In my previous post, we explored the links between Chicanx murals and urban renewal. However, murals’ functions extend far beyond denouncing the freeways and Chavez Ravine.
Closer analysis of murals lends nuanced insight into Chicanos’ struggles and efforts to counter the racial narratives that have been imposed by the dominant group in society. Through murals as a form of artistic expression, Chicano artists have striven to reclaim their history while rejecting the negative stereotyping or discrimination imposed by Anglo-American racial scripts.
These traits are prominent in the following three Chicanx mural pieces that I will cover.
Leo Tanguma’s 1973 mural Rebirth of Our Nationality in Houston, Texas features a man and woman emerging from a red flower which sits on a pile of skulls. The man and woman appear to be reaching outwards, struggling to grasp the hands of anguished and shackled figures. Across the top of their heads floats a banner, unraveled to read “To become aware of our history is to become aware of our singularity.” All figures within the mural are Chicano, and the anguished figures represent the “multiplicity of Mexican peoples are the complexity of their history and struggles” in both Mexico and the U.S. The powerful combination of text and image communicate Tanguma’s message that it is crucial for Chicanos to “become aware” of or learn their true history rather than accept the widely circulated racial scripts constructed by Anglo Americans.
The composition’s dramatic thrust and violent expressionism of the characters pays homage to Mexican muralists Siqueiros and Orozco. Thus, even in the style of the mural’s execution, Tanguma references past muralists who heavily influenced Mexican artistic expression. The mural seems to throb with agency as the central Chicano man and woman strain their bodies in an attempt to connect with other members of their community, therefore forging the bond and singularity as a group that is mentioned in the banner above head. The term “rebirth” in the title of the mural delineates how Tanguma formulates a counter script that encourages Chicanos to discover their own history rather than accept norms established by a racist society, and utilize this knowledge to create a support network.
A guest lecture by Kaeyln Rodriguez, a UCLA graduate student whose research focuses on artistic expression by black and brown people in the U.S., opened my eyes to a veritable mural masterpiece. The Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), in which Rodriguez is involved in also lends further insight into the backstory and mission of The Great Wall of L.A.
The half mile mural is broken into sections- prehistoric, Spanish arrival, 1910, World War I, 1930, 1940, and 1950. Within pre-historic California, a white hand that emerges from the ocean disrupts the serene atmosphere of Native American homelands. Spanish arrival is marked in the mural’s imagery of Spaniards on a sailing ship, with emaciated and anguished captives on the lower deck. This symbolism counters the greater mainstream notion that white settlers’ takeover of Native American land was a peaceful and justified process, instead exposing the unharmonious disruption of white settlement. (Click on images for detail).
The mural’s coverage of World War II features a man bleeding to death because a hospital refused to treat him for blood loss. “The iron hand, symbol of the dehumanization that racial discrimination brings, is shown cutting off the flow of blood, cutting off life.” As the mural extends onwards, Baca addresses themes of women’s role in World War I, racial segregation, unnecessary violence of police brutality, the plight of Mexican Americans during the Great Depression and deportations, dehumanizing police actions during zoot suit riots, and more. All of these narratives meld together to directly counter white racial narratives which have continually reconstructed such events to reflect justified and peaceful exchanges rather than unacceptable and discriminatory altercations.
Beyond the physical images produced in the mural, the actual making of the piece itself highlighted a sense of unity amongst racialized groups. Over 400 youth and families from diverse socio-economic and racial backgrounds contributed to this mural. For instance, an American-Indian boy painted pre-historic California, Black-American artist Ulysses Jenkins designed a black perspective of 1948 Bandaide, and Gary Takamoto designed the Chinese segment featuring railroad construction. Overall, The Great Wall of L.A. is both visually and symbolically a manifestation of interracial harmony and a history that represented women and minorities who were otherwise invisible in popular educational resources like textbooks.
Chicanx artists like Leo Tanguma and Judy Baca not only achieve aesthetically pleasing murals, but manage to emit visual images of narratives that challenge the twisted and reconstructed racial narrative that the dominant group- Anglo-Americans- established through from of popular education and mass circulation. Leo Tanguma urges Chican@s to become aware of the truths of their history and treatment in the U.S., and harness this knowledge to unity the community. Judy Baca casts minorities as leading roles throughout the historical frames of The Great Wall of L.A. to challenge racial scripts which cast minorities as savage criminals and justified white people’s exploitation of such groups.
Although history is a crucial element of Chicanx muralism, this does not fetter artists from looking towards the future. Queer Aztlan, a concept introduced in an essay “Queer Aztlan: The Re-formation of Chicano Tribe” by Cherrie Moraga, is manifested in a mural commissioned by Galería de la Raza and designed by Manuel Paul. The 2015 San Francisco mural features a gay couple, a lesbian couple, and a trans man framed in chains and flowers done in classical cholo Chicano style. Across the trans man’s chest rests a banner that reads “Por Vida” meaning “for life.” In this mural we see the depiction of a desire for a queer Aztlan: a Chicanx homeland that could embrace all people, regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation.
However, the mural has been defaced twice by people who disagree with this notion of a more inclusive Chicanx ideology. Chicanx murals have historically and consistently overcome obstacles such as urban renewal imposed by Anglo Americans, and it is now time for the murals to fight homophobia and other forms of discrimination within the community. Murals must now strive for acceptance and providing visual depictions of an all-encompassing and welcoming Aztlan.
Header Image: 1848 Bandaide
Goldman, Shifra. “Mexican Muralism: Its Social-Educative Roles in Latin America and the
United States.” The Chicano Studies Reader: An Anthology of Aztlán, 1970-2000. By Chon A. Noriega. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Publications, 2001. N. pag. Print.
Rodriguez, Kaelyn. “Case Study of Mexican Muralism.” Chicanx Studies, 7 November 2016,
Broad Art Center, University of California Los Angeles, CA. Lecture.
“The Great Wall – History and Description.” SPARCinLA. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Dec. 2016.