Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Bits & Pieces: Old and New Chicanarte

Michael Sedano

I have been digitizing negatives and slides I shot in 1973 during the first Festival de Flor Y Canto held at the University of Southern California. The project has made me nostalgic for the literature of el movimiento. It doesn’t help that so many of the people in those thirty-five years ago photos have died, most recently raúlrsalinas, preceded by Ricardo Sanchez, Oscar Zeta Acosta. Tempus fugit, que no? Carpe diem indeed.

I might be accused of mere wallowing in sentiment, except for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's publicity for this month's exhibition titled, Phantom Sightings: Art after the Chicano Movement, described as “the largest exhibition of cutting-edge Chicano art ever presented at LACMA.” I’m troubled that there’s a certain rejection of movimiento passion in LACMA’s gloss on the difference between yesteryear and today: “Chicano art, traditionally described as work created by Americans of Mexican descent, was established as a politically and culturally inspired movement during the counterculture revolutions of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This exhibition explores the more experimental tendencies within the Chicano art movement—ones oriented less toward painting and declarative polemical assertion than toward conceptual art, performance, film, photo- and media-based art, and "stealthy" artistic interventions in urban spaces.” It all makes me wonder if some artists and curators have strayed so far from home that they’ll never find their way home, wey.

I cannot say that movimiento art and poetry were not experimental. I wonder further what constitutes polemical. Polemos, the Greek term, means war, battle, and from what one sees at today’s chicana chicano galleries, and for sure at LACMA’s Broad contemporary (not-chicano) exhibition, some of today’s “conceptual” and more “experimental” artists have declared war on content and taste in favor of whatever. This is not a new development. La Bloga addressed this a couple years back with Salvador Plasencia’s declaration of happiness that his superbly experimental novel The People of Paper had not been tossed into the barrio of chicano literature.

I’ll attend the LACMA show and UCLA’s symposia with great interest to learn what academics and curators think “cutting-edge” means today and how it differs from what happened back in the day. In the meantime, I’ll comfort myself with revisiting movimiento art as an aide-memoire of how useful art has always been to its contemporary audience. In attending I’ll make sure to go grounded with a firm foundation of what has come before. I believe one must understand the present in terms of the past.

In those vibrant times thirty plus years ago, poetry and literature modified by the adjective 'Chicana' or 'Chicano,' mirrored the Peoplehood and community-making rhetoric that characterized el movimiento. In fact, almost the entire poetry oeuvre of that day might be termed 'rhetorical' in keeping with the classic definition of 'the art of finding the available means of persuasion for a given audience.'

Chicano poetry of el movimiento gives us loud, passionate voices, demanding, cajoling, even seducing whatever audience sought out the poetry. Our literature, as with our movement, targeted the ethnic and social identities of readers and spoke to them in language and symbol only they would wholly understand. Movimiento poetry contrasts barrio landscapes to edenic Aztlan as a locational embodiment of who we are; relates the chicanismo shared by farmworkers, pachucos, protestors to place our ethos in high relief against the culture-killing motives of other Unitedstatesians; expresses regret, rage, unity, separation as a way of reflecting the actuality of our lives. This powerful body of poetry was useful. Those were the days.

Change is not bad, however, when art changes as the times change. I am reminded of this every time I read one of Rigoberto Gonzalez' book reviews. It’s less his significant insight into fiction that moves me and more my recollection of his first poetry collection, So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water Until It Breaks. Gonzalez' work illustrates the growth and maturation chicanarte is achieving. In literature, at any rate.

Gonzalez' expertise as wordsmith, cultural investigator, artist shines forth from these debut pages. His Michoacan and village landscapes evoke a warmth of allegiance to Mexican culture, absent the implied stridency of movimiento visions of our separate Eden. Gonzalez crafts a series of richly defined portraits, everyday people as well as extraordinary characters, abuelos, curanderas, lovers in triangle. Exigencies include broken hearts, passing generations, evocations of our fundamental humanity. One critique of movimiento poetry addressed its lack of 'universality' in speaking only to, or seeking to draw out from the mass, a distinctly chicano audience. Gonzalez shows how to combine some of the edginess of a movimiento perspective with a more universalist technique to address a chicanada readership without excluding any poetry lover.

Gonzalez' “Death of the farmworker's cat” illustrates his use of familiar chicano material while creating alternate ways to use its substance. The farmworker allusion frontloads the poem with that emotive history. The poem recalls farmworkers themselves, "Negra one man/ called her. Another, Sombra. Yet another named her / /Cascabel, what his sweetheart called her cat in Tuxtla./ Murmuring that name reminded him of murmuring// inside his lover's ear, of the indiscreet meows/ that made his lover whisper ssshhh! "

“Death of the farmworker's cat” is an incredibly sad poem, not owing to some dreary hopeless existence suffered by farmworkers--the usual movimiento motif--but because the cat had been locked in the migrant's hut at season's end, for how long does the cat move “from wooden sill to concrete floor. At once patient,/ leaning on the boots with the memory of feet, at once// restless, trapped behind the window with/ her wet nose drying up against the glass.” When the migrant workers open the shack next season they'll momentarily confuse for a left behind boot the cat's dried stiff body.

Definitely Chicano poetry. One need not miss the fire of the old stuff, “love thy master of the blue-eyed hatred” shouted Ricardo Sanchez. Rigoberto Gonzalez' small collection deserves a first reading, or a re-reading, to keep context around this emerging movement that chicanarte avoid linkages to its earlier incarnations, that it be less polemical, less declarative, more experimental. Readers of chicano literature and visitors to LACMA's “Phantom Sightings” owe it to themselves to read the old stuff, and this to add to their understanding of how our art grows yet remains inextricably linked to its progenitors.

A Unitedstatesian not-chicano poet, Robert Service, wrote that 'home is, where, when you go there, they have to take you in.' Rigoberto Gonzalez' work shows how some chicano poetry never left, so there’s nothing to come home to. It’ll be interesting to see if these phantom visionaries have lost their way.

JoAnn Anglin alerts La Bloga to a UCLA panel on finding a literary agent, forwarding the following material from Westwood: UCLA Extension Writers' Program
Finding and Working with a Literary Agent First-time writers often feel lucky to get an agent...any agent. But while the right agent can work wonders, an incompatible agent can actually stall a writer's career. With the publishing world in such flux, having the right literary agent ready to do battle for you has become more important than ever. Join author/moderator Aimee Liu and a panel of established literary agents as they discuss the right and wrong ways to approach an agent, how to decide which agent is right for you, how to understand an agency representation agreement, which fees are controversial within the industry, and ways to ensure a long and profitable agent-client relationship. The panel includes agents Jenoyne Adams, Betsy Amster, Angela Rinaldi, and Taryn Fagerness, who represent both fiction and nonfiction authors.

Registration is $95.00. More information at the website linked above, or by phone to the Writers' Program Office at (310) 825-9415 and ask for Mae or Daniel.

Eleven Black Clay Bells
Have you seen these bells somewhere? I have eleven of these hand-fashioned four-way bells. Each measures 6" X 6" X 3". I bought these at a flea market. A friend owns a single four-way that looks as if it could part of this set. She bought it at a Pasadena curio store--possibly The Folk Tree--thirty years ago. The clapper is strung with thread, some with monofilament line. They give forth a glorious tinkle. The rounded central hole suggests these were mounted on a rod. I can just imagine the wonderful music when they are all in motion. Gracias de antemano for any information you share with me. If you have an inkling, a guess, or an explanation, please click here.

Lest we forget, it's April Fool's day:
Knock knock!
Who's there?

A little old lady.
A little old lady, who?

I didn't know you could yodel.

And my favorite fool poem. W.B. Yeats' "Two Songs of a Fool."


A speckled cat and a tame hare
Eat at my hearthstone
And sleep there;
And both look up to me alone
For learning and defence
As I look up to Providence.

I start out of my sleep to think
Some day I may forget
Their food and drink;
Or, the house door left unshut,
The hare may run till it’s found
The horn’s sweet note and the tooth of the hound.

I bear a burden that might well try
Men that do all by rule,
And what can I
That am a wandering witted fool
But pray to God that He ease
My great responsibilities?


I slept on my three-legged stool by the fire,
The speckled cat slept on my knee;
We never thought to enquire
Where the brown hare might be,
And whether the door were shut.
Who knows how she drank the wind
Stretched up on two legs from the mat,
Before she had settled her mind
To drum with her heel and to leap:
Had I but awakened from sleep
And called her name she had heard,
It may be, and had not stirred,
That now, it may be, has found
The horn’s sweet note and the tooth of the hound.

La Bloga welcomes guest columnists, as we did recently with Juanita Salazar Lamb's introduction to her chicana mystery writing. If you missed it last Saturday, enjoy the guest column now. If you'd like to be our guest, leave a comment, or email La Bloga to let us know your interest.

There's the first Tuesday of April, looking back, looking forward, looking foolish. See you next week.


1 comment:

Ann Hagman Cardinal said...

Powerful and thought provoking post, Michael, thank you. I now think tonight I will pull out Rigoberto's poetry and reread it.