Los Angeles is often lauded as a diverse city, but rarely do the stories of the indigenous communities that make up the city’s history get the credit they deserve. If they do, they're overshadowed by their colonialist counterparts, garnering little more than a few textbook pages. But these communities play a vital role in an exhibition that's currently in the works for contemporary Angelenos to see.
On view from Sept. 16, 2017, to Jan. 31, 2018, “Visualizing Language: A Zapotec Worldview” features commissioned work from Oaxacan artist collective Tlacolulokos that will be on display at the Central Library’s rotunda. Organized by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, in conjunction with the Los Angeles Public Library, the exhibition is a part of the Getty Foundation’s "Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA" initiative starting next year. As the Library Foundation explains, L.A. is “home to the largest population of indigenous Oaxacans outside of Mexico.”
According to the Houston Institute of Culture, Oaxaca stands out as “the most ethnically complex of Mexico’s 31 states.” The Zapotec communities make up one of the “two largest linguistic groups.” The group boasts “64 separate Zapotec languages that have evolved over the last few thousand years.”
UCLA’s Mapping Indigenous Los Angeles project, MILA for short, maps the history of many indigenous groups within Los Angeles. The story map of Latin American communities sheds light on the presence of Oaxacan communities in L.A. In the 1960s, many relocated Oaxacans kept up their love for basketball; they would congregate at Normandie Park and started forming basketball teams in the 1970s.
These Oaxacan communities and the marks they’ve left are integral to L.A.'s history. Maureen Moore, associate director of LAPL’s Aloud lecture series, has been immersing herself in these stories in preparation for “Visualizing Language.” She hopes that the exhibit opens up the conversation not only about Zapotec communities but other groups whose impact on L.A. may have been overlooked.
Moore regularly works on bilingual programs for Aloud and sees the library as a perfect place for housing this project. As she explains, the 73 branches of the city “welcome in community members of all cultures and languages,” making it a “very inclusive space.”
The exhibition has come together thanks to the efforts of Moore, along with LFLA president Ken Brecher, curator Amanda de la Garza Mata, research consultant Xóchitl Flores-Marcial, curator Louise Steinman, and city librarian John Szabo. Filmmaker Yolanda Cruz is working on a film that captures the Tlacolulokos’ art-making process and their experiences in both Oaxaca and L.A.
Self-taught artists Cosijoesa Eleazar Cernas García and Darío Canul make up the Oaxaca-based artist collective. They visited L.A. recently, staying near MacArthur Park and meeting locals.
“We are a lot of different villages and groups, each trying to rescue our origins against many forces,” Canul says via email. “Take for example the countless works of cultural and artistic expression. And the cultural traditions. We learned different ways to organize, different ways to unite our work with those forces that — at the same time – seek to decentralize cultural production.”
Part of that means facing the generalized narrative of California’s history and highlighting the communities that rarely get a voice.
“We want to influence California as much as California influenced us,” says Cernas. “To demonstrate our culture and society as an important part of California’s culture, to extol the parts of our history that are still hidden or forgotten in a memory – and not considered with the importance and attention that they should be.”
The mural that Tlacolulokos will create will exist in direct contrast to the existing murals in the rotunda. Created by Dean Cornwell in 1933, the murals were first painted on “fine Belgium linen” over the course of five years, according to the Los Angeles Public Library’s website. The objective was to capture the history of California in four distinct parts: the Era of Discovery, the Missions, Americanization, and the Founding of the City of Los Angeles.
If these images sounds like the visual expression of Manifest Destiny, it’s because they basically operate that way.
Moore recognizes this — it’s what makes Tlacolulokos’ work so important in her eyes. The rotunda is a gorgeous space, she emphasizes, but the murals seem outdated.
“You’re just kind of taken by the beauty [of the space], and it requires an extra moment of pause to really stand with the murals to say, ‘Oh wow, these murals are showing this grand arrival of the European colonizers,’” Moore says. “And the indigenous people shown, are shown kind of in the margins of the murals and in this almost subservient way, as if they were also celebrating the arrival of these colonizers. Once one really ponders that depiction you realize, ‘Oh wow, this is not how things went down — this is a really glorified idea of what happened.’”
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Moore and the rest of the team started thinking about “who gets to tell the story” of Los Angeles. She found it necessary to put “a different protagonist in the center of the story.”
Canul feels the same, and sees art as a way to form a different narrative by bringing to light cultural traditions and history that often get forgotten.
“It’s to know, deeply, all the representations of our culture,” writes Canul. “To analyze how and from what source Oaxacan identity is defined — to rethink our role and that of future generations in the development of our communities. We hope to influence the contemporary history of those original communities through the work that we make.”
Parts of this article were translated from Spanish by the author.