Her eyes exude a strength, a fire that burns beneath the bright pink background and the turquoise beads strung around her neck. She stares down, a sense of yearning guiding her eyes toward the surface of the earth, a contemplation masking the art of action. This piece, titled “Young Frida (Pink)” by Raul Caracoza is just one of more than 60 prints that are part of Albuquerque Museum's current exhibition, Estampas de la Raza. The collection is a catalog of sorts, showcasing Latino and Chicano work dating from the late '60s to the turn of the century. Meant to highlight the specific themes of “Identity,” “Struggle,” “Tradition, Culture, Memory,” “Icons” and “Other Voices,” the exhibit features colorful work that moves from traditional depictions of religious iconography to modern representations of the Chicano spirit.
The exhibit also hopes to provide a more definitive outlook on what is considered Chicano work. The word “chicano” was once a derogatory term to describe Mexicans who were working and living in the United States, but the Chicano movement of the 1960s reclaimed the word and transformed it into a synonym for empowerment. And it's this movement that provides the inspiration for the exhibit and for the closing reception's guest speaker, “¡Ask a Mexican!” columnist and OC Weekly Editor Gustavo Arellano.
“Exhibits like this one are crucial in putting us in the conversation with other art movements instead of exiling us or relegating us to niche events,” Arellano said. “We are part of the mainstream. View this exhibit as a metaphor for the mainstreaming of Latinos and Chicanos in the United States, gradual as it was.”
Many of the pieces in the show are serigraph on paper, a printmaking process where the paint is forced through a screen onto the paper beneath. These colorful prints celebrate a culture and provide a candid look at the strife imbued within that chromatic brightness lingering on the gallery's walls. Pieces such as Jesus Barraza's “El Luchador” interpret depictions of Mexican-American pop culture, like the popularization of lucha libre within the American landscape. Some pieces have a more political bent in the subject matter, such as “Huelga” by Carlos Francisco Jackson, which shows Robert F. Kennedy meeting César Chávez in 1968 after Chávez “fasted to bring attention to the plight of grape pickers in the San Joaquin Valley,” according to gallery literature. But to Arellano, Chicano art doesn't always require politics as its running theme.
“It's interesting to see the progression of what we call Chicano art; obviously at one time it had to be politicized in one way or another,” Arellano said. “I've seen in the past decade, younger artists who, even though they consider themselves to be part of the movement, their output isn't necessarily considered to be political. In other words, you don't have to be a Chicano radical to be a Chicano artist. You have to have a … how do you say it in English? … A certain sentiment, so to speak.”
This sentiment is readily apparent within the Estampas artwork. Many facets of Mexican-American life are represented, from a busy Los Angeles street (“César E. Chávez Avenida” by Roberto Gutiérrez) to the “pocho, Tejano, indigenous, mainstream American, Mexican, punk rocker and Xicano/a all at once” in Juan Miguel Ramos' “Virtual Tejanos,” as described by the artist himself. These depict Mexicans as people who maintain and celebrate their culture, even in America. The exhibit also provides multiple iterations of icons like Frida Kahlo, Che Guevara and the Virgen de Guadalupe, who gets two colorful treatments by Sam Coronado in the form of “Mestiza Virgin” and “Maya Virgin.” One reveals a dark-tinted and muted coloration of the Virgin Mary in her traditional stance, while the other places her in front of a Mayan figure, signifying how Catholicism is embedded within the culture.
“I've seen in the past decade, younger artists who, even though they consider themselves to be part of the movement, their output isn't necessarily considered to be political. In other words, you don't have to be a Chicano radical to be a Chicano artist.”
This isn't to say that the exhibit is without its satirical references. Just look at Ester Hernandez' “Sun Raid,” which transforms the “sun maid” into a calavera, a skeleton signifying the faceless workers who struggle with low wages and ongoing fear of deportation. This sort of satire has made Arellano a controversial figure in print media; his “¡Ask a Mexican!” column considers Mexican stereotypes and then turns them inside out, but always with a darkly comical motif.
“The way I see [it], satire is basically a way for the satirist to play the fool only to make a bigger point; I don't mind being an idiot,” Arellano said. “As a reporter, language and what language can do is something I consider to be very important, so I always try to play with it. We can't just always exile certain words and certain thoughts to nothing, to some dark corner.”
More than anything, this exhibit is a representation and celebration of la raza, the people of Latin descent who yearn to maintain the American dream in spite of struggle and oppression. The exhibit is an opening into a cultural conversation that is ongoing but necessary, a tangible spirit as old and iconic as the Virgen and as culturally significant as a skeletal Mickey Mouse. Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo would surely approve. And as Arellano states, “You need those icons to serve as the entry point to greater understanding.”