In the summer of 1997, 30 Chicana and Chicano artists from East L.A. traveled to Oventic, a village in Chiapas, Mexico, to commune with the Zapatistas, indigenous rebels who rose up three years earlier to reject corporate globalization policies that threatened their way of life.
The Zapatistas declared their native lands autonomous the same day in 1994 that the North American Free Trade Agreement was implemented, which led to the economic devastation of hundreds of thousands of small-scale Mexican farms. The Zapatistas started their own schools, sewed their own clothing, grew their own food — and they continue to do so today. “It’s inspiring, the philosophy that you have a right as a human being on this earth to live how you and your community see fit,” says Martha Gonzalez, lead singer of East L.A. rock band Quetzal, who went to Chiapas that summer.
In the morning they talked politics and strategy; in the afternoon they made art together. “We dialogued about our low-intensity war in L.A., political prisoners and police brutality. They would talk about the helicopters coming down on indigenous communities, and we had helicopters and ghetto birds too in East L.A.,” recalls Felicia Montes, who helped organize the encuentro. One of the pieces of art that came out of that summer was Quetzal’s “Grito de Alegria,” a joyful, quick-tempo song that declares: “El pueblo que marcha unido lograr la libertad. El pueblo que marcha unido vencera” or “The people who march together will achieve freedom. The people who march together will overcome.” The idea of art as process rather than product — a tool in community building, political organizing and liberation — was eye-opening for artists like Gonzalez and Montes, and it launched a movement in East L.A.
That trip to Chiapas is one installation featured in “Mujeres de Maiz: Twenty Years of ARTivism & Herstory en L.A.,” a three-month exhibition at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes that celebrates Mujeres de Maiz, a Chicana feminist collective whose programming focuses on the intersection of political activism, spirituality and the arts. In addition to artworks and artifacts from the collective’s 20 years of social activism in Los Angeles, the exhibition will include a series of artistic “interventions” — a live mural being painted by four generations of women, cleansing rituals under a Mexican pirul tree and a poetry procession from Mariachi Plaza to Olvera Street. The exhibit launches with a festival on Saturday, March 4, held at La Plaza’s outdoor stage, featuring an opening prayer by Tongva elder Gloria Arellanes; music and spoken-word performances by Chingona Fire, D.Lo, Maya Jupiter and others; speeches by youth and trans activists; and a mujer mercadito with 30 vendors selling art, food and holistic remedies.
Montes, one of the “artivists” who founded Mujeres de Maiz in 1997, says the exhibition is especially urgent right now. Recent ICE raids on immigrant communities have struck fear in the lives of many Angelenos; it’s just the latest iteration of ongoing rhetorical and legal attacks against immigrants and communities of color in the United States. The purpose of Mujeres de Maiz, and the exhibition, is to create a safe, sacred space for activists to find the strength necessary to carry on in the struggle.
“It’s heavy, dealing with racism, deportation, Islamophobia, violence. It bears down on you physically and spiritually, so it can’t just be about fighting back or theorizing oppression, it needs to be about doing this healing work,” says Amber Rose Gonzalez, assistant professor of ethnic studies at Fullerton College, who wrote her dissertation on Mujeres de Maiz.
In March 2009, Gonzalez, feeling burned out in her Ph.D. program and missing the powwows and Day of the Dead ceremonies she frequented in East L.A., took the train from Santa Barbara to downtown L.A. for the Mujeres de Maiz annual live art show. The theme that year was La Sagrada, or “She the sacred.” Arriving late, Gonzalez worried she’d missed the opening ceremony but quickly realized the entire event was a ceremony.
Eight hundred people were gathered under the First Street Bridge that night, eating, dancing, chatting and exploring art installations. One artist, Lilia Ramirez, wore a dress made entirely of corn husks, which she often wore to City Hall to call for more arts education in the community. When Gonzalez heard a queer Korean-American MC rapping to the beat of traditional drummers, she thought of childhood visits to Little Tokyo to hear the taiko drummers. Gonzalez looked up and saw a huge blue-and-pink neon art piece that said, “Another city is possible,” and she knew this was it: This is what is possible. “I remember dancing, and it felt really good, like a release,” Gonzalez says. “It was under the stars, the air was fresh, even though it was under the freeway. That was L.A. It felt like home.”
For 20 years, Mujeres de Maiz has been throwing these live art shows, hosting free clinicas in parks, teaching social justice workshops in schools, publishing poetry zines, organizing mercaditos for women of color — all funded through community donations. The exhibition at La Plaza is the group’s first foray into the formal art world, and it’s a step in the process of becoming a nonprofit. While they’re eager to bring their artivism to new communities through a museum exhibition, for the mujeres, staying true to their collectivist, indigenous identity is key.
“How do you talk about communities of color in white walls?” Montes asked herself over the two years she spent curating the show with collective members Michelle Lopez and Ana Guajardo.
The exhibition, curated by Senior Curator Erin M. Curtis, begins with the “herstory” room, designed like a codex to tell the story of Mujeres de Maiz and other intersectional movements, with murals covering the walls along with archival photos and paintings that pay homage to the Brown Berets, the Zapatistas, South Central Farm, Black Lives Matter and the water protectors at Standing Rock. One of the first things you see when you enter the room is a black-and-white photo of Felicia's father, Carlos Montes, when he was minister of information for the Brown Berets as a young man. It’s an LAPD surveillance photo from 1968. Next to it is a photo portrait of a young woman also in a brown beret, holding her head up proudly, created by artist Isabel Avila in 2011.
In the exhibition’s “ephemera” room, the mujeres decolonized the space by dousing the walls in essential oils infused with frankincense, creating a medicine wheel out of ancient grains on the floor and placing a mobile botanica cart in the center of the room. Four large, humanlike sculptures with animal heads stand at the room’s cardinal points. These naguales, or shape shifters, made by artist Gina Aparicio, each hold an instrument — the owl with the flute to the north, the bear with the drum to the south — and invite visitors into the ceremonial space.
La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, situated in the Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument near Union Station, is the ideal place for the exhibition. Open since 2011 and funded by the county, La Plaza tells the story of Los Angeles through a Mexican-American lens, which is rarely the way it's presented in state-sanctioned histories. Visitors can stroll through rows of medicinal herbs and edible plants in the large outdoor garden, learn about the Mexican-American cannery workers who formed a women’s union in the 1930s or explore a re-creation of Main Street in the 1920s. It's an antidote to the manufactured Mexican-American history of Olvera Street.
“We’re a brown space, but as people come from other communities, we build a scaffolding so they feel comfortable exploring new things but also feel OK being vulnerable,” says Erendina Delgadillo, one of the museum’s curators. The museum appeals heavily to “chipsters,” or high school- and college-age Chicano hipsters, Delgadillo says, along with international tour groups visiting the Pueblo.
“Being at La Plaza gives access to different audiences, bringing together ancestral knowledge, academic knowledge and street knowledge — without hierarchies,” Montes says.
“Mujeres de Maiz: Twenty Years of ARTivism & Herstory en L.A.,” La Plaza De Cultura y Artes, 501 N. Main St., downtown; Sat., March 4-Mon., May 29. The kickoff party, Mujeres de Maiz 20th Anniversary Live Art Show Festival, takes place on Sat., March 4, 5-9:45 p.m.; $20 (additional donations are encouraged). lapca.org/content/mujeres-de-maiz-twenty-years-artivism-herstory-en-la.