Cesar Chavez Nurtured Seeds of Art : Commentary: The late UFW leader served as a reminder that Chicano creative expression has a moral basis and was founded on the political struggle to overcome oppression.
Cesar Chavez died with an art book in his hands. That seemed appropriate because the union organizer and his struggle for justice were intertwined with creative endeavors by Chicano visual and performing artists.
Chavez intuitively understood the power of symbols. By the mid-'60s, the United Farm Workers flag, with the black eagle-like thunderbird starkly set on a background of bright red, conveyed an instant sense of grass-roots struggle and cultural pride. Later, he used a banner depicting the Virgen de Guadalupe, the quintessential guardian of the oppressed, when he and the farmworkers went on the famous “Pilgrimage to Sacramento.” Perhaps it is fitting that Chavez’s own image has already superseded that of Emiliano Zapata as the paramount icon of the Chicano working class.
Chicano art was born in 1965 when Chavez gave budding theater director Luis Valdez permission to mount primitive actos on the very picket lines of the Delano fields. In fact, says Valdez, “El Teatro Campesino emerged directly from la huelga “ -- the strike against the growers. Visual artists were inspired to join the cause, eventually including a Who’s Who of the genre--Antonio Bernal, Malaquias Montoya, Rupert Garcia, Ester Hernandez and members of Sacramento’s Royal Chicano Air Force.
What Chicano art has ultimately become in all its sophisticated and subtle permutations--including Culture Clash’s comic satire, Gronk’s post-Modernist work, the often harrowing meditations on existence by the late Carlos Almaraz (who was once an illustrator for the UFW newsletter), Carmen Lomas Garza’s dreamlike paintings of family life, the conceptual video dramas of Harry Gamboa Jr., the big-budget plays and films of Valdez and so much more--owes a lot to Chavez and his labor movement. It is no exaggeration to say that he was one of its foremost progenitors.
“Without Cesar,” said Valdez, speaking from his home in San Juan Bautista late Sunday night, “there would have been no Teatro. When I asked him if I could put together a theater company, Cesar told me: ‘There is no money, no actors. Nothing. Just workers on strike.’ But he also told me that if I could put something together, it was OK with him. And that was all we needed--a chance. We jumped on top of a truck and started performing. Then something great happened. Our work raised the spirits of everyone on the picket lines and Cesar saw that.”
When Chavez told Valdez to make something out of nothing, he was articulating the essence of early Chicano art. In the mid- to late-'60s, there were no grants, no art degrees; just a burning need for artists to say something about themselves and their situation. That’s what the work was about then. Now it’s displayed in high-priced galleries, not on street-corner walls. The plays are performed in theaters, not on dusty roads. But its roots are far less glamorous. They’re the smell of the earth, scrawled signs and the naked will to create under any conditions.
As long as he was alive, Chavez served as a reminder that Chicano creative expression had a moral basis and was founded on the political struggle to overcome oppression. Chavez was an archetype, a bigger-than-life symbol of the art’s origins.
“Cesar was supportive of our work,” Valdez said, “until the day he died. He understood what we were about. In 1967, El Teatro went its own way. We moved from Delano to Del Rey and there we established an art center. That year, Antonio Bernal painted the first outdoor Chicano mural. Teatro also made the first Chicano film, an adaptation of Corky Gonzalez’s (poem) ‘I am Joaquin.’ We shot that film in a kitchen in Fresno. That’s how it was.”
According to Valdez, the late ‘60s marked a turning point for the Teatro and other Chicano artists. Their scope expanded beyond farmworkers to larger issues such as Chicano identity, racism in the schools, the Vietnam War and police brutality.
“But always,” Valdez pointed out, “the cultural root is the campesino , the farmworker. I don’t care how sophisticated we get in the city, we share the communal memory of the earth. This goes for the Chicanos as well as anyone else.
“Like many Chicano artists, Cesar was self-taught. What amazed me was that he could completely absorb everything around him. He was brilliant, a genius. He didn’t just read about Gandhi, he became Gandhi. He didn’t just read about labor movements, he started one. He didn’t just read about the arts, he became them.”
Lalo Guerrero, himself a legend in the Latino community for his music and radio work in the ‘30s and ‘40s, remembers traveling up and down the state in the early 1960s. “We went to places like Fresno and Stockton and we heard about the organizing that was going on. I became familiar with the farmworkers’ situation. I was very impressed with what Cesar was doing. In 1964, I wrote a corrido , a folk ballad, called ‘El Corrido de Delano.’ Chavez often remarked that the corrido helped him tremendously.
“I remember the last time I saw him,” Guerrero said, “last year, at a tribute for me in Palm Desert. When he walked into the theater, everything stopped. Quiet. I was amazed to see how everyone backed away from him so he could pass. It was almost saintly. I got goosebumps. He was revered. Most of the Chicano painters, writers and actors became very close to the movement. They all found a need to join him.”
One artist who joined him early on was Barbara Carrasco. She is painting the banners for Chavez’s funeral, which will take place Thursday in Delano.
“I was 19 when I heard him speak at UCLA,” she recalls. “I volunteered right after the speech. Cesar told me at the time: ‘We need artists very much.’ ” Carrasco started painting banners for the union and has been doing it for 15 years.
In 1989, she was in New York City to unveil her computer animated billboard “Pesticides” in Times Square. Chavez was also there to promote his campaign against the use of pesticides in the fields. He held a press conference as Mayor David Dinkins raised the UFW flag over City Hall.
“He was very interested in the billboard and wanted to know how the computer animation worked,” Carrasco said. “He was surprised to learn that the animation would run for a whole month. The timing was perfect. It showed a farmworker picking grapes and being sprayed by a dustcropper. Then the grapes are shown in a supermarket where a woman buys them and takes them home to give to her children. The children eat them and become ill. The animation ends with calaveras --skulls--the symbol of death, as the dustcropper comes down on the farmworker again.” Chavez lived to witness Chicano art as it moved from simple agitprop in the open fields to a computer-driven image of the farmworker among the big city lights of Times Square.
It’s reasonable to expect that in death, Chavez will become a mythic figure. He will appear in murals, poems, songs, perhaps even films--as Valdez has already planned. That, too, will be a reflection of the organic nature of Chicano art and its origins as a synthesis of religion, politics and culture.
Max Benavidez is a Los Angeles essayist and critic who has written extensively about Chicano art.