The Many Masks of Aztlan


It was Eden and Atlantis rolled into one. A Shangri-La where old age and death supposedly were unknown. A paradise that, inscribed in ancient tribal memory, has passed from legend into tradition into myth.

Nearly every world culture has its epic of origin, a story that explains where its people came from and defines who they are. The Israelites had their Exodus, the Romans their "Aeneid," the Germans their Nibelungenlied.

For many Mexican Americans, this ethnic-genesis myth centers on Aztlan, the ancestral homeland of the great Aztec empire that ruled central Mexico before the Spanish conquest of 1519. Invoked by the Aztecs to justify their territorial claims, seized on by gold-hungry conquistadors as a road map to rumored riches, and embraced centuries later by the fledgling Chicano movement as proof of its people's right to be in the United States, Aztlan has worn many masks. Like an underground hot spring, its influence has coursed through Southwestern culture on both sides of the border for more than a millennium.

Now it has bubbled up again, this time in a major exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that traces its history from pre-Columbian and colonial times to the present. That Aztlan even could be the subject of a major L.A. museum show is both a nod to Southern California's emerging Latino majority and a tribute to the potency and persistence of a centuries-old idea. Like any allegory worth its salt, Aztlan has been able to add new shades of meaning over time, incorporating and adapting to shifts in Mexican American culture. Though its force as a political symbol has declined as "El Movimiento Chicano" slides into middle age, it remains, beyond its poetic, nomadic imagery, a cultural touchstone that has once more galvanized discussions of what it means to be a Mexican-born American or Chicano (a person of Mexican descent born in the United States).

"Aztlan kind of functions like the bellybutton of an umbilical cord," says Reynaldo F. Macias, director of UCLA's Cesar E. Chavez Center for Interdisciplinary Instruction in Chicana & Chicano Studies. "It's kind of like where you're connected to, where you come from. At one time it kind of gets cut and you develop your own bellybutton, but you still know that you're connected. And there have been many progeny from that."

Indeed there have. Look around contemporary America and you'll find Aztlan in poetry, novels and essays. In paintings, murals and tattoos. In the name of an L.A. trucking company and in last month's downtown Chicano post-punk jamboree Aztlan Fest 2001.

In the tiendas of Broadway and the halls of Cal State Northridge, Aztlan has become a favored metaphor for many Mexican Americans trying to interpret, reweave and otherwise make sense of their cultural identity. And though some deride it as naive, propagandistic or simply passe, others regard Aztlan as a vital living metaphor that can be utilized in art, academia, cultural criticism and even public policy.

"We are a balloon ready to fly off; Aztlan is the anchor that keeps us grounded," says Gilbert "Magu" Sanchez Lujan, 61, an artist whose mixed-media work "Trailing Los Antepasados (Trailing the Ancestors)" is included in LACMA's show.

Scholars still debate Aztlan's actual location. Was it somewhere east of San Diego? In the Anasazi terrain of the Southwest? Maybe even (would you believe) China? Yet Aztlan today exists less as a measurable geographic entity than as an allegorical site transcending physical space, a landscape where myth, history and personal experience intersect.

And like most hybrids of fact and fantasy, Aztlan's legacy is not without question marks and controversy--a testament to its staying power. Jose Fuentes-Salinas, 44, a psychologist and cultural correspondent for the Spanish-language daily La Opinion, sees Aztlan as a cultural cliche that smacks of an outmoded and restrictive worldview.

Growing up in his hometown of Zacapu, in the Mexican state of Michoacan, "We had many influences--John Wayne movies, Gary Cooper movies, the Beatles, Eric Clapton . . . mixed with the Mexican culture of course, with cumbias, with the rancheras," Fuentes-Salinas says. "We got here [the United States] and we had a tag that you're not supposed to represent anything but mariachis, tacos and folk art. And that's stupid."

Aztlan, he believes, is symptomatic of such retrograde reasoning.

"When you notice that you lost something, it's a psychological reaction trying to idealize some of the past," he says. "There's a quote of the poet Jaime Sabines which says, 'For your future I don't wish you anything; I wish you could build a good past.' "

An Alternate History That Resonates

Thirty or 40 years ago, when the Chicano movement took wing, a good past looked infinitely better than the present. Aztlan's rediscovery by Chicanos came at a time when Mexican Americans were generally treated as second- or even third-class citizens in the United States. What few pop-culture representations existed were mostly grotesque, racist caricatures. Many Mexican American parents shied away from teaching Spanish to their first-generation U.S. offspring, fearing it might hinder them from entering Anglo America.

Aztlan reawakened in many Chicanos a sense of legitimacy and belonging. If their ancestors had migrated from the Southwestern United States, how could they themselves be considered "aliens"? It represented a kind of alternative reality to the Euro-centered national epic of origin that included Red Eric, Christopher Columbus, Plymouth Rock and Manifest Destiny. Today, for many, that alternative history still resonates.

"A theme or a cultural entity like Aztlan must be transformed by every generation," says Amalia Mesa-Bains, a Bay Area artist whose work appears in LACMA's show and director of the Institute for Visual and Public Art at Cal State Monterey Bay.

Central to Aztlan's present-day resonance is the notion of mestizaje, or ethnic mix. The concept was memorably articulated by Jose Vasconcelos (1882-1959), the Mexican education minister who spearheaded that country's post-revolutionary cultural renaissance in the 1920s and 1930s and became an intellectual godfather of Chicanismo.

In his seminal 1925 essay, "La Raza Cosmica: Mision de la Raza Iboamericana" (The Cosmic Race: Mission of the Ibo-American Race)," Vasconcelos envisioned a future utopia inhabited by the "definitive race, the synthesis of all races, the integrated race, built out of the genius and with the blood of all people, and, therefore, capable of true fraternity and universal vision."

Victor Zamudio-Taylor, co-curator of LACMA's exhibition, says that Aztlan's themes of ethnic intermingling, group wanderlust and dispersion, as well as the blurring of national borders and a cyclical view of history, spanning across time, mirror the 21st century mind set.

"More than a political myth," he says, "Aztlan [has become] a myth that embeds popular culture and intellectual culture and artistic culture as it relates to postmodernism, if postmodern society is characterized by high technologies, rapid communication, easy travel, the global village, and also the idea that many philosophies or traditions are in crisis."

But others question Aztlan's relevancy in a society that has changed considerably since Chicanismo's heyday 30 years ago. "You have to keep in mind how marginal these ideas were even at their height," says Gregory Rodriguez, 34, an essayist whose writing frequently appears in The Times, and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute in Washington, D.C. "Go to Baldwin Park tomorrow and see how many people identify themselves as Chicano."

Rodriguez regards Chicanismo in general as stuck in a baby boomer time warp, replaying old issues. He compares the Chicano movement's appropriation of Aztlan with Italian Americans' appropriation of Christopher Columbus. Both cases, he says, illustrate "a very American process of digging your feet in a little deeper," establishing one's place in the larger society. But this rite of passage begins to recede as groups assimilate into the existing culture and form new hybrid cultures.

"Chicano iconography was a manifestation of alienation from both Mexican and American culture," Rodriguez says. "So in a sense, the need for such iconography today has lessened because there is a vital living culture here in Los Angeles. Today there's not as much of a need to contrive a mythical idea because there's an actual identity."

A Mesoamerican 'Star Wars'?

Legend holds that Aztlan was somewhere north of the Gulf of California, near or within a large body of water, and surrounded by seven caves. In the indigenous tongue of Nahuatl, it means, variously, "place of whiteness" or "land of the white herons." According to pre-Columbian beliefs, Aztlan was the Aztecs' home base until around the 11th century, when their war god, Huitzilopochtli, urged the tribe to migrate south. Some 200 years and several thousand miles later, their descendents, fulfilling an ancient prophecy, founded the imperial capital of Tenochtitlan, present-day Mexico City.

Sketchily documented and mostly anecdotal, Aztlan's physical boundaries are still much in question. In pre-Hispanic times, emperor Moctezuma Ilhuicamina sent emissaries north to seek out his peoples' ancestral homeland. The official map attached to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the 1846-48 war between Mexico and the United States, includes a reference to the "Ancient Home of the Aztecs," which the New York map-maker situated near what is now southern Utah.

Some historians and anthropologists place Aztlan near the Four Corners area of New Mexico and Arizona. Others claim it sat beside what is now the Salton Sea, where periodic surging of the Colorado River once fed a verdant flood plain akin to the ancient Nile Delta. Still others assert that Aztlan never physically existed, that it's merely a fable, a kind of Mesoamerican "Star Wars" used to console a conquered race.

Whatever and wherever it was--or wasn't--the questions surrounding Aztlan's shadowy location and ambiguous fate seem to enhance its mystique. "It has lasted all these years as an aperture because it is so porous, so possible. There's not even an icon for it. You cannot even make an image of Aztlan," says artist Mesa-Bains.

Enrique Chagoya, 47, another Bay Area artist whose work is included in LACMA's exhibition, says that Aztlan probably wasn't as prominent a part of his upbringing in Mexico City as it has been for many U.S. Chicanos. "In Mexico, it was more like a history issue, something for the scholars to talk about. And in a way it was, because in Mexico the identity was safe: You didn't have to prove that you were coming from there. We already tended to identify as a nation with the pre-Columbian past."

Even so, Aztlan's influence can be detected in Chagoya's work, "Uprising of the Spirit," a 1994 acrylic and oil painting that scrambles time and cultural mythologies by juxtaposing U.S. pop culture iconography (in the form of Superman) with an equally iconic Indian warrior and a brutal image depicting the Spanish "encounter" with the New World.

"Aztlan was a way you could identify with a larger group, a community that becomes your network of friends," Chagoya says. "Even though for me the idea of Aztlan being part of the Southwest isn't accurate, the idea of it is important for the survival of the community."

Chon Noriega, 39, a UCLA associate professor in critical studies, says the Aztlan paradigm is mutating as new generations of scholars reexamine it. "Maybe we're at a point where there isn't a dominant way to characterize Chicano culture in general," says Noriega, who edits the academic journal Aztlan. "I think maybe you have several competing models."

Docu-Comedy Goes 'In Search of Aztlan'

In a small screening room six stories above Hollywood's sidewalks, the unearthing of Aztlan continues apace. Jesus Trevino's excavations began many years ago.In 1969, as an aspiring filmmaker, he recorded the National Chicano Youth Liberation Conference in Denver, where student activists laid out a Chicano civil rights, economic and political agenda under the title "El Plan Espiritual de Aztlan."

"It was at that conference we decided the driving ideology for the Chicano movement should be Aztlan," says Trevino, 52, whose soft-spoken demeanor masks a forceful intellect. "That was a very seminal movement because that's when we decided, 'We're second-class citizens, but our ancestors were here before other people were here.' "

These days Trevino is carving time away from his role as co-executive producer of the Showtime drama series "Resurrection Blvd." to produce "In Search of Aztlan," an hourlong "docu-comedy" starring the popular L.A.-based Chicano performance troupe Culture Clash. Shifting between metaphysical slapstick and probing interviews with historians, anthropologists, community activists and union leaders, the documentary makes a credible case for Aztlan's historic reality while adding a suitably postmodern, pop-culture spin.

Its viewpoint is perhaps best summarized near the end, in an interview with Rudolfo Anaya, the acclaimed novelist ("Bless Me, Ultima") and University of New Mexico professor. "The myth of Aztlan belongs to the people," Anaya says. "It doesn't have to be understood rationally. It's understood in the heart."

Richard Montoya of Culture Clash frames the issue similarly, though he is slightly more tongue in cheek. "Where do we find Aztlan?" he asks. "If you open up the Thomas Guide, you can't find it. In our quest to kind of hang our hat somewhere we've gone in search many times for Aztlan in our work and have played with the idea. Is it 40 acres in Delano, California, where Cesar Chavez started the United Farm Workers union? Is it in La Paz, where he's buried? Where is our mecca? Whether you're Jewish, African American, Mexican or Chicano, where is your mecca?"

Among Chicanos, Montoya believes, Aztlan's significance is now largely metaphorical. It is taken literally mostly by conservative non-Latinos fearful of what some have dubbed "the browning of America."

"It's a misinterpretation," Montoya says, "and it certainly is a carryover of the anti-immigrant hysteria that we saw during Pete Wilson's reign and Proposition 187, that we're going to create a nation and exclude everybody and take over busboy jobs and dishwashing jobs and we're basically going to take over the San Fernando Valley and parts of L.A. and create this nation. I know there may be some in the extreme left who may want to do that. But for the majority of Chicanos and Mexican Americans, I know the yearning is more spiritual. Middle-class Mexicans are not

willing to leave their communities to go create Aztlan."

Fun-House Landscape Fuses Past, Present

Collapsing space and time into one hallucinatory image, the landscape is an eye-tickling cartoon fantasia. Mythic birds soar. A plumed god zips by on what looks like a serpentine skateboard. Candy-colored Aztec pyramids dot a highway linking present-day Los Angeles with pre-Columbian Mexico, bisected by a barbed-wire fence. In the lower right corner, a middle-age boxer fixes the viewer with an unsettled gaze.

It's a portrait of the artist himself, Gilbert "Magu" Sanchez Lujan--college teacher, Pomona resident and founding figure of the Chicano art movement of the 1960s and '70s. The fun-house landscape in which Magu has chosen to situate himself is a dynamic, studiedly irreverent fusion of past and present, the home-grown and the imported, historical reality and resonant myth.

It is, of course, Aztlan, a place Magu views from duel perspectives. His vibrant visual lexicon of temples, gods and mythical beasts evokes the homeland's dynamism. But Magu's disarming humor deflates any romantic visions of indigenous life the viewer may harbor.

"I have a contradictory thing going on," says Magu, showing a visitor around his 1,500-square-foot studio. "I'm paying homage to the past, but I'm not so hooked up to it that I can't make fun of it a little bit."

Like the works of several other artists in LACMA's exhibition, Magu's is a more oblique, poetic and indirect response to Aztlan than the militant, agitprop imagery associated with Chicanismo's first flowering. These are visions of Aztlan as a personal, interior landscape. There's a free-ranging interplay of symbols and ideas, such as might be experienced in life by the increasing numbers of Mexican Americans who hold two passports.

"For those people [dual citizens] you no longer have a country, in a way, that has borders," says artist Chagoya. "You have a borderless country. The world kind of becomes your country, in a way you never thought about before. But you still need a country, to have your ground, or at least to have some sense of community, belonging, without being nationalistic, chauvinistic. It's more a matter of being proud of yourself, being happy for yourself."

Aztlan, a story about wandering and arriving, has come far from the 1960s. It is equally far from the calendar-art cliches of bronzy Aztec princes and bare-breasted princesses cavorting in the moonlight.

Perhaps the road to Aztlan can still lead us further into that borderless country of the imagination, a place where the present shakes hands with the past and neither ethnicity nor geography is destiny.

"The Road to Aztlan: Art from a Mythic Homeland" continues through Aug. 26 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. Call (323) 857-6000.

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