Guest Blog by Maritza Alvarez
I tried to make it to the May Day march this past Thursday. I took the Gold Line and got off on Pershing Square, expecting to be greeted by a crowd of marchers chanting "Aqui estamos y no nos vamos!" Instead, I saw black and brown folk hustling for bargains on 5th and Broadway. I missed May Day, I thought. I jumped back on the train and returned to Union Station. Perhaps all the marchers, like me, were running late. I cut through Plazita Olvera, trusting that wherever I ended up was where I needed to be. That’s when I saw the arched door entrance. It was dark inside, alluring. I entered.
There it stood, David Alfaro Siqueiros' famous mural, “América Tropical.” Dead-center in front of a sun pyramid hangs a brown man tied to a crucifix. He is half-naked, blindfolded, and the menacing talons of an American eagle loom above his head. América Tropical is a fresco bearing an ugly truth filled with vibrant strokes. It speaks of a violent past and it echoes a violent present.
Eighty-two years ago, “América Tropical” was unveiled in Sonora-town, or what is now known as the Historic Plazita Olvera in Los Angeles. During that time, L.A. times journalist, Arthur Miller considered “powerful, too weak of a word” to describe the first-ever commissioned public art mural.
David Alfaro Siqueiros auto-exiled from Mexico to the U.S. with the intent of taking advantage of modern industrial tools to enhance his technique in the creation of large-scale public murals. These murals would be painted on the walls of the city, accessible to all. At the time, this was considered revolutionary, especially in a city where art was traditionally enclosed within walls and displayed for only the privileged, upscale artists, businessmen, the Hollywood elite.
On the night of October 9, 1932, these privileged art-aficionados stood on a rooftop in downtown Los Angeles, anxiously anticipating the historical unveiling. They had waited six months for Siqueiros to reveal his masterpiece. Most expected a colorful and exotic mural that would mirror Hollywood's portrayal of a “Latin” atheistic and identity. Mexican in the U.S. was the sultry Latin Lover, Rudolph Valentino, the seductive señorita, Dolores del Rio, the dancing temptress with a basket of fruit on her head, Carmen Miranda. Mexican was also the greaser, the bandit, the savage.
Siqueiros, creative genius that he was, gave the city of Los Angeles and the world a crucified Mexican immigrant with the ironic title, “América Tropical.” As if to say, “You want this little Mexican to paint you a mural? Well, here it is. Enjoy your 20th Century crucifixion.”
Siqueiros understood that as an artist he had the power to shed light on injustices impacting the Mexican community on both sides of the border. At the onset of the 1930's, as Los Angeles was preparing to host the 1932 Olympics, Mexican families were provided a “voluntary opportunity” to return back to Mexico. They called this the Repatriation Act. This policy was the local and federal governments' “solution” to the dire economic consequences of the 1929 Stock Market crash. President Hoover and later President Roosevelt prompted mass raids against Mexicans. In 1931, the first major raid was conducted at Plazita Olvera, then San Fernando Valley ,and later in El Monte. During Hoover's and Roosevelt's administrations, a total of 2 million Mexicans, 60 percent of whom were U.S. citizens, were deported. Hundreds of thousands of families were separated as a result of xenophobia and racist legislation.
That was almost a century ago, and yet it feels like deja vu. Current deportations of members in our communities are estimated at 2 million with no comprehensive immigration reform in sight. While we wait or march or demand that politicians hear our pains and protests, parents are being deported, children are being put into foster care, families are being separated and permanently damaged. Siqueiros had it right. América Tropical is still a place where immigrant workers are criminalized and crucified.
This blog could end here on a bleak note, but la lucha continua, and although I missed the May Day march, the next day I came across a Facebook posting by long-time community activist Carlos Montes regarding an LAPD checkpoint in El Sereno. It was a call to action to warn drivers. Many unlicensed immigrants have been detained at these types of checkpoints, their cars impounded, and their families often separated. I went out to help that Friday night. Others were already there, including my sister, Adriana. We held up warning signs that said "Check Point" and "Reten." We waved and re-directed drivers down alternative streets (all while under police surveillance). Thanks to our group efforts, many drivers were able to avoid the checkpoint that night. People expressed their gratitude with faces of relief, with thumbs up, or with a “muchas gracias." I know that helping someone avoid a police checkpoint isn't going to change or fix the injustices of the world, but it did serve as a reminder that there are always things we can do to contribute to the struggle. To see more: http://vimeo.com/93759625
Gracias y Adelante!