In the new book ¡Murales Rebeldes! L.A. Chicana/Chicano Murals Under Siege (Angel City Press, $40), authors Erin M. Curtis, Jessica Hough and Guisela Latorre investigate the legacies of Chicanx murals in L.A. that have been censored, whitewashed, neglected and/or intentionally destroyed because of their controversial content, and were at risk of being lost to history. (OC Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano contributed the foreword and afterword.) These include works by artists Barbara Carrasco, Yreina D. Cervantez, Roberto Chavez, Ernesto de la Loza, Wayne Alaniz Healy, David Botello, Willie Herron III, Alma Lopez, Sergio O'Cadiz Moctezuma and George Yepes. The following excerpt is the book's introduction, written by art historian Latorre. Notations after the jump.
Public art is inherently contested. Placing artistic work outside of museums and galleries is a process fraught with difficulty. Often, audiences are passersby using urban spaces for recreation and pragmatic activities such as going to work, shopping, visiting family and friends. In many cases, these individuals do not intend to engage in any sort of fine art appreciation. How, then, should a work of art placed on city streets appeal to such a diverse and unpredictable audience? What kinds of expectations does the public have? How should they interact with this work, if at all?
The conflicting, ambivalent and unstable nature of audience response to public art often leads to strong reactions — from enthusiastic support and veneration to disapproval and even demands for removal. Moreover, the vast majority of urban sites comes with a predetermined political, social and cultural history. Public art thus situates itself at the intersection of multiple and competing interests, subjectivities and demands. Controversy, contestation and polemics often come with the territory.
Chicana/o1 community murals represent a particularly politicized form of public art that does not promote a sense of complacency among its viewers, nor does it aspire to be merely decorative. Emerging in close connection to the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s (el movimiento) — which demanded equality and inclusion for Mexican Americans and other people of color while also denouncing the nation’s history of colonization — these murals are often regarded as visual manifestations of the Chicana/o activist struggle. Empowering this historically marginalized community through the creation of a new and more inclusive iconography, the murals also laid the foundation for a more democratic art form by recruiting community members to do the painting.
Aside from promoting greater inclusion, Chicana/o muralists have been overt in their critiques of power structures and discriminatory practices that have negatively affected their communities. By addressing issues such as educational inequality, labor abuses, poverty, racial violence and other socially relevant themes, they raised awareness about Chicana/o struggles on a monumentally public scale. Sadly, the ways in which these murals disrupted the dominant cultural norm and challenged the assumed historic narrative often have resulted in their desecration, whitewashing or destruction. In [the] book, Erin M. Curtis argues that Chicana artist Barbara Carrasco’s critique of dominant historical narratives from Chicana and feminist viewpoints made her mural a target for censorship.
Los Angeles has been a central hub of Chicana/o mural activity for nearly half a century. The city’s rich, complex and conflictive history of urban strife, cultural diversity and political activism provided a fertile ground on which to build a radical public arts project. ¡Murales Rebeldes!: L.A. Chicana/o Murals Under Siege looks at the multifaceted ways in which Chicana/o murals in the Greater Los Angeles area have been contested.
Chicana/o Cultural History
The artistic renaissance that occurred during the Chicano Movement and beyond saw an explosion of cultural production that included not only muralism but also literature, music, theater and other art forms.
The city of Los Angeles, and California in general, quickly became the epicenter of this creative effervescence. Chicana/o activists and artists alike rebuked the mainstream “art for art’s sake” motto and began to promote an artistic practice that was steeped in social commitments. The quintessential Chicana/o artist was not one who would retreat from the world, disappearing into a studio to explore the individuality of her/his creativity. On the contrary, the Chicana/o artist worked collectively in community settings, more effectively reflecting the social justice ideals of the larger Chicano Movement. Muralists were uniquely positioned to fulfill these expectations. The nature of their craft forced them to go into the streets and thus interact with local communities. The public nature of murals provided artists with a fitting platform for the dissemination of political issues that were important to Chicanas/os and other people of color.
Murals worked together with other cultural expressions to popularize their message. For example, the struggles of the United Farm Workers — the legendary labor union founded by Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez — were made all the more visible by their representation in mural iconography, in skits produced by the traveling theater troupe Teatro Campesino, in silkscreen imagery created by the Chicana/o artistic collective Royal Chicano Air Force, and in gripping autobiographical and semiautobiographical narratives written by Chicana/o novelists. The varied forms of activist arts became a powerful means of fostering humane, complex and historically accurate representations of Chicanas/os. Simultaneously, the commanding presence of murals on city streets became the most striking and effective way that artists raised awareness about social issues affecting their communities.
The social concerns and anxieties that Chicana/o murals spurred were heightened by the ways in which these works of art reconceptualized urban space, a prized commodity controlled and regulated almost entirely by social elites. For many artists, painting a mural not only involved an intervention on a public wall but also represented a symbolic takeover of the space surrounding it. As Sandra de la Loza explains, “Not only the physical but also the social space [the mural] occupies becomes part of the work itself.”2 Such an approach to public art, neatly aligned to the larger ideals of the Chicano Movement, placed this expanded concept of space at the center of discourses of liberation.
Perhaps the most celebrated (and feared) ideal to come out of Chicana/o activist thinking was the concept of Aztlán. According to Mexican spiritual and historical accounts, Aztlán was the original homeland of the Aztecs who at one point in their history migrated south led by the god Huitzilopochtli. This migration eventually led to a new location for the capital of their civilization, Tenochtitlán (present-day Mexico City). These stories also told of a prophecy explaining that the Aztecs would eventually return to their northern homeland. Many Chicana/o thinkers identified Aztlán as the southwestern United States, regarding themselves as the direct descendants of these indigenous ancestors. Moreover, this prophecy justified their presence on American soil.
It was incumbent upon Chicana/o artists to use public murals to uncover and re-create Aztlán in the midst of Chicana/o communities. But for many nativist and anti-immigrant groups, Aztlán represents a threat to U.S. national identity, and some groups associate the concept with immigration. For groups like those behind the website IllegalAliens.us, Aztlán is a pretext that Chicana/o and Latina/o activists use to attempt “to annex large portions of SW United States to Mexico.”3 What Aztlán implies for many right-wing pundits is the racially motivated fear that urban spaces will be controlled and overrun by brown masses.
Political and Cultural Regulation
Historically, Chicana/o artists have endured repeated feelings of loss and mourning laced with the humiliation of knowing that their works of art were outwardly disrespected. Some saw their work censored outright during and after the completion of their murals. Others were told that their imagery was too divisive, negative and inflammatory, even conducive to gang activity.4 Still others withstood the apathy of city officials and local authorities who showed no regard for beloved community murals that became casualties of the elements, urban “renewal,” gentrification and indiscriminate tagging. The message seemed clear: Their murals were of little artistic or historical value and thus were undeserving of protection and conservation. Indifference and blatant condemnation worked hand in hand to create an atmosphere ripe for the destruction and neglect of Chicana/o murals in the Los Angeles region. Were all these works censored or otherwise denied? No. Were they judged to have little to no artistic or community value? The evidence presented in the pages of this book certainly supports this position.
In many cases, Chicana/o murals have become victims of what anthropologist George E. Marcus calls the “tutelary function of cultural regulation,”5 in which societies control and contain forms of cultural expression in order to guard and/or protect the interests of groups who are in positions of power. These practices can include, Marcus argues, “the systemic marginalization of groups of people who are discouraged from speaking their minds and feelings.”6 Because of their status as a racialized population, Chicanas/os are often the targets of cultural regulation, as if more “legitimate” citizens needed to be shielded from their ideas and cultural expressions. Because murals are perhaps the most visible form of Chicana/o cultural and artistic expression, they have become an important site of regulation and control.
When writing about Sergio O’Cadiz Moctezuma’s Fountain Valley mural in [the] book, Jessica Hough observes that the section of the mural showing police dragging a young man to a patrol car was meant to raise awareness about the issue of police force and harassment. Even though the image depicted a reality for the Chicana/o community, the Fountain Valley Police Department saw it as threatening and actively sought its removal. In this instance the police engaged in the practice of cultural regulation by attempting to protect their community (police officers) from an image that supposedly represented the interests of another community, namely Chicanas/os.
The term “contested” can also provide useful ways to think of Chicana/o murals and the positive social justice function they serve. “From its inception, the mural was a contested art form that chipped away at lines, boundaries and definitions,” de la Loza tells us, “challenging the use of space and giving shape, color and form to invisible ideological currents just below the surface.” Through expressions of disagreement and opposition articulated in mural iconography, these wall paintings are and can become springboards for necessary community dialogues about racism, exclusion, power, violence and other difficult topics. The stories [in the book] will help reverse the psychic dissonance in audiences accustomed to the idea that public monuments should only be homages to civic pride and national unity, and instead encourage readers to challenge our society’s tendency to curb, destroy or simply allow Chicana/o muralism to wither away.
Los Angeles: Past and Future
Multiple forms of inequality have existed and continue to exist in the Greater Los Angeles area. The organization and distribution of space within this metropolitan area, including massive freeway systems, has promoted and maintained the inequities of power among its residents. As de la Loza explains: “The freeway system helped solidify long-standing race and class divisions, particularly on the east side, by segmenting the city into industrial and residential areas, middle-class and working-class neighborhoods, and black, white, Asian or Latino neighborhoods that were easy to bypass on the highway.”
By making artistic interventions in the urban landscape, Chicana/o artists sought to transform the dynamic of spatial segregation in Los Angeles. Spaces normally thought as undesirable — such as barrios and working-class neighborhoods — were transformed into places of empowerment and cultural pride. Murals unapologetically proclaimed that Chicanas/os and other people of color have the right to construct their own spaces. However, such a proclamation in Los Angeles, a city that maintains much of its inequality through the control of urban space, threatens claims to power and privilege among social elites.
The stories of censorship, whitewashing, exclusion and/or neglect that are told in [the] book demonstrate the difficulties and impediments inherent in the creation of images of empowerment in public spaces. Because public murals often reflect social realities that transcend the conditions of their original inception, the murals and the histories of repression in these pages tell a larger history of struggle and resilience in the Los Angeles area.
It should be noted, however, that concerns over the rapid disappearance of Los Angeles’ Chicana/o murals have not gone completely unnoticed. In 1976, artist Judith F. Baca, painter Christina Schlesinger and filmmaker Donna Deitch founded Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC). Created to support Baca’s work with the Department of Public Affairs’ Citywide Mural Program (a city-funded project aimed at mobilizing local youth to create murals), SPARC expanded its mission to empower a new generation of Los Angeles muralists while preserving some of the city’s historic murals. Since 2008, SPARC’s Mural Rescue Program has painstakingly restored and preserved one mural at a time as funds have become available. SPARC also has played a leading role in the Citywide Mural Program, using city funds to conserve 11 murals, as [the] book goes to press.9
Similarly, Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles (MCLA) was formed in 1987 by “a coalition of artists, public art advocates, city and state officials and restoration specialists.”10 The organization has worked tirelessly to preserve and restore community murals in the city, including those created by Chicana/o artists. MCLA also works closely with artists by providing them with legal help and advice on how to prevent the destruction and disappearance of their work. Documentation of Los Angeles–area murals is also at the heart of MCLA’s mission, as art history publications rarely if ever acknowledge these works of art.
The presence of SPARC and MCLA does indicate that the city has been responding to the pressures of artists and community members for quite some time, but the resources at their disposal are limited. Individuals at the helm of these organizations, such as Baca, Debra Padilla, Isabel Rojas-Williams and others, have worked tirelessly for many decades to protect Los Angeles’ mural legacy, but their hands are often tied when artists face the destruction of their work. If such ruinations happen within the rubrics of the law, as was the case with several murals featured in this book, there is little to nothing SPARC or MCLA can do to prevent them. MCLA in particular has been able to coordinate the restoration of several murals in the Los Angeles area, but its ability to provide resources and support to the sheer number of L.A.-area muralists who face the destruction or disappearance of their work is quite limited.
Legislation that banned or controlled the creation of murals has not helped matters. In 2002, the city of Los Angeles enacted an 11-year ban that prevented the creation of new murals in the city. This ban was devised with the purposes of “protecting neighborhoods from unwanted intrusions of large, sometimes controversial artworks; and controlling a proliferation of advertising in the guise of art.” The ban was unevenly enforced, and some artists such as Robert Vargas and Levi Ponce still managed to paint murals during that time.11 Baca and SPARC also carried out a few mural projects while the ban was in place. Even though the ban did not lead to a complete halt on muralist activities in the city, it did create a chilling effect among muralists who had never encountered an official ban on their work.
In 2013, however, the city passed a mural ordinance that lifted the ban, a move celebrated by many local muralists. For a $60 fee, this new ordinance also provided artists with an opportunity to register new and older work (“vintage murals”).12 Successful registration allows muralists access to public funds (when existing) for the protection and preservation of their works.
While the ordinance has already helped with the preservation of a number of Chicana/o murals, including Willie Herrón III’s Luchas del Mundo (1984), arts journalist Gigi Gastevick has pointed out that the registration process can be daunting for artists: “You must prepare a minimum of 14 documents including forms, permits, notices, photographs, measurements, artistic renderings and a ‘covenant’ after the mural is complete, which must be signed, notarized, sent to the Department of Cultural Affairs for a signature, recorded with the Los Angeles County Clerk and then re-sent to the Department of Cultural Affairs. All to paint something on, say, the side of your house.”13 Gastevich is correct in asserting that even murals painted on the side of private homes require registration, but only “single-family residences located in Council Districts 1, 9 and 14 are eligible for mural registration.”14
Though the ordinance does provide opportunities for the creation and protection of murals, its terms can be restrictive. Time will tell if this ordinance will be able to truly protect the rich and complex Chicana/o mural tradition.
Ultimately, ¡Murales Rebeldes! aspires to revive the disappeared and disappearing murals … to help combat the public forgetting rampant in the Los Angeles region. Forgetting manifests itself through the systematic erasure of Chicana/o murals that once flourished along the city streets. This erasure also had led to the disappearance of the events, actions and people the murals represented, thus eradicating them from public memory. By piecing this history together from the scattered fragments dispersed throughout the city, ¡Murales Rebeldes! reinforces public remembering. Highlighting these murals — a way of bringing them back to life — creates a formal place for Chicana/o murals in the art historical canon. But perhaps more importantly, we hope [the] book reminds all Angelenos to preserve street art and to encourage the creation of more vibrant Chicana/o murals — at home or on the streets of the City of Angels where they belong.
Guisela Latorre earned a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an M.A. in art history from University of Cincinnati, Ohio. She specializes in modern and contemporary U.S. Latina/o and Latin American art with a special emphasis on gender and women artists. Her first book, Walls of Empowerment: Chicana/o Indigenist Murals of California (University of Texas Press, 2008), explores the recurrence of indigenous motifs in Chicana/o community murals from the 1970s to the turn of the millennium.
Copyright © 2017 by Guisela Latorre. First published in Erin C. Curtis, Jessica Hough and Guisela Latorre, ¡Murales Rebeldes! L.A. Chicana/Chicano Murals Under Siege (Los Angeles: California Historical Society/LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes in association with Angel City Press, 2017). Reprinted by permission. Copyrights to the artworks and photographs in this book are held by the artists and may not be downloaded or reproduced without permission. To learn more about the ¡Murales Rebeldes! project, visit muralesrebeldes.org.
1. Broadly speaking, Chicana/o often refers to a person of Mexican descent who is either born and/or raised in the United States. But the implications of the term go well beyond this simplistic definition. A Chicana/o is also a person who has a strong political affiliation to anticolonial ideals of social justice that have roots in the Chicano Movement. In fact, the term began to be used most prominently during the 1960s and 1970s as an identity of defiance and affirmation, challenging the assimilationist connotations that many Chicana/o activists saw in the term “Mexican American.” Moreover, the woman-identified identity category of Chicana is generally associated with Mexican-descent women who have feminist understandings of social justice. Finally, Chicana/o is a social identity most commonly used in California, Texas and other parts of the Southwest and is not widely embraced by Mexican-descent populations in other parts of the United States. There are numerous other implications attached to the term Chicana/o, but the complexities involved are beyond the scope of this book. For more information on Chicana/o, see Ruben Salazar, “Who Is a Chicano? And What Is It the Chicanos Want?” Los Angeles Times, Feb. 6, 1970, and George Sanchez, Becoming Mexican: Ethnicity, Culture and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900–1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).
2. Sandra de la Loza, La Raza Cosmica: An Investigation Into the Space of Chicana/o Muralism, in L.A. Xicano, eds. Chon A. Noriega, Terezita Romo and Pilar Tompkins Rivas (Los Angeles: UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center Press, 2011), 56.
3. “AZTLAN”; illegalaliens.us/aztlan.htm.
4. Writing for the Los Angeles Times in 2008, publisher, editor and ¡Murales Rebeldes! contributor Gustavo Arellano explained how Fullerton city councilman Shawn Nelson from Orange County “stated during a council meeting that the city should remove a set of 1970s-era murals on a pedestrian overpass spanning a stretch of Lemon Street just south of Valencia Drive. Nelson claimed that the depictions — classic low-riders (sic), sultry girls in sombreros and fedoras, stylish pachucos and the Virgin of Guadalupe — might make people think Fullerton sanctions gang activity.” Gustavo Arellano, “Save the Murals,” Los Angeles Times, April 16, 2008.
5. George E. Marcus, “Censorship in the Heart of Difference: Cultural Property, Indigenous Peoples’
Movements and Challenges to Western Liberal Thought,” in Censorship and Silencing: Practices of Cultural Regulation, ed. Robert C. Post (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 1998), 223.
6. Ibid., 43–44.
7. De la Loza, “La Raza Cosmica,” 54.
8. Ibid., 53.
9. Deborah Vankin, “L.A. to Spend $750,000 to Conserve Public Murals and Paint New Ones,” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 15, 2015.
10. Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles: About Us; https://www.muralconservancy.org/about.
11. Catherine Saillant, “Los Angeles Move to Lift Decade Old Ban on Public Murals,” Los Angeles Times, Aug. 28, 2013; articles.latimes. com/2013/aug/28/local/la-me-ln-los-angelesmurals-20130828.
12. This mural registration process can be done online through the Department of Cultural Affairs of the City of Los Angeles and the Citywide Mural Program; https://culturela.org/murals/.
13. Gigi Gastevich, “South L.A. Artists Can’t Afford the Mural Ordinance,” Neon Tommy: Annenberg
Digital News, Oct. 31, 2014 (University of Southern California); neontommy.
14. “Murals,” City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs, culturela.org/murals.