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The Big Stink 

Exposing América Tropical and the painful truths of a whitewashed city

Wednesday, Aug 9 2006
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It’s easily one of the most significantmurals in the world, yet few people have actually seen América Tropical, the 80-foot-long masterpiece painted by the great David Alfaro Siqueiros on Olvera Street in 1932.

Whitewashed and all but forgotten, América Tropical has survived more than 70 years of neglect, censorship and the brutality of the elements. Last week, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and the J. Paul Getty Trust announced a $7.8 million plan to restore the mural and make it accessible to the public for the first time. The project will include conservation work, an awning, a bridge and an interpretive center.

In about 18 months, when the mural’s protective tarp is finally removed, a most embarrassing chapter of L.A. civic mediocrity and a classic example of L.A.’s disdain for its own history is set to end.

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What’s the big deal? América Tropical is brazenly anti-American in content. It depicts an indigenous man crucified on a double cross, his neck bent obscenely to one side under the weight of the eagle of the American flag. At one end of the wall, Mexican revolutionary fighters are pointing rifles at the eagle, ready to take it out.

Clearly, this proved too much to bear for city leaders in the 1930s and for Christine Sterling, the civic booster who invented Olvera Street to satisfy her fetish for a “quaint Mexican village.” América Tropical was promptly whitewashed. To this day, mainstream talk about the mural characterizes the work as “provocative” and “controversial,” but that’s almost beside the point. The city today is blanketed with murals and wheat-pasted posters that critique American imperialism and celebrate leftist icons like Che Guevara. Just drive through El Sereno, Highland Park, East Hollywood or Historic Filipinotown.

Seeing nothing but “controversy” in América Tropical is unsophisticated and disrespectful of history. The mural is a critical visual link between the past and present, between the Mexican mural renaissance — led by Siqueiros and the other “tres grandes,” Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco — and the Chicano and later multiculturalist muralist movement that swept Los Angeles and the Southwest in the 1970s and ’80s.

This fact hardly came up when city and Getty officials gathered with local arts figures at the Olvera Street plaza for a news conference to announce the revival plans. Villaraigosa called América Tropical a “cultural treasure” and only briefly mentioned that the Siqueiros mural is the “prototype for the murals that began appearing on the Eastside and in other neighborhoods of the city.”

In their time, the “tres grandes” painted works in Los Angeles, Northern California and New York, seeking to export the ideals of the Mexican Revolution. The U.S. was unprepared for images of Lenin, heroic Mexican field workers or African-Americans standing alongside whites; their work generated controversy and, in many cases, censorship. In 1933, Rivera’s Man at the Crossroads famously caused a huge escandalo at the Rockefeller Center in New York. The Rockefellers commissioned the piece but censored it once they saw that it glorified Marxism. (Rivera re-created the mural for Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes; history now views the incident as New York’s loss.)

A year earlier, Siqueiros was in Los Angeles, where F.K. Ferenz commissioned him on the condition the master adhere to a chosen theme, “Tropical America.” Siqueiros agreed. For the piece, he experimented with a new fresco technique in which the paint was applied directly onto wet Portland cement, allowing the colors to penetrate the wall itself. He kept the central image a mystery till the very last moment. The night before the scheduled unveiling, Siqueiros shooed away his assistants and painted the crucified man himself, alone.

The L.A. Times art critic at the time, Arthur Miller, wrote: “At 1 a.m. that night in a dead Olvera Street I found Siqueiros sweating in an undershirt in the cold air, sitting on a scaffold, painting for dear life the peon bound to a double cross.”

“[Siqueiros] wasn’t dumb, he knew there would be pedo,” says Jesús Treviño, the L.A. filmmaker who in 1971 made a documentary about América Tropical for KCET. (Pedo: Latino slang for “fart,” as in, a big old stink.)

True enough, at the unveiling, Miller wrote, “onlookers gasped.” The response was swift. First the section of the mural visible from the street below was covered over. Then the whole thing was whitewashed. Siqueiros, who died in 1974, was disinvited by the U.S. State Department.

Treviño, who was active in the Chicano movement that started in the 1960s, learned about América Tropical from art historian Shifra Goldman, an early proponent of Latin American and Chicano art and the mural’s “spiritual guardian.” They discovered in the early 1970s that the whitewash on América Tropical was deteriorating. The mural was pushing outward.

“I saw this as a metaphor for the Chicano movement. The mural was emerging, like the movement was emerging,” Treviño says. Muralist Judy Baca, executive director of the Social and Public Art Resource Center, says, “It was an apparition.” The muralists of Los Angeles got to work all over the city. They covered the barrios with large-scale works that sought to affirm a new cultural identity for Mexican-Americans, and they did it largely without the government backing and formal training of the Mexican muralists.

IT’S BEEN MORE THAN 30 YEARS since the first efforts to revive América Tropical started. Since then, a lot has changed. The muralist movement in L.A. has fallen into decline, its goals fulfilled in some way by the growing political and cultural power of Mexican-Americans. Propagandist “political” art is hardly cutting edge anymore. New generations of visionary artists of color have rejected the ideologies of their forefathers, working from the idea that truly political art must also revolt against itself.

While their messages remain relevant in our dark times, murals like América Tropical and those made by the Chicano artists of generations past are more significant in that they speak of a particular period and a particular political moment, the awakening of consciousness in Los Angeles.

But, as Baca will readily remind you, history has a way of repeating itself. The Chicano muralists who found in América Tropical a beacon of their destiny have yet to collect their earned place in history. Their works have been neglected, destroyed and shunned by the L.A. art establishment. “The disrespect they showed to the maestro is the same disrespect they showed to us,” Baca says.

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