The flowering of artistic activism

Robert J. Lopez is a Times staff writer.

In a seminal essay published shortly before his death in 1970, Los Angeles Times columnist Ruben Salazar asked: “Who is a Chicano? And what is it the Chicanos want?” It was a time when tens of thousands of Mexican Americans, fueled by anger and a newfound sense of cultural and political awareness, waged open rebellion against a system that for generations had repressed and marginalized them.

Across the Southwest, these Chicano activists were demanding better educational opportunities, a respect for civil rights and an end to the war in Vietnam, where Mexican Americans were dying in disproportionate numbers.

It was amid this political backdrop that Chicano art was born. Whether painting symbols of solidarity on walls and banners or entertaining striking farm workers with one-act plays, these artist-activists helped define the diverse Chicano experience. They illustrated the triumphs, frustrations and aspirations of a little-understood yet significant part of the American cultural fabric. In essence, their art helped answer the question posed by Salazar and illuminate through pictures and performances what the newsman tried to articulate in his writings.


Now, more than 30 years later, the works of some of the country’s preeminent Chicano painters, their artistic roots tracing back to the Mexican American civil rights struggle, are featured in Cheech Marin’s “Chicano Visions.” Known best for his acting and counterculture comedy performances, Marin also is the owner of one of the largest private collections of Chicano art. The book, a coffee-table complement to a nationwide tour highlighting pieces from Marin’s collection, is a portfolio of 96 dynamic and sometimes poignant paintings from more than two dozen artists. Accompanying the works is a series of essays by Chicano scholars explaining the historic, cultural and social underpinnings of the art.

One can criticize “Chicano Visions” for narrowly focusing on images that fail to capture the full breadth of this vibrant community. Numerous pieces, for instance, depict aspects of typical barrio life. Little in the book enlightens us about an entire generation of Chicanos -- doctors, lawyers, engineers, journalists and others -- who have integrated into the mainstream. Also absent are paintings from the civil rights era that spawned the works, a curious omission given the inextricable link between the two.

Certainly, the notion of being Chicano also can be as diverse as the places where Chicanos are found. Growing up in Cesar Chavez’s Central Valley town of Delano is a world apart from being raised in the barrio on San Antonio’s west side. Yet we all share common historic and cultural bonds, many of which are highlighted by the paintings in the book.

The featured painters -- ranging from such pioneers as Carlos Almaraz, Frank Romero and Patssi Valdez to relative newcomers like Vincent Valdez -- draw upon the influences of impressionism and expressionism, as well as that of pre-Columbian symbols, religious icons and the Mexican mural movement. Through their works, we learn of a culture steeped in the Catholic faith. We experience the realities of racism and police abuse. We come to understand the importance of family and tradition. And we see the less-flattering aspects of machismo and gang violence.

Prior to the sociopolitical upheaval of the 1960s and early ‘70s, Mexican Americans by and large accepted their place in society. A notable exception were the pachucos of the 1940s, who were immortalized some 35 years later in “Zoot Suit,” an acclaimed play and later a film by Chicano writer and director Luis Valdez. With their wide-brimmed hats, long hair and baggy, colorful zoot suits, the pachucos thumbed their noses at convention. But they paid dearly. In 1943, encouraged by a wave of sensational media coverage, U.S. servicemen cruised the streets of Los Angeles, beating the zoot suiters with bats, fists and other weapons.

The violence is captured in vivid detail in “Kill the Pachuco Bastard!” (2001), one of the showcased paintings by Vincent Valdez. The central figure in this barroom free-for-all is a fedora-wearing pachuco, his nose and arm bloodied as his fingers rip at the face of a soldier wearing dog tags and holding a broken beer bottle. A woman, blood dripping from her forehead, clutches a rosary and looks upward. She’s cradling a man. In the darkness, on a table, lies a copy of one of the newspapers blamed for inciting the violence -- the Los Angeles Times. The irony of the Zoot Suit Riots was that they occurred at a time when Mexican Americans were distinguishing themselves in combat overseas. A poster in the bar highlights this contradiction. Looking on as the men and women are pummeled by soldiers, Uncle Sam proclaims, “I Want You.”

The softer images of church and family are portrayed in Carmen Lomas Garza’s “Quinceanera” (2001). Using primary colors, she tells the tale of a traditional rite of passage for many Mexican American girls. The quinceanera, a celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday, is an elaborate church ceremony and reception in which her family presents her to society as a woman. We see the young girl, in headdress and white gown, driven to the front of the church. Anxiously waiting are the boys and girls in the procession, with tuxedos, pink dresses and white bouquets. The importance of family is highlighted by the father, escorting his daughter, and by an elderly grandmother tending to her granddaughter on the steps of the church.

The book points out how many of these painters have largely operated within an artistic vacuum. “With little commercial encouragement,” Marin writes, “these artists have struggled to gain acceptance in the gallery world. Many painters show their works in restaurants, coffeehouses, or wherever there is a wall or audience. What matters is that they continue to create.” Indeed, therein lies the value of “Chicano Visions.” It provides a platform for accomplished artists who present a vibrant visual interpretation of family, politics and spirituality from a unique cultural perspective. Their works, along with the book’s essays, are insightful and thought-provoking and help promote a better understanding of the Chicano experience.