i cant explain why i’ve taken any of these
you’ll get it anyway
i cant explain why i’ve taken any of these
you’ll get it anyway
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.
For my first quarter UCLA, I was one among 800 eager students who was able to squeeze myself into the highly demanded course- Chicano/a Studies 10A taught by Professor Genevieve Carpio.
First off, what is a Chicanx (gender-neutral term) person? Well, that’s tricky because what it means to be Chicanx varies between individuals. For the sake of simplicity, however, the umbrella definition is this: Any person of Mexican origin or descent who resides in North America.
Professor Carpio approached the vast field through three segments- history, culture, and visual art. Guess what my favorite part was? Visual art? Wow, how did you know? Those are some wild psychic powers.
Anyway, I just wanted to share a little blip of studies on Chicano muralism’s relation to urban renewal programs and how it relates to the field as a whole.
Chicano murals are some of the most beautiful types of street art I have ever seen, but there is still more to them than meets the eye. The meanings behind each are about as layered as an onion. Chicano muralists don’t draw only from an aesthetic standpoint, but reach back deep into Chicano history, depicting specific moments or narratives that have shaped the Chicano experience. One such event consists of urban renewal.
Urban renewal describes a set of programs that took place during the postwar period which were intent on developing “blighted” areas, yet often let to the displacement of Chicanx communities. Urban renewal impacted many Chicanx communities by creating physical barriers within the barrios (or destroying them completely) which resulted in the division and fragmentation of those preexisting communities, limiting their access to resources and to one another. It took shape under various forms including the construction of freeways or total remodeling of poorer communities.
Freeways: In 1963, the Interstate 5 bisected a Chicano barrio in Logan Heights, San Diego at a site that had been set aside to serve as a park for that community. However, Chicano murals began to appear on the pillars of the freeway almost a decade later. Now the park consists of a colorful blasts of pigment decorating the concrete pillars. Many of the murals reference claims to self-identity by conveying strong links to heritage, race, and ethnicity- whether it be Native American, Spanish, American, or other roots. (Click on images for detail).
Chavez Ravine: The incident of Chavez Ravine during the 1950s serves as the archetype for expressing the idea that urban renewal fragmented, displaced, and destroyed Chicanx communities. The government targeted the interracial and populated Chicanx area known as Chavez Ravine for complete neighborhood remodeling and forced the locals to vacate the area. However, plans fell through when the main architect, Frank Wilkinson, became preoccupied with accusations that he was a communist and the project was abandoned. Instead, the land was sold to the Dodgers and the Dodger Stadium parking lot now sits atop the homes of the Chavez Ravine residents who were promised an improved built environment Multiple interviewees within the PBS documentary “Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story” explain that the attempted urban renewal of Chavez Ravine caused disconnection between countless Chicanx families and friends who were displaced and moved away from one another.
Judy Baca’s LA mural Division of the Barrios & Chavez Ravine offers strong commentary in unveiling the destructive effects of urban renewal on Chicanx communities.
The mural features a looming Dodge stadium, bulging aggressively forward from the hill on which it sits; the hill that was once home to a neighborhood of mixed races- one being Chicanos. A family is broken up, mother and son on one side and father and son on the other, and constricted by the freeway. The adults desperately reach out to one another, yet fail to connect. The children, however, look at one another with skepticism, refusing to reach out. Baca demonstrates how urban renewal isolated younger Chicanx generations from one another.
The family symbolizes the greater Chicanx community and, as explained by Avila in his essay “The Folklore of the Freeway: Space, Culture, and Identity in Postwar Los Angeles,” the destructive division that an urban renewal project like that of the Chavez Ravine brought upon communities.
Through her work, Baca refuses to remain silent or overlook the ordeal and creates a powerful counter point that insists on the resurfacing and recognition of an event that profoundly altered Chicanx barrios through fragmentation, isolation, and even total destruction. Judy Baca’s massive mural reveals Baca’s denunciation of urban renewal and insist on exposing the isolating effects in bore on Chicanx communities.
Chicanx murals like these brim with the painful history marked by urban renewal, a narrative often overlooked by educational institutions or mainstream Anglo society.
I don’t know about you, but I sure didn’t know any of these things impacted the Chicanx community until now. Why did it have to take 16 years of education for me to be exposed to this history?
This is why these murals are important- they serve as a wider form of education. Next time you see one, stop and look twice. Look extra hard. You never know what hidden meanings are encased within the shapes, words, and colors.
Header image: Teocinttli Mural, East LA