‘Tourist Plantation’ Reference Upsetting : Bus Poster Art Taxes Officials’ Patience

San Diego County Arts Writer

There may be some San Diego tourist industry officials who don’t know anything about art, but they know what they don’t like.

And heading the list is a poster, on the back of 100 San Diego Transit buses, that carries a message that some officials feel is a slap at both the city and the industry.

Rubbing salt into the wound is the fact that city hotel-motel taxes are helping to pay for the month-long public-art display, at a time when the city is busy girding for Super Bowl XXII, one of the biggest tourist draws in San Diego history.


The poster is a triptych of photographs showing illegal aliens being arrested and at work and carries the message: “Welcome to America’s Finest Tourist Plantation.”

One of the three artists who produced the poster was involved two years ago in another politically charged incident in which one of his artworks was ordered removed from the U.S. Courthouse Plaza.

San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau officials said the poster gives a “totally false” image of San Diego and will be viewed by thousands of tourists on Super Bowl weekend.

The artwork includes a central photograph of an armed Immigration and Naturalization Service agent with handcuffed illegal aliens. To the right is an image of an open door with a “maid service please” sign on the knob and a female’s hand with towels draped over the arm. To the left is a photo of a pair of hands cleaning a dish.

The artwork is intended to focus the viewer’s attention “beyond . . . San Diego’s ‘Spanish Heritage,’ ” according to the artists who created the work.

In a press release, the artists said that “immigration laws attempt to deny a space for the undocumented worker, while at the same time, their space is clearly recognized by the local economic forces . . . .


“Without the undocumented worker, San Diego could not have a tourist industry,” the release stated.

ConVis spokesman Al Reese objected strongly to that message.

“We think it is a totally false representation of San Diego and the tourist industry,” Reese said. “To some degree it is an insult to the 85,000 employees in the tourism industry, implying that they are illegals or are committing illegal acts by hiring illegals.”

One of the three artists collaborating on the artwork denied that they were taking a shot at San Diego’s tourist industry.

“The intention was not to be critical of the tourist industry,” said photographer Elizabeth Sisco. “We wanted to show that undocumented labor has a hand in it. We didn’t set out to attack anyone. The labor we’re talking about isn’t isolated in the tourist industry. It’s found throughout San Diego in many other kinds of businesses.”

“What we’re doing is looking at the social relationships that make the tourist industry possible,” said David Avalos, a sculptor who collaborated on the project. “By no means are we saying that all hotel and motel industry workers are Mexican or that they are all undocumented.

“But on more than one occasion spokesmen for the industry have admitted that the industry would not be possible without the labor of undocumented workers, busing tables, washing dishes, cleaning rooms--people who accept low wages.”


Avalos has gained a national reputation for his art, which focuses on border-related issues such as undocumented workers. Two years ago this week his “San Diego Donkey Cart” assemblage was removed from the U.S. Courthouse plaza here by order of the chief judge of the U.S. District Court.

Avalos, who had received official permission to place the artwork on the plaza, filed a civil rights suit against judge. The cart, which pictured an illegal alien being arrested by immigration officers, was ordered removed because it was a security risk.

The bus-poster project came about as the result of a proposal the three artists made to COMBO, the Combined Arts and Education Council of San Diego, which regularly makes grants to local arts groups and artists.

Avalos, Sisco and video and motion picture photographer Louis Hock said they received money from three sources to pay for the project: $4,600 from the private arts funding agency COMBO, $4,500 from the New York foundation Art Matters Inc., and $2,500 from the sale of their own artworks to the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art.

Cost of renting space on 100 buses for a month was $6,000.

The COMBO award was composed of a National Endowment for the Arts grant matched two-to-one by money from the City of San Diego. The city money comes from its transient occupancy tax fund, consisting of bed taxes collected from hotels and motels.

According to a COMBO spokeswoman, the $4,600 award was made to the artists who would create “a monthlong exhibition of hundreds of images traveling on the back panels of San Diego Mass Transit buses throughout San Diego . . . from San Ysidro to La Jolla and Harbor Drive to Southeast San Diego seven days a week.”


COMBO Executive Director Jack Borchers tried to distance COMBO from the artwork and the press release that was titled: “COMBO Public Art Project Takes to the Road.”

“I was shocked,” Borchers said. “The thing I want to ensure is that COMBO’s name should not be on it. It has nothing to do with COMBO. It was an NEA grant. The only relation that COMBO has to it is that COMBO administers the fund.

“I’m sure that the grant didn’t anticipate something like this, but who knows? There’s freedom in the art world. Perhaps this is more license than freedom.”

San Diego Mayor Maureen O’Connor had not seen the bus panels and had no comment.

Councilwoman Judy McCarty also said she had not viewed the artwork. When one was described to her, McCarty said she did not like the idea, but said she would have to see one to make up her mind.

“It sounds like they’re saying we use slave labor like on the plantations,” she said. “In the arts we don’t want to be censors, but hey, if they’re going to knock our city, that doesn’t do the city any good.”

Neither the head of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce nor of the San Diego County Hotel and Motel Assn. had seen the posters, but a spokeswoman for the Hotel and Motel Assn. said that association president Jim Durbin would bring the matter up with the San Diego Super Bowl Task Force Wednesday afternoon.


Peg Nugent, associate executive director of the task force, said, “We just became aware of them today. None of us knew they would be there. We’re trying to find out who did them.”

After discussion, the task force referred the matter to ConVis for further study.