Chicanos in Southern California have faced an identity crisis seeking to assimilate in America while maintaining their Mexican roots in the face of racism, menial jobs and police brutality.
A compelling exhibition at the Mexican Cultural Institute explores their enduring traditions and bloody tragedies through artwork by Chicano and Latino artists from the 1970s to 2016. “Before the 45th | Action/Reaction in Chicano and Latino Art” is especially timely and relevant in our current political climate of xenophobia and President Trump’s pointless demands to build a border wall that could cost taxpayers up to $70 billion. The exhibition’s title refers to his role as the 45th president and how artists may respond to his actions in the future.
In the first gallery, two silkscreens and an oil painting by revered Chicano artist Frank Romero start the conversation in Romero’s finely honed style that deftly spotlights social injustice through humor and biting satire. In “The Arrest of the Palateros,” Los Angeles police clad in riot gear train their guns on a “menacing” foe, a group of Chicano ice cream street vendors armed only with cool treats. The men, women and children are blinded in the light of the squad cars’ headlights with their hands raised while a cop toting a billy club chases a cotton-candy vendor down the sidewalk. Romero’s protest of pointless police crackdowns on street vendors is rendered in brightly hued pastel tones that make the subject matter even more ridiculous and surreal.
In “The Closing of Whittier Boulevard,” an oil painting created in 1984, Romero again mocks the police for heavy-handed tactics in shutting down Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles to enforce a city ordinance banning cruising, an issue that has resurfaced today. A bunch of classic cars is blocked by a row of identical cops standing next to an officer on horseback armed with a giant spear, resembling a grandiose statue in a park that has somehow galloped onto the street for petty law enforcement duty.
Several pieces in the exhibition highlight the Chicano Movement that began in the 1960s when the term Chicano, once a derogatory name for the offspring of Mexican migrants, was adopted as a badge of ethnic pride and focus for social action against injustices on multiple fronts. A graphite sketch by Carlos Almaraz titled “UFW (United Farm Workers) Study” shows a group of nonviolent Chicano protesters being attacked by Teamsters and farmers who opposed their demands for collective bargaining and humane working conditions in the fields.
Wearing simple blue jeans and a jean jacket, charismatic UFW leader Cesar Chavez is depicted standing next to Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Eloy Torrez’s oil painting titled “Unidos.” King and Chavez, who shared nonviolent protest tactics against police brutality, have traded buttons, with King’s button stating “unidos” while Chavez’s says “united.” The two historic figures gaze directly at the viewer, with King’s hand extended for a handshake, uniting common struggles across racial and ethnic divides.
Graffiti artist Man One directly tackles the politics and harsh realities of the border wall in “ALIENATION,” a spray-paint and acrylic painting showing a giant supernatural figure leaning on a border wall that extends into the sea. The creature is adorned both with a devil’s horns and spiked tail and an angel’s wings and halo. It has plucked up or cast aside small white figures with bulbous alien heads and snake tails, erasing the humanity of migrants and literally depicting them as “aliens” whose lives depend on arbitrary judgments beyond their control. The work exposes how the political debate over the border wall has cast all immigrants together as a faceless mass, stoking fear and anger against people who seek a better life for themselves and their families.
All of the artwork was loaned from the impressive collection of AltaMed Health Services, a community health care system in Southern California that has celebrated Chicano culture since its founding as the East Los Angeles Barrio Free Clinic in 1969.
The safety sign posted on Southern California highways depicting a fleeing immigrant family was meant to reduce pedestrian traffic deaths, but it is effectively reworked in the exhibition’s only mixed-media installation by Viviana (Viva) Paredes. Titled “Bendicion Para Un Mojado (A Blessing for a Wetback),” that iconic family image has been etched into five blown glass cylinders filled with medicinal herbs that are mounted in a Tibetan prayer wheel frame of rough timber. The work instills a feeling of hope, hope for safe passage, hope for mutual respect and hope that love might ultimately trump fear.
Before the 45th | Action/Reaction in Chicano and Latino Art
through Dec. 29
Mexican Cultural Institute
2829 16th St., NW
(202) 728-1628 | www.instituteofmexicodc.org