions or individuals generate Indigenist thinking, they are not necessarily identifying themselves as Indian but instead are acknowledging, in their own terms, the native presence in the country's cultural patrimony, with the ultimate goal of modifying or altering indigenous culture, often rendering it invisible or inconsequential. Mexican indigenous studies scholar Guillermo Bonfil Batalla argued that in most Latin American countries, modern Indigenist campaigns sought to assimilate and acculturate native peoples into national culture: "Indigenist policies in Latin American governments, in spite of their significant national differences, had one final objective in common: the assimilation of Indians." Bonfil Batalla further argues that the assimilation and co-optation of indigenous people forms part of a larger project of preparing nascent nation-states for capitalist enterprising. In the Americas, especially Latin America, Indigenism also emerged as a solution to identity crises arising as a result of political and social turmoil (wars, radical changes in government, movements of civil or human rights, etc.). Paternalist forms of Indigenism make up an integral part of a Pan-Americanist spirit that seeks to rid itself of European control while still maintaining Western institutions.


By contrast, indigeneity, as understood in this book, will refer to the organic expressions that emerge from the indigenous communities themselves, which may or may not have anything to do with the official Indigenism often espoused by nation-states. While these expressions may be understood and even appropriated by non-natives, indigeneity primarily serves the spiritual and pragmatic needs of indigenous communities and nations without necessarily having to profess an overt political and anticolonialist agenda behind them. Notwithstanding, Indigenist and indigenous expressions can overlap or even negate one another. Admittedly, we could argue that in colonial and postcolonial contexts, any expression of indigenous culture is inevitably Indigenist and thus political because, consciously or not, it counters dominant culture. We could also contend that there are cultural expressions within native nations and communities that fulfill both Indigenist and indigenous purposes. We will tread carefully in this volume as we navigate the nuanced and subtle distinctions between Indigenism and indigeneity and will proceed with caution through the problematic history of Indigenism.


The Chicana/o Indigenist aesthetic and discourse posed a unique phenomenon in the history of counterhegemonic struggles in the Americas, for it was positioned somewhere between Indigenism and indigeneity. As it emerged in various forms of creative and political expression during and after the Chicano Movement, Chicana/o Indigenism redeployed many of the strategies and tools of previous Indigenist initiatives but with critically different motives, goals, and outcomes. As with earlier Indigenist projects, Chicana/o artists sought to consciously and strategically embrace indigenous culture for political purposes. Some Chicana/o activists, intellectuals, and artists even looked to the Indigenist campaigns in Mexico after the Revolution of 1910 as a model for understanding how indigeneity can be incorporated in the construction of national formations. But within the cultural context of the United States, where indigenous culture is excluded on all levels of nationalist agendas, the act of proclaiming an indigenous identity as an identifying marker of the Chicana/o experience in this country was necessarily a subversive and transgressive move. Most importantly, however, Chicana/o Indigenism transcended the need to adopt politically strategic discourses and postures. While there were concerted efforts on the part of scholars, artists, activists, and intellectuals to adopt an Indigenist worldview that would challenge the stagnation of U.S. dominant culture, indigenous practices and beliefs have been important cornerstones of Chicana/o culture in North America predating U.S. expansionism and Spanish colonialism. The Indigenist aesthetic and discourse that would surface on the coattails of the Chicano Movement afforded the Mexican American community the unprecedented opportunity to be themselves, quite literally. Indigenous practices such as curanderismo (folk healing) and oral traditions, previously dismissed as backward, folkloric (i.e., quaint but not modern), and even superstitious by Western thought, were now celebrated and exalted during el movimiento, for these were the indigenous cultural markers that survived the ravages of colonization and connected the contemporary Chicana/o community to the great preconquest indigenous civilizations and cultures in the Americas. Moreover, in the process of reclaiming their indigeneity, Chicanas/os were seeking to rehabilitate the systems of collective support and communal protection that were prevalent among the native populations in the Americas prior to the arrival of Europeans who brought with them a more individualistic and capital-driven culture. Nevertheless, many of the Indigenist images and ideas Chicana/o artists and thinkers embraced did not come directly from their own personal indigenous experiences but from their process of politicization and self-education that prompted them to study Mexican history and culture, both ancient and modern. For example, the spiritual connection that Chicana artists and writers established with the Aztec earth goddess Coatlicue emerged out of their profound readings of Mesoamerican texts. Nevertheless, Coatlicue, whose abilities included the extraordinary power to give and take away life and whose anthropomorphic features were both beautiful and horrific, represented the embodiment of polar opposites and contradictions, a characteristic that mirrored and legitimized Chicanas' subject positions. Because Chicanas/os were not indigenous in the same way that Native Americans were, their political consciousness reflected both Indigenist (politically motivated) and indigenous (organically manifested) proclivities. The hybridity, or mestizaje, within the Chicana/o community, while not negating the connection to other native populations, conditioned its activists to navigate between these two realms of political, social, and cultural being, namely, Indigenism and indigeneity.


If we think of ideology in its Marxist definition, that is, as a system of ideas that creates a "'false consciousness' [and] works in the interests of the powerful against the interests of the powerless," as John Storey explains, then we can perhaps think of Latin American Indigenism more as an ideology than as an aesthetic functioning independently of the needs of indigenous people. In Mexico, the construction of Indigenism implied no overt intention to work against the interests of native populations, but there was an attempt to diffuse the possibility of revolts or insurgences among the country's indigenous communities, whose consciousness had been dangerously awakened during the Revolution. As opposed to an ideology of oppression, Chicana/o Indigenism emerged as a methodology of decolonization that sought to create not a false consciousness but alternative models of oppositional thinking serving the needs of Third World communities.


Although representations of indigenous populations date as far back as the conquest, the use of such representations to construct the nation-state signals a fairly modern phenomenon. Prior to the nineteenth century, European colonizers produced images of Indians in written and visual texts to further reiterate their own cultural identity and superiority in the face of growing miscegenation. Helmut Scheben, however, quickly pointed out that Indigenism, as an aesthetic and nationalist discourse, coincided chronologically with modernism, and Debora Castillo asserted that the act of sidelining indigenous culture while romantically appropriating it lies at the crux of modernist and postmodernist debates in Latin America.


Nations like Mexico, for instance, openly embraced indigenous iconography during the modern phases of their artistic development. This new aesthetic, though complicit with European coloniality, signaled a desire to proclaim a voice independent of foreign avant-garde trends. Indigenism, specifically in the Mexican context, did not provide platforms for self-representation for indigenous peoples, but rather created a state-sanctioned visual vocabulary that articulated a native identity according to the precepts of the new nation-state after the Mexican Revolution of 1910. As part of Mexico's educational reforms during the first few decades of the twentieth century, the education minister José Vasconcelos commissioned elaborate mural cycles to help the populace visually conceive the shape this new nation-state would take. The power of the public mural, as the Mexican muralists of the 1920s and 1930s knew, resided in its ability to not only prescribe ideology but also construct its own spectators. When addressing Mexican indigenous history and culture, Diego Rivera was perhaps the one muralist who best understood the role that murals could play in the creation of a national collective identity. The unproblematized and often romantic Indigenism that emerged in the mural cycles he painted throughout Mexico became emblematic of the nationalist ideologies regarding the Mexican native communities.


Contesting Modernism and the Avant-Garde


The spirit of the Chicana/o arts movement presented a diametrically opposed school of thought to the prevailing discourses and practices surrounding the visual arts in the field of art history and criticism, in particular, modern and contemporary art history. The categories that defined established art history as well as time-honored museum practices proved to be utterly irrelevant to the practice of Chicana/o art. The categories pertinent to the standard periodization utilized in traditional art-historical methodologies—namely, prehistoric, ancient, medieval, Renaissance, modern, and contemporary art—proved to be inaccurate and even obstructive to the understanding of indigenous art, including Chicana/o creative expressions. The classification "non-Western" was also fraught with recurring colonialist visions and discourses that defined indigenous arts as exotic and primitive. Of particular interest to this study, however, is the way European and Euro-American academic thinking constructed the role of art and artists in the modern era. Art was the result of the most elevated form of creative endeavor coming from an intellectual elite. Art existed independently and quite above the mundane goings-on of everyday life and existence. The artist, as the human vessel for this creative force, held a special place in society, for he or she (though mostly he) held neither responsibility nor accountability toward a larger collective. The artist often lived marginalized from society not because of any social injustice but because of his/her misunderstood genius and idiosyncratic lifestyle and personality. Modern and contemporary art history turned to the artist as the focus of attention, thus placing inordinate importance on an artwork's authorship. This "cult-of-the-artist" approach deployed by many art historians and critics has led to the publication of hundreds, if not thousands, of lavish monographs on "modern masters" such as Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Wassily Kandinsky, just to name a few, granting them all celebrity status.


The obstinacy of the structures of art history and criticism, coupled with the refusal on the part of many art historians and critics to recognize the legitimacy and value of Chicana/o art, conditioned numerous Chicana/o artists and intellectuals to create alternative historical and physical spaces for the free expression and deeper engagement of indigenous aesthetics. For Chicana/o artists who came of age during the Chicano Movement, the models offered by scholars of modern and contemporary art regarding the role of art and the artist were exceedingly inappropriate and even outmoded. Many Chicana/o artists had such strong ties to community concerns that they saw their roles as artists and activists as the same. So, as stipulated by Tomás Ybarra-Frausto, a critical "task was to re-think representation, the role of the artist, and the social function of art." Conversely, indigenous aesthetics provided Chicana/o artists with more fitting and culturally sensitive models for creative expressions. The old adage "art for art's sake," which defined creative expression as a function of its own internal machinations, was supplanted in the minds of Chicana/o and indigenous scholars with the motto "art for life's sake." Mexican Indigenist scholar Guillermo Bonfil Batalla underscored quite eloquently the fact that many indigenous cultures regard commonplace experiences (lo cotidiano) as necessary mediating occurrences that happen between an individual and the rest of nature. Without sacrificing individual creativity and artistic freedom, Native American scholar Daniel Heath Justice called for a form of creativity that is deeply ingrained in community concerns:


[The idea of art for art's sake] frequently brings with it a hypernarcissism and self-centered conceit that contributes to the destabilization of the basic values and kinship ties of tribal communities. . . . I believe it's fair to say that most tribal artists . . . are creating art not only for themselves, but also for the survival and enduring presence of Native people . . . It becomes, as Cherokee/Appalachian poet Marilou Awiakta has noted, "art for Life's sake, as opposed to art for Art's sake."


Like Native American artists, Chicanas/os were looking for ways to consolidate their creative needs with their commitment to community. Thus, by looking to various forms of indigenous aesthetics, both past and present, they found meaningful examples of art practices that existed in organic relationship to the community at large. The often collective nature of many indigenous arts also involved a process of transformation for both the artist and the community. While this transformation is primarily a spiritual one, it is also connected to other forms of transformations. For Chicana/o artists who invited local community members to collaborate in the creation of murals, this spiritual transformation also took the form of political revelation, whereby all those involved underwent a radical process of what Paulo Freire would call conscientização, or "conscientization," through which they became conscious of their own oppression but also of their own potential and power to bring about change at an individual and collective level.


Chicana/o artists could not afford to simply retreat into their studios to explore the contours of their own artistic imagination, for they were often compelled and driven to understand how their individual creativity related to the process of community building and preservation, a task they could not achieve by remaining in cultural, social, and political isolation. These desires of defining the self in relationship to community as well as to a spiritual universe were motivations that Chicana/o artists shared with other native peoples. But if artists had the responsibility of creating art that served objectives leading toward social justice, then art automatically became a form of decolonization. Through the process of developing an individual and collective creative expression, which can also be regarded as a form of empowerment and emancipation, artist and community alike begin to shed the mechanisms of a colonial system that has invaded their bodies, minds, and souls. By using art as a decolonizing agent, indigenous artists, including Chicanas/os, were subverting and overturning a very powerful yet pernicious tradition, namely, the practice on the part of colonizing powers of using art to further subdue and indoctrinate conquered and vanquished peoples. One must only look to the casta paintings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Latin America, to the nineteenth-century Anglo-American landscape paintings, or, even more recently, to the early twentieth-century political cartoons in major U.S. newspapers to understand how visual artists traditionally used the arts to literally and metaphorically reify colonial orders. The representations of indigenous peoples in these aforementioned visual traditions operated as circumscribing devices that contained and confined the social movement of the racial Other. If representation itself becomes hampered by a colonialist gaze, then self-representation necessarily implies a reversal of that process, as Steven Leuthold argues: "Indigenous self-representation primarily involves a shift in authority, implying that inherent in cross-cultural representations are the dynamics of power."


Mexican and Chicana/o Indigenism in Murals


Though we can speak of several important Indigenist moments in the history of the Americas, Chicana/o creative expressions of the 1960s and beyond were most significantly influenced by the Indigenist revival that occurred during and shortly after the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Alfonso Caso, anthropologist and founder of Mexico's Instituto Nacional Indigenista, credited the Revolution itself with ushering in considerable changes in the way Mexico viewed its native populations: "One of the most permanent and constructive results of the Revolution was the consciousness and determination on the part of Mexico to resolve the indigenous problem." Though Caso saw the presence of native communities as a potential liability to the country's progress and urged their assimilation as a way to solve the "indigenous problem," Chicanas/os' interest in the Revolution and its Indigenist proclamations was part of a more affirmative and potentially transgressive process of self-definition. While various Chicana/o thinkers regarded the Mexican Revolution as a metaphor for the contemporaneous struggles they waged, its historical importance also held a more tangible relevance to Mexican Americans. As historians have pointed out, many of the events prior, during, and after the Revolution brought about one of the largest influxes of Mexican immigrants to the United States, with as many as 1.5 million people—approximately 10 percent of Mexico's entire population—crossing the border between 1900 and 1930. Many of the Chicanas/os who came of age during the conflicts of the civil rights movement were either the children or grandchildren of these immigrants. In the conscious imagination of many activists and artists, the Chicano Movement operated as an extension of the political and cultural debates instituted by the Revolution. After all, this event ennobled the cause of land reform to benefit Indians, and it also glorified leaders like Emiliano Zapata, whose indigenous blood symbolized the very essence of the Mexican nation.


Though Chicana/o muralism resides at the intersection of various currents and tendencies, the historical connection to the Mexican mural renaissance is quite self-evident. Nearly half a century prior to the flowering of Chicana/o muralism in California, the state had already become an important site for Mexican muralism. José Clemente Orozco's Prometheus (1930) in Pomona College, Diego Rivera's California School of Fine Arts mural in San Francisco (1930), and David Alfaro Siqueiros's Portrait of Present-Day Mexico (1932), originally located in Santa Monica, all offered a politicized modernist vocabulary that was previously unfamiliar to the current artistic scene in California and the rest of the country. As far as the generation of Chicana/o artists of the sixties and seventies was concerned, however, the most pivotal Mexican mural was undoubtedly Siqueiros's La América Tropical (Tropical America; 1932), located on Los Angeles's Olvera Street. Laurance P. Hurlburt, author of The Mexican Muralists in the United States (1989), explained that the mural's bold critique of imperialism and capitalism centered around the figure of the crucified Indian, an image that must have struck a chord with the Mexican American residents of the area. La América Tropical also demonstrated the powerful effects political statements coupled with Indigenist aesthetics could have when displayed in a public mural.


Mexican Indigenist art also migrated to California via the work of Alfredo Ramos Martínez, who had led Mexico's Academia de San Carlos in the early twenties and eventually settled in Los Angeles in 1929. His open-air paintings and indigenous subjects had considerable influence on many Southern California artists of the period. During the decades of the 1950s and early 1960s, several Mexican American artists contributed much to the area's artistic patrimony, even though their oeuvre often went largely unnoticed. Such was the case of Martín Ramírez, an artist active during the 1950s in the Los Angeles area, whose works on paper revealed, as Octavio Paz remarked, "forms, lines, volumes, and colors that express with a sort of exasperation the twin forces of separation and participation." Referring to Ramírez's experience immigrating to the United States during the Mexican Revolution and his subsequent bouts with paranoid schizophrenia, Paz erroneously and dismissively described his work as that of a solitary and isolated genius who neither exerted influence on nor received influence from broader artistic currents. Nevertheless, Chicago artist Jim Nutt "discovered" his drawings in 1968, and later, approximately one decade after Ramírez's death in 1960, the Mexican artist's work became the subject of various exhibitions around the country. Though he produced all his drawings while a mental patient at the DeWitt State Hospital (Auburn, California), subsequent interest in his art reinforced the Mexican American artistic tradition in California. Chicano writer and activist Ricardo Bracho found Ramírez's drawings to be "exquisite, unsettling, dazzling in their intricate craft and deep with Mexican cultural referent," and in 2004 he began writing a play entitled "Mexican Psychotic," based on the artist's life.


Painter and draftsman Carlos Licón, a Los Angeles artist whose style more closely resembled the Mexican School's social-realist tendencies than Ramírez's, established very early in his career a strong connection with his community when, in 1942, at the age of thirteen, he worked as a stage designer for the Mexican American venue Padua Hills Theater in Claremont, California. Four years later, Licón would actually meet the artist Alfredo Ramos Martínez and work as his assistant on a Scripps College mural. But, like Ramírez, recurring instabilities in his personal life often sidelined Licón's artistic production. A victim of drug and alcohol abuse, Licón spent a great portion of his adult life in prison on narcotics charges. But this period in the 1960s marked the most productive phase in his career. Displaying the stylistic influence of the modern Mexican artists of the 1920s and 1930s, Licón's work nevertheless remained more personal and introspective. A tragic feeling of pathos and melancholy often saturated his iconlike portraits and figural compositions. The legacy of his artwork would greatly inspire the artists associated with the Chicano Movement.


Though the work of Mexican American artists prior to the Chicano Movement remains largely unrecognized for its influence on subsequent generations of California artists, their contribution nonetheless provided an impetus and a sense of historical continuity to artists working during and after the civil rights movement. But because Chicana/o artists during el movimiento sought to produce an art that would challenge social and political categories and classifications, they took greater interest in media like the graphic arts, such as posters, and, of course, muralism. As had the artists of the Mexican School during the earlier decades of the twentieth century, Chicanas/os, too, found in muralism a particularly fitting medium through which to profess and disseminate their new perspectives on Indigenism as it applied to their growing racial consciousness. On the one hand, wall paintings functioned as grand platforms of cultural expression for preconquest civilizations, and, on the other, they served as highly effective instruments for consciousness raising in modern Mexico.


The elements of Mexican Indigenism that influenced Chicana/o muralists are not unproblematic, however, and they present difficulties when addressing the similarities and differences between these two important moments of mural history. Indeed, scholars must problematize the relationship between modern Mexican and Chicana/o art history. On the one hand, Chicana/o community murals emphasized the narrative and discursive continuity between Mexican and Chicana/o history. Indigenous figures such as Quetzalcoatl, Cuauhtémoc, and Benito Juárez are as much a part of the Chicana/o pantheon of heroes as are individuals from the U.S. side of the border, like César Chávez and Reies López Tijerina. On the other hand, these community murals express the specificity, innovation, and originality that is unique to Chicana/o artistic production operating independently of the previous Mexican movements. Consequently, the Mexican influence on Chicana/o art poses a number of pressing questions regarding the nature of Chicana/o creative expressions. Can we think of Mexican Indigenist iconography as merely a form of artistic influence on these community murals? To what degree was Mexico a source of inspiration or a point of departure for Chicana/o artists? If Chicanas/os were seeking to carve out an autonomous space for themselves in the United States, why look at Mexican history and art? In addressing these questions, I found a genuine danger in applying essentialist frameworks to Chicana/o culture. Thinking of Mexico as a culture of origin inscribed in the Mexican American consciousness would obscure the complexity associated with the formation of bordered identities in the United States. If we maintain an essentialist model, the recurrence of Mexican Indigenism in these West Coast community murals would inevitably be described as part of a static model of unidirectional cultural flow simply migrating from Mexico to the United States, thereby denying a certain degree of creative agency to Chicana/o artists. By contrast, thinking of the relationship between Mexican and Chicana/o art as a dialectic provides a more fluid model of analysis. Anthropologist Charles W. Nuckolls described cultural systems as dialectical phenomena in that they are "made up of dynamic conflicts between the whole and its parts." Drawing from Mikhail Bakhtin, communication studies scholars Leslie Baxter and Barbara Montgomery, in discussing the nature of interpersonal exchanges, commented on how forces of unity and difference (or centripetal and centrifugal forces) often collaborate in the formation of social relations. The relationship between Chicana/o culture and Mexican culture can be described as a relational yet conflictive and oppositional dialogue. Chicana/o art then becomes conversant with Mexican currents, but often in a critical and contesting fashion. Though a visual dialogue takes place between the Mexican and Chicana/o muralists, this dialogue often involves a multivocal process whereby dissenting and consenting voices contribute to the creation of a unified cultural product. Chicana/o community muralism can be regarded as that product, given that it simultaneously embraced and digressed from the Mexican canon. This element of "contradiction" and "opposition," however, does not point to stagnation in the cultural process, but instead ushers in the creation of an emerging new cultural system.


As seen in community murals, the dialectic process played a particularly relevant role in the construction of Chicana/o Indigenism. Informed by Mexican Indigenist thinking and iconography, Chicanas/os revived their indigenous roots by reusing cultural paraphernalia already circulating in other spheres. Even though the social and political arenas were dramatically different, Chicanos/os frequently cited and alluded to Mexican Indigenism and muralism in their work during the civil rights movement. As in Mexico, the emergence of Indigenism and muralism in the United States happened after a period of critical social and political turmoil. In many ways, Chicana/o artists saw a model of socially engaged art in the Mexican mural renaissance. But while the Indigenist ideology, along with the muralist projects in Mexico, formed a symbiotic part of institutional initiatives to rebuild the nation-state after the Revolution, in the United States, both became phenomena occurring on the fringes of official discourses. As such, Indigenism among Chicanas/os initially emerged as a counterideology, that is, an alternative to hegemonic discourses about marginalized minorities not only in Mexico but also in the United States. Indigenist imagery for many Chicana/o muralists arose as a means to express forms of resistance and protest not sanctioned by state apparatuses.


Regardless of whether Chicana/o muralists constructed Indigenism through the borrowing of different styles, themes, or concepts, this process generally remained a highly critical and interventionist one. Behind this redeployment, Chicana/o artists subverted the traits of more canonic Indigenist discourses in Mexico that sought to keep indigenous communities from active participation in rebuilding the nation. Likewise, the use of wall painting itself functioned as an act of subversion and decentralization of other modern mural movements that were institutionally supported and state sanctioned, like the so-called Mexican School of painting. The resurrection of Indigenist thought and aesthetics allowed Chicanas/os to build a nation without government sponsorship and on the fringes of the mainstream establishment. But, ultimately, the use of Mexican Indigenism signified for Chicanas/os the reclaiming of a culture and a history traditionally commodified by Western powers of colonization.


Aztlán and the Politics of Place and Space


When Chicana/o artists chose to use murals as vehicles for Indigenist aesthetics, it was not by coincidence or happenstance. One of the most significant connections between the concept of Indigenism and muralism involved the symbolic implications of space and place that both tendencies invoked. The concept of Aztlán composed an important element of Chicana/o Indigenism. According to Mexica history, the Aztecs migrated south to Tenochtitlán from a northern homeland called Aztlán. In the manifesto entitled "El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán" (1969), written primarily by the Chicano poet Alurista with assistance from Denver muralist Manuel Martínez,34 Chicanas/os geographically identified this homeland as the U.S. Southwest. Regarding themselves as the descendants of the Aztecs who currently inhabited Aztlán, Chicana/o activists saw the Mexican American presence in this area as a fulfillment of this mythical return to the homeland. Not only did Aztlán, as a concept, contest the categorization of Chicanas/os as an invariably immigrant community, it also provided them with a physical and symbolic space that had previously been denied to them by official U.S. histories. To further legitimize the existence of Aztlán, many Chicana/o writers often cited a critical primary-source text, namely, the 1610 conquest chronicles of Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá entitled Historia de la Nueva México. In the first chapter, Pérez de Villagrá describes in great detail the lands of the U.S. Southwest while also identifying them as the former home of the Aztec Empire. But Aztlán was not only a geographical location for Chicana/o artists and activists; it was also a spiritual space where decolonizing frames of mind could be fully realized. Aztlán was a concept capable of converging into one discursive space many of the concerns affecting Chicanas/os, as Rafael Pérez-Torres elucidates: "The ideas embodied in Aztlán draw together geography, culture, history, genetics, migration, tradition, heritage, unity, authenticity."


Like the notion of Aztlán, wall paintings, too, had the unique capacity to carve out physical and symbolic spaces for the articulation of identity. In turn, Chicana/o Indigenism, of which the concept of Aztlán was a crucial component, sought to push the national and psychological border that had marginalized Mexican-descent communities in the United States. Thus, muralism celebrated the urban spaces prescribed to the Chicana/o nation and often transformed the barrio environment into an Indigenist realm. Moreover, Indigenism, as an aesthetic, and muralism, as an artistic medium, both seemed capable of conveying the specificities of place and time while simultaneously asserting broader statements of social and political consciousness. Ramón García, speaking in more general terms, stated that Chicanas/os "produce an art of place, where location is central to the representation of the self in many individual and collective guises." Indigenism offered Chicanas/os a means by which to address the specificity of their indigenous roots without circumscribing their cultural identity. So when a Chicana/o muralist cited Aztec or Maya culture, for example, she/he generally did not seek to portray these images as, in the words of Ramón García, "static things to be imitated," but rather "as active things in the present."


The notion that Chicana/o community muralism is essentially an "art of place" implies that this practice is essentially site specific. Nevertheless, although many community murals must be understood in the context of the barrio setting and in relation to the period in which they were made, they rarely, if ever, remain static signifiers of particular moments and places in history. However, the site specificity of the Chicana/o Indigenist murals in California aligned them with the movement of site-specific work that emerged simultaneously in the 1960s and 1970s within more mainstream artistic spheres in the United States and Europe. According to art historian Miwon Kwon, site-specific work "focused on establishing an inextricable, indivisible relationship between the work and its site and then demanded the physical presence of the viewer for the work's completion." Artists who engaged in this type of work, Kwon continued, resisted "the forces of the capitalist market economy, which circulates artworks as transportable and exchangeable commodity goods." Site specificity functioned under the assumption that the space in which art resides is neither innocent nor devoid of meaning but rather laden with dynamics of signification and, as such, is necessarily complicit with its location. Chicana/o artists embraced site specificity for these reasons but also because of its connections to indigenous aesthetics, which, according to Steven Leuthold, are deeply rooted in space consciousness: "Indigenous representation rests upon social ties and a profound sense of place more than any particular medium, style, or subject matter." Leuthold further argues that in indigenous art the sacred quality attributed to particular locations and sites is accompanied by a sense of responsibility toward that place, its community, and its environment. For the most part, Chicana/o muralists conscientiously sought to work with the qualities that are already intrinsic at any given site, thus avoiding interfering with many of the natural dynamics that are already in place there. Conversely, the practice of transforming and manipulating natural spaces is one closely aligned with colonialist and imperialist enterprises. For instance, the architects of the Roman imperial basilicas sought to re-create the vastness of exterior spaces inside these ambitious structures, and the colonial urban planners of El Zócalo in Mexico City dramatically altered the environment in and around Lake Texcoco to establish the seat of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Chicana/o artists were conscious of how colonial and expansionist states often disturbed and ultimately destroyed natural environments, and they therefore developed strategies to interact rather than disrupt the natural dynamics of space and place.


Another significant dimension to the issue of space in relationship to Chicanas/os' Indigenist consciousness centered around the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) as a key episode in U.S./Mexican history. The annexation of Mexico's northern provinces during the mid-nineteenth century changed the citizenship rights and social status of some 100,000 Mexicans, many of whom were indigenous inhabitants of the area. Chicana/o activists argued that this particular event in U.S. history explained the current marginalization of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in this country. Richard Griswold del Castillo, in his 1990 monograph entitled The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, outlined the process of self-education Chicana/o activists underwent during the civil rights movement, when many learned about this treaty and its implications. During various public demonstrations, rallies, and meetings, activists like Rodolfo "Corky" Gonzales and Armando Rendón stipulated that the U.S. government had violated the terms of the treaty and that Mexico was indeed entitled to a number of the territories now under U.S. jurisdiction. The historical dynamics triggered by the events surrounding 1848 were intimately connected to more recent histories of displacement such as the forced relocation of neighborhoods after the 1959-1962 construction of Dodger Stadium in the area of Los Angeles called Chávez Ravine. The significance and meaning of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo gave Chicanas/os not only the means by which to furnish their activist discourse with historical legitimacy but also an epistemological complement to the notion of Aztlán that further substantiated their mythical and innate right to inhabit North American soil. So while many Chicanas/os expressed the symbolic connection between land and indigenous consciousness in a performative manner through activist, oral, and written means, they most concretely achieved the reclaiming of this territory through the creation of murals that secured a place for Mexican Americans within the communities they resided in, as well as within the political and social landscape of the United States.


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