Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on August 28, 2006 with the permission of the Snite Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Snite Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Chicano Art Crosses the Border

by Miki Garcia, MA, executive director, Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum


In light of current conditions, the subject matter in the exhibition Caras Vemos, Corazones no Sabemos is so potent, poignant, and timely, that it is easy to forget the formal aesthetic and art historical considerations of the individual pieces of this collection, and to concentrate instead on the social and political implications of the exhibition. [1] As Howard Zinn and others have argued, amnestic tendencies arise whenever there is political conflict, making it difficult to retrospectively understand current situations. The purpose of this essay is to present a formal study of the work in this exhibition through a reading of the Chicano civil rights movement (and its visual representation) and current art historical developments.

Several of the artists represented in this exhibition participated actively in the Chicano civil rights movement of the 1970s and the resulting multicultural artistic discourse of the 1980s. With the rise of multiculturalism, issues of identity figured prominently in the art of this period. Chicano art created during these years particularly utilized the then-popular graphic arts production strategy of posters, lithographs, and edition works whose aim was political, didactic, and urgent; this work was meant to be widely distributed while still maintaining an essential artistic value. Although the work adopted an intentionally grass roots strategy, many of the artists in this exhibition were formally trained visual artists, possessing and producing a diverse and historical artistic vocabulary.

It must be noted that prints (silkscreens, serigraphs, monotypes, etc.) are a primary medium in this exhibition, forming approximately 80 percent of the exhibition's content. This is not coincidental nor does it represent a particular preference of the collector, but rather demonstrates printing's role as a principal and profound device in Chicano artistic practice. Posters have served as an important visual tool that could immediately, inexpensively express ideals and raise awareness about Chicano rights. [2] Those prints produced early in the Chicano civil rights movement, 1968-1975, were closely aligned with the activist strategies of articulation and communicating messages to the community. It was during this formative stage that a number of artists in this exhibition flourished. In the exhibition, La Gráfica Chicana: Three Decades of Chicano Prints 1970-2000 (featuring many of the same artists included here), organized by the Phoenix Art Museum, Chicano graphic art was traced to several Mexican sources, including José Guadalupe Posada and the political cartoon works produced by El Taller de Gráfica Popular (The People's Graphic Arts Workshop). Graphic art in the Chicano movement also drew from contemporary existing sources, both international as well as local, including Cuban political posters, comic book art, placas (spray-painted barrio calligraphy), and almanaques (mass-produced calendars). These cultural and artistic sources created an arresting visual language for Chicano artists that was powerful, direct, and aesthetic. Indeed, the practice of printmaking became de rigueur for Chicano art and continues to be a key mode of production to this day.

Thematically, a primary trope for Chicano artists of the 1970s-1980s was an investigation and re-negotiation of identity. This subject generated a vast collection of ideas, writing, poetry, music, and art, which then explored personal and collective issues of the Mexican-American/Chicano in the United States. This meant an inevitable investigation into the roots and history of a group of people who embraced the concept of Aztlan, the mythical homeland of the Aztecs said to be located in the southwestern region of the United States, as their own point of origin. Chicano scholars and activists thus revised each era and period in history to include the histories and trajectories (and contributions) of the people of Aztlan into modern day reality.

Among the salient markers of the Chicano experience -- recuperation, identity, resistance, and legitimacy -- has been the Mexico/United States border and the subject of migration and diaspora. [3] Memory, nostalgia, and mythology are recurrent cornerstones in discussions about art representing the border and the migrant experience. The work brought together for this exhibition focuses on this theme in history and in the present day. [4] The border, in the context of the exhibition, acts as an historic and personal leitmotif, revealing its persistence, if not incessancy in the minds of Chicano artists. Here, the border is visualized as a point of rupture, a site of trauma, and as a point for re-contextualization. Through a reliance on the figurative object, the use of text and collage, and the conscious mining of folkloric aesthetics (color, perspective, composition), the border becomes visualized, enriched, and nuanced.

Although vast areas of the border between the United States and Mexico are marked by water and isolated desert, the border fence has become a recurring image for Chicano artists. The fence, a visual indication, forces the viewer to consider the shock of duality, or rupture, that happens at the precise point of migration or crossing. Acting also as a barrier with militaristic overtones (as the Berlin Wall or the Israeli fence), the border fence is not merely a site of crossing, but a violent and threatening proposition and an indictment against those seeking to pass. Pat Gómez's Without a Trace and Vincent Bautista's Imágenes de la Frontera, "El Coyote," both made in 1992, portray the danger associated with this transfer. Gómez's monotype reveals a metal, twisted fence in the background with a series of three blood-red handprints in the foreground. The title alludes to those migrants who risk their lives to cross, facing perilous natural and man-made dangers. Bautista's more sinister work centers squarely on the coyote, the paid border guide supposedly ensuring safe passage into the United States. The status of the coyote is well documented and has come to symbolize a corrupt and opportunistic character that, in Bautista's work, embodies a cruel fate of consumerism and greed that waits in the United States. Ricardo Duffy's The New Order (1996) casts George Washington as the symbol of the United States experience. Utilizing popular imagery such as the Marlboro Company's logo and font, the traffic sign along California's Interstate 5 leading to (and from) Tijuana, and a typical western background, Duffy's colorful image portrays a not so glorious depiction of United States culture.

In 1994, Lucila Villaseñor Grijalva produced From the Other Side, utilizing imagery of the border fence with handcuffed arms spread against it. In this image, Villaseñor Grijalva recalls those whose unsuccessful attempts relegate them as illegal, criminal trespassers instead of seekers of freedom and opportunity. Malaquías Montoya's stark An Immigrant's Dream, The American Response (2003) shows a seated body enshrouded by the United States flag. The flag wrapped around the unnamed figure, and the freedom and liberties it stands for, is an ironic, bittersweet questioning of said values. In 1993 Otoño Luján created Break It!, depicting an armed couple against the border fence. The defiant gestures of the figures and the call to arms of the title are more recent expressions in the Chicano movement to put forth a proactive message that directly rebels against increasing xenophobia.

The border, as the point of rupture, can also be considered a site of trauma. Once the migrant has passed into United States territory to find work, he/she must come to terms with a new environment, with leaving loved ones behind, and with the physical danger that shadows the migratory journey. For many artists, the border is the physical embodiment of a sometimes-traumatic course.

In Cruces del Camino (1994), Byron Brauchli photographed sites along the border marked by crosses where people had either lost lives or faced peril. The photographs are accompanied by text by the writer Edwin Frank that describes the scene in poetic terms. Delilah Montoya's haunting photograph, La Virgen (1999), similarly treats the border with poignancy. It shows the reverse side of a woman's figure, her back tattooed with the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint. The body in the landscape thus transforms into an alter image in mourning, commemorating the border area. Al Martínez's Dejo el Juguetito II (He Left his Little Toy) (1992) is perhaps the most bittersweet image in the exhibition in relation to trauma. A forlorn doll is pictured against a border fence, which recedes into the background as if going on forever. The image's concentration on such a humble object suggests not merely an account of migration, but also a larger loss of innocence.

Although the notion of memory is vital to the theme of migration, there is a certain immediacy to the work in this exhibition, a knowledge that although the border has existed as a site of passage for years, it is very much an ongoing presence. For many artists in this exhibition, depictions of the border fulfill a sense of agency and actualization. Working with images about migration, artists engage in a process of investigation, mining the history of migration and exploring the passage from Mexican to Chicano. Jesús Pérez's silkscreen, The Best of Two Worlds (1987), attempts to integrate Mexican and United States aesthetics into one object; a cactus, typically associated with Mexico, is here rendered with a pop-Warholian sensibility. The subject of hybridity is also at the center of Rolando Briseño's Bi-Cultural Table Setting (1998). A blue, checkered tablecloth set against a colorful, floral one divides the composition, and at the center of the image rests a plate. A yellow hand and red hand both reach out to eat from the same plate. Here, the artist uses the ritual of food and eating to signify the process of syncretism experienced by the migrant, an inevitable process for one who finds oneself in another culture. Felipe Ehrenberg, in Mi Hogar en Istelai (1995), (pronounced East L.A.), adds a sense of humor in his wordplay title. The horizontal composition of the work reads as a blueprint or map of the Los Angeles terrain. It suggests a relation to codices in both composition and title in a way that re-orients California as a native, indigenous land and thus appropriate, if legal, territory for its descendants.

What is most striking about the formal aspects of the work in this exhibition is the enduring relationship Chicano artists have to graphic production. Produced in the 1980s-1990s, the works mentioned in this essay fall just after the heyday of the Chicano civil rights movement, which utilized posters and prints for political and didactic means. The artists featured here embrace the language and production of this technique, but insert new and apt themes, icons, and processes, which contemporize the reading for this generation of viewers.

1 I write this essay within the same month as the "Day Without a Mexican" immigration protests and in the midst of the U.S. Senate debate following George Bush's remarks to the country on May 17, 2006 regarding guest workers.

2 Noriega, Chon, ed., Just Another Poster?: Chicano Graphic Arts in California/Solo un cartel mas?: Artes Graficas Chicanas en California (Santa Barbara, C.A.: University Art Museum, University of California, Santa Barbara; Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001).

3 Certainly all Chicano families have experienced migration at one point or another in their often mestizo pasts. However, let us not forget the Mexican families who lived in the western part of the United States and became U.S. citizens (overnight and without say) in 1848.

4 This essay is not meant to serve as an artistic timeline, nor is it meant to discuss Chicano art as having occurred (or peaked) in the 1970s-80s. It is appropriate to state here the biography of the exhibition's collector, Gilberto Cardenas, an activist and scholar whose collecting practices reflect a personal relationship with the artists of this era.


About the author:

Miki Garcia, MA, is executive director, Santa Barbara Contemporary Arts Forum.


Resource Library editor's note:

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Ms. Gina Costa of the Snite Museum of Art for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

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