At a recent launch party for Bridges in a Time of Walls: Mexican/Chicano Art from Los Angeles to Mexico – an exhibition that will bring an iconic collection of Chicano art from this city to the Museo de Arte Carrillo Gil in Mexico City in September — the politicians, diplomats and artists gathered at LACMA’s Ray’s and Stark Bar highlighted the importance of overcoming distance (cultural, artistic, historic, geopolitical) between Mexico and its diaspora in the Southland.
“It’s time to show to Mexico and Mexicans the quality of Arte Chicano,” said Carlos Garcia de Alba, the Mexican Consul General in Los Angeles. “It’s so important, because I have to say, I have to be honest – we don’t know that much about the richness, how deep and beautiful is Arte Chicano.”
Arising in the wake of the Getty’s landmark Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative, Bridges comes at a moment of renewed enthusiasm and visibility for Chicano art in Southern California, but one still marked by lagging institutional support. With backing from the Mexican government, this show is both a step closer to mainstream inclusion and broader recognition — and an attempt to balance a historically lopsided, spectatorial relationship.
Once a derogatory diminutive leveled at Mexican-Americans by Mexicans, Chicano identity has long since evolved into a powerful, pluralistic cultural movement and a source of pride for generations of activists, artists and everyday people — a complex living history organizers suggest begs examination in an era of aggravated political tensions.
“It’s long overdue because Chicanos — myself, I was always trying to understand my heritage in the early work, trying to embrace it,” said Patssi Valdez, a participating artist and original member of the avant-garde ASCO collective, which disrupted both contemporary art and mainstream Chicano politics in its approach to social protest.
Valdez, who went on to a solo career as a painter, said traveling the world gave her a more global perspective. “Being embraced by Europe was interesting, so now maybe it’s time to be embraced by Mexico,” she said.
All of the artwork — around 50 pieces from 28 artists, intergenerational and encompassing painting, multimedia, sculpture and installation, immersive, video and neon — comes from the Altamed Art Collection, named for the eponymous network of health centers active throughout underserved communities in Southern California. Altamed CEO Cástulo de la Rocha has been quietly amassing a dragon’s stash of Chicano art — the entire collection includes more than 1,000 varied works — since his activist days during the height of the movement in the late 1960s.
“It wasn’t my intent to develop a collection; that wasn’t my idea. I was part of that movement, I lived it, and protested — hell yeah,” he said, dapper in a three-piece suit, sipping vino tinto on the patio at LACMA. “We took over buildings and organized, I was one of those student leaders at that time.”
After law school, he said, he ended up doing community organizing at a free clinic in East L.A., and has spent the last four decades as CEO of Altamed.
“It was there that I first came across the idea of, why not display the art? Those things that were an expression of a social movement, a movement around social justice. For me that was the focus — for the community itself to see that expression. But over the years the art has evolved, from social protest to the sort of work that [Carlos] Almaraz developed.”
The collection is mostly displayed throughout Altamed’s clinics, diversifying in tandem with the changing demographics they serve, but in the past several years Altamed has begun to lend pieces to local and national shows — including PST: LA/LA and the recent retrospective of Almaraz’s work at LACMA.
Julian Bermudez, who has curated the Altamed Ar Collection for the past decade, said it was the success of Before the 45th: Action/Reaction in Chicano and Latino Art, a show at Washington, D.C.’s Mexican Cultural Institute, that incited the idea for Bridges during a dinner with government delegates.
“There was such excitement about that show and its content … spanning this narrative about how (the artists) respond to adversity, not necessarily politically and aggressively (but) by responding to crises, some very tongue-in-cheek, others very pithy and poignant,” Bermudez said.
The beauty of Bridges, he added, “is to have the works in dialogue. ... Sections exist but there is a purposeful tension, so you feel you might be in L.A., you might be in Mexico City.
“We knew PST was going to end. And for us it’s very important that that dialogue doesn’t end, especially given the climate we’re in.”
According to de La Rocha, the exhibition will cost upwards of $500,000, which he is confident they’ll be able to raise before September. The goal, he said, is to make the exhibition happen before the change of government in Mexico. (Mexican general elections — with a populist leftist candidate currently making gains against the center-right establishment — are July 1; inauguration is in December).
In the meantime, Garcia de Alba suggested his country will be happy to help build a “beautiful, impressive bridge — with that, maybe Mexico can pay for it.”
L.A. City Councilman Jose Huizar confronted divisive political rhetoric — “It’s very important at this political time when we are being villainized, when we are attempted to be separated — who’s American, who’s Mexican, who belongs here, who doesn’t belong here,” he said.
“We all know that for those of us who have ties to Mexico and other Latin American countries, those things don’t matter to us. We have those bridges there, we live it each and every day. And for the artists who are here who started the Chicano movement at a political time in the ’60s, it’s a great time to now look back at the civil rights movement and reflect on what’s happening now. To think, yes we’ve come far, but how far have we really come?”
During a cocktail hour following the event, that question lingered. The Altamed paterfamilias joined Valdez at a low table on the patio.
“It’s timing,” said de la Rocha, who was born in Mexico and came to the United States when he was 10 years old. “As young men in East L.A., the stigmatism against anyone born in Mexico … I was ESL. Remember that?”
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Valdez nodded. “The shame of being dark-skinned.”
“Cheech Marin had his collections all over the world — never in Mexico,” de la Rocha said. “Because there was that disconnect.”
Valdez leveled her gaze. “Do you think it’s the indio thing, too?”
He responded with a subtle affirmation. “It’s the wall we create ourselves.”