5 Questions with Alex Garcia de Aztlan
A Tele-Jaguar Exclusive
Alex Garcia is the kind of artist who embodies the spirit of Jaguarismo. Bold, confrontational and absolutely zero consideration of what the critics might say. Steady is his hand, steel is his will, Jaguar in his blood.
We sat down with the brilliant Alex and asked him 5 questions. Enjoy.
1. Before we discuss El Indio Arte, tell us, who is Alex Garcia de Aztlan?
This is probably the most difficult question to answer in the line-up. Where do I start? By day I’m a truck driver. At night I do art. And my upbringing has a lot to do with both those things. I was born and raised in Sun Valley. It’s in the San Fernando Valley, right next to the city of Pacoima. But unlike the arts and community improvement renaissance they’ve been through,we’re still sort of stuck in the grind of being known only for having the most dumps, recycling centers, trucks, dust, and cracked roads. Also we got the GR office that most single, poor folk are required to go to in the Valley. So it’s largely working-class and Mexican, both recently arrived and Chicanos. My mom and dad are immigrants (or migrants, if you’re in the know). So my brothers and sisters and I are first-generation.
I think with me, it’s all in the name. When you read “de Aztlan” you kind of have an idea of what I’m about, where I’m coming from. I chose to add the “de Aztlan” sometime in the mid 2000’s, when I was at Valley Community College, after taking my first Chicano Studies Class. That experience really opened my eyes and my mind to where our people came from, and what we’ve been through. Although I didn’t pick up my degree in Chicano Studies, I kept taking more Chicano Studies and other “ethnic” studies classes when I got to UCLA. I can’t stress enough how grateful I am for those classes (both at the community college and university level). I got to learn about Zapata, Corky Gonzalez, La Raza, La Causa, the entire movement. Those are all things and people I didn’t find in the books in K-12 schooling. It was important, especially then, because the political atmosphere was fueled by fear, and anti-immigrant. Mostly because 9/11 had occurred a few years prior, and there was talk about closing the borders because terrorists might make their way in like Mexicans. Its safe to say we’re seeing that now, with Trump’s America. But in my mind, this white nationalist resurgence is a lot uglier, and more powerful, sadly. Anyway, I felt I resisted all that by being in school, learning, participating in community programs.
For a while, I frequented “Tia Chuchas Centro Cultural.” I would also bring my little brothers and sisters. Eventually, we got into Danza Azteca at Sun Valley Park. but I got two left feet, so I mostly stood on the outer ring of the Danza, but sometimes I’d bring fruits and water to show my support. My dad’s side of the family is largely Mexican paisas, so it was a bit of a culture shock, them seeing me and siblings involved in that kind of stuff. Anyway, that’s around the time I decided to take on the “de Aztlan” part of my name. As a way to reconnect with my roots, based on the education I was getting (in college or at “Tia Chuchas” or through Danza). I understand the concept of Aztlan can be seen more as ideological, even mythological. But it’s not so much whether or not the Aztecs came out of those caves in the American Southwest. It’s more the fact that the land we had here, and our people on it had been robbed and displaced. Aztlan, along with the Chicano identity was a way to flip that ugly history on its head. To claim what’s ours and be prideful of it. The same is true of my “art name.” I go by “elindiocopyright1985.” The 1985 part because I was born in ’85. The “el indio” is my way of identifying with my native roots. And, yes, I know “indio” isn’t the politically correct way to refer to a Native American. But it’s the term, among other bigotted terms, Mexicans use. You know that expression at birth? When a baby’s born “bien prieto” or “too dark?” it goes, “salio indio…” I’ve always found that so fucked up. Taking that word as a name is my way of punching back: “sali indio. Y que cabron?!”
2. How did you get started doing revolutionary art?
It’s funny because I’ve always felt it was sort of by accident. Never had any formal training in the arts. I mean I’d shown some skill in drawing as a kid, but I never followed through with the things I’d start. This time around, I started playing with memes. I was jobless, about to lose my apartment, looking for work, but nothing was happening. So I found myself online, A LOT. And I noticed a lot of the memes out there were really racist. I had a conspiracy theory that there was this cult of racist white teenagers that would produce blatant or passive-aggressive memes targeted at people of color and women. Here’s a good example. This one time I was leaving the UCLA dorm area, cutting through a jogging route in the hills. It was dark, a lot of trees and shrubs. And I was alone. At one point I looked over to my side, and I got freaked out by a sheet of paper stapled onto a tree. It read “YOU GAWN GET RAPED.” Right under the big blocky writing was an image of a black man in a hoodie, with large, stern eyes. I thought, “what the hell?” I’d asked some friends and they told me they’d seen the same image online, as a meme. Then there’s this other meme. The Verizon v Att v Metro PCS vs cricket user. The box that says “Verizon” depicts a fair-skinned woman, silky hair, all dolled-up—she’s attractive. As you go down the list, the woman being depicted eventually becomes a chola, with metro pcs, then a dark-skinned, overweight paisa by the time you ghetto the cricket box. Is it racism? Sexism? Colorism? Classism? It’s so fucked up. And these are only two examples, there’s thousands or millions out there. Anyway so in the middle of being unemployed, annoyed, agitated, I started firing back. I saw a meme about how black folk should get over slavery, because it was so long ago, to “get over it.” I had enough, so I made a meme, too. It read something like, “white people be like: get over it.” and under those words I included a pie chart. I think it was filled in 90-95% with the words, “slavery, emancipation, jim crow, unfair housing/employment,etc.” and in the 10 or 5% it read “civil rights movement to present.” I did a lot more but the message and point was to fire a meme back at stuff I kept finding online that would piss me off.
So at some point, I realized I didn’t have to use words to make my point. I could use historical figures meshed with pop icons to say what I wanted. AND BOOM! That’s when it happened. I put Zappa and Villas heads on Spock and Kirk. I put Malcolm X’s head on Superman’s body. I put Geronimo, and his rifle at the center of a police badge that read“to protect and serve.” I reworked the “WWJD?” (what would Jesus do?) idea. I wrote “what would” then put an image of “CheGuevara” and “do?” I grew up in the 90’s, when super hero cartoons and trading cards were all the rage. And I used to draw spiderman, wolverine, cyclops all the time. I wanted to draw just like those action comic cards, but I never could. Now, with the computer, I found I could cut/paste and throw in my secret recipe and make it my own. But with a conscious twist. It was so fun. Having held these historical figures in such high regard and finally seeing them in the way I see them in my mind, as heroes. It was also a form of therapy for me because I was combating the racist memes with positive imagery, and I wasn’t sinking to their level. But also because things had gotten worse for me. I was borderline homeless, in fact, I eventually did go homeless. I was staying in a friend’s garage, on the condition I’d keep looking for work, but it just wasn’t happening. I was washing up and showing in the park. So then I’d turn to art as an outlet. One day someone asked if I would sell my work. I was like, “wait… what?” I’d never really thought of it like that. I’d been fighting meme wars and eventually got to the point where the pieces were more statements. And they looked pretty damn cool. They became art. Times were tough so I jumped on it because I needed cash to eat. And I jumped in half-assed too. I didn’t know about the print method, framing, mailing expenses, etc. I also didn’t want to over-charge because it felt unfair that I sort of just stumbled onto it out of fun. So prices were negotiable, the best was to make a personal delivery. I was using the bus tokens from the GR office to ride to Highland Park to drop off an art piece that I’d make 30 to 50 dollars off of. Then I started taking it more seriously. At one point a client told me I sold her a piece with my fingerprints smudged on it. I’d noticed it, but I thought it was kind of neat, like it fit the conditions I was living in to have a smudge like that. But that was really unprofessional so they gave me the opportunity to fix it. The same is true of the art itself. Sometimes I’m right on target with what I’m saying. Other times it’s too abstract or vague. Like I thought it would be cool to put Pancho Villa riding pridefully into town on a horse piñata. Very easily someone can see that as insulting.
Recently I got some heat for putting Zapata under the slogan, “Don’t Tread on Me.” I came up with the appropriation idea a few years ago, but recently someone checked me on it, and rightfully, too. I get the issue of combining white nationalist slogans with Mexican pride. My idea was to break racist white folks monopoly on slogans like “freedom ain’t free” or “don’t tread on me.” Because, really, a lot of the historical figures I look up to had to fight for their freedoms, even died for them, and they wouldn’t take lightly being violated or “tread” upon. But the criticism was apt. They pointed out how Zapata’s concept of liberty was more for the oppressed, the wronged, the people. White Americans on the other hand, was more individualistic, white entitlement. The light flicked in my mind. I got it. So I took that schooling and changed the slogan to“don’t tread on us.” Changing the “me” to “us” made the world of difference. And I’m grateful they helped me see that. My point really is that I’ve gone from fun to shock value to informative and I’m always open to growing my work and ideas because I take it seriously now.
3. Tell us about your “Despierta” series! (This series is our favorite!) How did you get the idea and which iconic figures have you featured in this series? Which one is your favorite?
I’m really happy this series found a crowd. I’d come up with it a couple of years ago, but it just sort of faded away. Recently I started reposting it and you guys featured 2 of them on the Tele-Jaguar page. That’s cool. This series is probably the most disciplined I’ve done. I know it looks straightforward and simple, but a lot went into the style behind it.
Consider dualism. I’d learned a lot about the Aztec, or the Mexica. Especially from the book “Aztec Thought and Culture.” One of the ideas that stuck with me was dualism. How the symbol for war is fire and water, back to back.The Sun is masculine, the moon feminine. I might be wrong but I think there are 9 realms of death, reflecting the 9 months of birth. The all-powerful sun is represented by the small hummingbird. The wise one, Quetzacoatl, is both bird and snake, sky and earth. In the“despierta” series, I’m working with historical icons known for war, agitation, resistance. But they’re not in action mode. They’re taking a breather, having a cup of coffee. They’re in t-shirts, loose clothes. I’ve never seen Malcolm X casual. Here, his collar is undone. Most of them are sort of hiding behind the cup, letting the words on it speak for them: “despierta” or “wake up.” They’re sort of on a break, but of course, their work is still ongoing. I like to think that there’s a bit of my learning of zen Buddhism and minimalism coming through. There’s a lot of blank space, white air. Simple black and white. No one is really saying anything. Less is more. And then there’s the pop factor. Andy Warhol is THE artist for me. His work is so straight forward, and 2 dimensional. But it’s also vibrant and colorful. The ideas seem almost paradoxical in his work. Was he glorifying celebrity? Condemning mass consumption? His work is gritty and industrial (it’s bleeding ink), but there’s a sense of awe that comes through. He would use Elvis or Marylin. But in my conscious world Frida and Che are the celebrities. In “despierta” I also used them and Zapata, Malcolm X, Karl Marx, Nietzche, even buddha. People I look up to. And they’re also rock stars. And rockstars get paid. They promote coca-cola or Nike or Apple. We see them pushing products. But in this case the commercial product they’re endorsing is the idea of waking up.
As to which one my favorite one is. I think it’s both the Che one and the Malcolm X one. Che looks like he’s really enjoying that coffee, but also I actually left the red star in the barret in color. So the eye goes to the red star first, then to the “Despierta” writing on the cup of coffee. Then there’s the Malcolm X one. I mentioned it earlier. I’d never seen him in a casual way. He was always in a suit and bow or tie. Very formal. Simply having him with that collar undone speaks levels to something else the series is trying to do. And it’s to familiarize the viewer, even more, with familiar faces. It’s one thing to see Zapata holding that rifle, looking hard at you. It’s another for him to be in a black-T, sort of telling you, “you know what I’m about.” And frankly, they look cool.
4. What are you currently working on for El Indio Arts?
Right now I’m a little more focused on truck driving. I’m trying to get my shit straight so that I can get a “Class A” license, maybe go interstate hauling. But when I’m driving I’m always coming up with ideas. The protests recently broke out, and people are finally taking down idols of white supremacists, so it’d be an opportune time to participate in it visually. And I did. I’d initially done a “resist” series when Trump went into office, but I reworked it to “Black Lives Matter” (BLM). So for example I have Rosa Park’s mugshot, and instead of holding up her jail number, she’s holding up a sign that reads “Black Lives Matter.” There’s others, but that’s one that stands out to me. And the reasoning behind it is to counter those arguments that go something like, “Real activists were people like Rosa Parks or MLK, they protested peacefully, unlike all the BLMers.” So I take Rosa Parks and slap BLM in her hands. She was part of the same cause and Dr. King and Malcolm X. And each of them did what they did in an agitational way.
I’m also considering reworking some music I’d made a few years ago and posting it on the El Indio Arts page. I started making music like my art. It was spontaneous. No training, all by ear. I have a few beats,a few recordings and maybe 3 tracks that I want to really finalize. But that’s sometime in the future.
Maybe poetry is where I’m really at right now. Over the past couple of years I started writing poetry. There’s this one big ass one about me and my family’s experience in this country. It’s pages, and pages long and covers the undocumented experience, tamales, school, la quinceanera, prison, la Llorona, Dia de Los Muertos, etc. It’s a passion project of mine and I hope to have it all finished by the end of the year. At first I wanted to start going to poetry slams and open mic nights to share it, but due “la ‘rona” that doesn’t seem likely to happen any time soon. So I figured I polish it up and post it to el indio arts page.
5. Where can people follow your work? We love seeing your new pieces pop up!
I sort of see “el indio arts” as being a space where I can post all my creative work. Visual, music, written. Right now it’s all image-based, but soon enough there will be poetry and music. Eventually I’ll make a webpage, but for now, I’m relying on social media to get my stuff out there. The hashtag is also my best friend. Just google #elindioarts.
The best places would to find my work would have to be www.facebook.com/elindioarts
and if you want to hear some amateur music: