America Is One Big White Washed Mural
Driving down Kalisher St in the old Barrio San Fernando, Califas back in the 80’s and
very early 90’s you would be welcomed into the heart of the barrio by wall after wall of murals. Native warriors, Mexica motifs, temples, pyramids, rifle bearing Revolutionaries some with sombreros others with Berets used to adorn these old walls. It was as if you entered into the most personal space of the Chicano people’s psyche to see for yourself what images and ideas ran through our historical memory and collective conscience. Every Barrio I had the privilege of visiting as a child would be the same. Drive into it and you would find mixed in with the local Placasos, images of Jaguar Warriors pouncing on Spanish Conquistadores, Aztlan or Mexican flags raised up permanently on these walls, while brown fists held up high and police in the background.
My father, a muralist as well used to always mention the Mexican greats such as
Tamayo, Rivera, Kahlo, Orozco etc but most of all he would always mention David Alfaro Siqueiros because of his history here in Los Angeles. It wasn’t until 2012 that Siqueiros“America Tropical” a mural he painted in La Placita Olvera in 1932 was again revealed to the public. The mural had been white washed and only when the paint began peeling off and revealing what lay under it did people begin to try to restore and conserve it. A crucified brown skinned man is tied down while on the sides await armed an indigenous warrior with a spear and a Mexican Revolutionary with a rifle. The Mural is the oldest in Los Angeles. Mexican painters-inspired by the then recent Mexican Revolution and the Communist Revolutions sweeping the world at the time vying for a new world went on to tell the story of Mexico,Mexicans and humanity with brush in hand. Massive works of art were commissioned in Government buildings and many were also commissioned here in the so called USA.
By the time the Chicano struggle burst into the public view the legacy left by the Mexican mural giants, their techniques, their preference for public art and murals over private paintings, their use of public art as weapons for consciousness building over bourgeoisie “art for arts sake” and the artists themselves as dedicated members of Revolutionary struggles had laid the ground for the Chicano Mural movement that swept the southwest and midwestern barrios like a wildfire. An art movement born with who knows how many millions of gallons of paint adorned everywhere from the most distant far off pueblito to the massive Urban working class Chicano-Mexicano barrios of Los Angeles, Tucson, Denver, San Diego, San Francisco, Houston, El Paso etc etc. The tradition was and has been proudly upheld for generations by Chicanos. In fact this tradition melded perfectly with the rise of “Hip Hop” and in particular Graffiti. It has been the Chicano-Mexicano/Raza youth of the Southwest that gave “West Coast” graffiti its distinct flavor. Graffiti as an expression of poor working class youth already had a presence among La Raza. The stylized “Cholo” script and use of Olde English is now a staple tradition and was a style of Graffiti by the time Chicano youth caught wind of the Graff scene coming in from the East Coast. It is the Chicano contribution to that world wide proletariat art movement. (Let’s also recall Siqueiros was a pioneer using different tools and methods including spray paint in his works.)
Art is an expression, it is cultural and culture is born of the material realities of a people. If a group of people express themselves in contrast to the dominant narrative there will be conflict. When the Spaniards arrived they banned all cultural practices by the Indigenous people, they burnt books and destroyed entire cities they even destroyed murals. When the USA came to the Southwest they banned all indigenous practices, those that spoke indigenous languages would be sent to boarding schools, those that spoke Spanish would be segregated and many times violently forced to cease speaking it. So it should come as no surprise that the greatest mural movement to ever have taken place within the confines of the USA which was created by Mexicans and carried forward, nurtured and protected by Chicanos-Mexicanos would be ignored or really whitewashed (like America Tropical). Since the Chicano Movement inspired millions to feel pride and collectively defy the status quo this became a problem. Everything Chicano has had to go you cannot have this group of people thinking they are unique, important and collectively powerful if organized under their own interests if you are the dominant colonial culture. Whitewash it all! Forget the fact that the longest mural in Los Angeles is by Chicana Judy Baca or that the longest mural in the world is being painted by Mexican artist Enrique Chiu along the militarily imposed US-Mexico border.
Anyone that would deny the contributions of Mexicans and Chicanos to the visual arts is simply a racist or unknowingly upholding the erasure of the Chicano Mexicano people of the Southwest and Mexico. It is convenient to Amerikan political hegemony and economic interests. Deny Chicanos their culture and place in society and it eases the process of gentrification which is simply the rearrangement of the urban landscape to neoliberal capitalist interests. Recent headline after headline document the whitewashing of historic Chicano murals from Los Angeles to San Jose to Dallas and even up to Chicago in the Pilsen Barrio unsurprisingly all these historic barrios are heavily gentrified.
Yet, as time goes by and the paint of all those old barrio walls throughout Aztlan ages, the whitewash will begin to peel off and beneath it you will find a vast tapestry of stories hidden from plain sight and maybe as in American society in general the bland white paint will be once again naturally replaced by the beautiful array of colorful paintings beneath and deep within them as with America Tropical will be the Native Warrior and Mexican Revolutionary waiting to come out…