Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Review: Give Me Life. Gluten-free Chicano

Give Me Life Does That

Review: Holly Barnet-Sanchez and Tim Drescher. Give Me Life: Iconography and Identity in East LA Murals. Alburquerque: University of New Mexico Press. Forthcoming, 2016. ISBN: 978-0-8263-5747-2

Michael Sedano

LA was still new to me in 1976. Fresh out of grad school, a new faculty member at Cal State LA, surrounded for the first time in my academic life by raza. It was intensely exciting.

In a class on oral interpretation of literature, along with a teatro group, I would teach Chicana Chicano poetry, oral performance, and multi-image production.

We would employ three Kodak slide projectors, a pulsed audiotape, and we would take photographs of the rich trove of murals populating the walls of the surrounding communities of East LA, City Terrace, and Boyle Heights. But there was a problem.

El Corrido de Boyle Heights, Soto and Cesar Chavez - untagged
El Corrido de Boyle Heights, Soto and Cesar Chavez - tagged
The kids explained taking the slides could be dangerous because the neighborhoods were profoundly affected by gangs. What did I know? Discharged from the U.S. Army in late 1970, I felt my willingness to fight, and my ability to communicate, would see me through. The students vociferously discouraged my bravado and naiveté. They’ll kill you, they warned.

Manuel Cruz used murals to fight gang warfare.
But we did it. One student had a tía living in Ramona Gardens, another was a member of Hazard Grande. If we went early in the morning, we could photograph Ramona Gardens. We didn’t have connections in Estrada Courts, but again, if we went early in the day, we’d risk it.

I am glad we did. In the years after, the murals deteriorated from weathering, materials, taggers, urban renewal. Keeping murals pristine is a constant task. See this La Bloga coverage of El Corrido de Boyle Heights.

Murals are coming back to Los Angeles. The Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles has been especially active in restoring the beauty and quality of numerous murals from the late 1960s through 1980s. Outlawed of late by city statute, a new ordinance lays groundwork for a rebirth of the mural movement in the City of Los Angeles.

From the University of New Mexico Press, two art history scholars are filling the knowledge lacuna that completes restoration efforts at the cusp of the mural renaissance. With Give Me Life: Iconography and Identity in East LA Murals, future generations will come to understand the immense cultural importance  hidden under faded façades and vandalized walls, the role of history, gangs, materials, graffiti, inspiration.

1976, Estrada Courts Aztlán mural
Like my Ektachromes from the mid-seventies, the 191 color plates published in Give Me Life show the murals in their early freshness. And, because Holly Barnet-Sanchez and Tim Drescher are professional art historians, those illustrations come with definitive art, historical, community, and social details.

2012, Estrada Courts Aztlán mural and placasos
A product of classic academic research methods—observation, conversation, reading—Give Me Life does just that. It gives life to what had been moribund, the book lays a key foundation for the renewal of the Los Angeles mural movement sparked by a new city ordinance and the restorative energies of MCLA, the Getty Foundation, and artists.

Observation includes an essay by Marcos Sanchez-Tranquilino about growing up near Estrada Courts. Many of the plates are photographs author Drescher has taken over the years. Conversation includes numerous interviews the authors conducted as recently as 2012 with such artists as Judithe Hernández, Carlos Callejo, Wayne Healy, Willie Herrón, gallerists and scholars like Joe Rodriguez from Mechicano, and Sybil Venegas, who has been credited as the founder of Chicana Chicano Art criticism. An extensive bibliography of books, journals, and secondary sourced interviews attests to the reading element of the research that went into writing the 384 pages of Give Me Life.

The work approaches what some have called “the mural capital of the world” with a useful geographical strategy focused on two key locations, Estrada Courts and Ramona Gardens, linked by what the authors term mural corridors including Brooklyn/Cesar Chavez Boulevard, Soto Street, First Street and Whittier Boulevard.

1976 Ramona Gardens
Four chapters spotlight Estrada Courts. An extensive look at Ramona Gardens occupies the 7th chapter. Four chapters locate the corridors in mural historical space. Supplementing the scholarly chapters are narratives about Herrón, the East Los Streetscapers, and a 2013 update survey of digital resources that take away the fun of driving and walking tours, conservation efforts, museum initiatives that are celebrating and rediscovering the region’s mural history.

There’s little delight in the prose but ample delight in the information. This is a scholarly work bound to its structure that obligates sometimes repetitive material on history, politics, gangs, community, and related scholarly categories. The writing plods in places from heavy footnoting that forces a reader to flip to that chapter’s notes, read sometimes detailed text, then find one's place again. Rather than number footnotes by chapter, a sequential system for the entire book would be more reader friendly.

Readers who find irrelevancy in appositional translation and italics will be irritated at the random use of translation, especially for material that should generally be known to readers seeking out this material. One glaring example singles out nopales as something foreign. Discussing the Ramona Gardens masterpiece, Homenaje a Las Mujeres de Aztlán, the authors note, “Among the images she carries are clouds, a rose, a serape, peasants, an ancient altar, nopales (the edible pad of a prickly-pear cactus), a diploma, soldaderas and soldados, a UFW flag, a seamstress, a farmer carrying a strike sign reading “Huelga!,” and, as if tattooed in the center of her chest, an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe." Readers who know huelga means strike are likely to know nopales are nopales.

Noting Hernández and Carlos Almaraz painted Homenaje and signed it “Los Four” the authors footnote explains Los Four included Gilbert Magu Lujan, Beto de la Rocha, Frank Romero, and Almaraz. The note omits the fact Judithe Hernández was the fifth member of Los Four. Footnote: Magu told me that repeatedly in our conversations over many years. Hernández has told me the same fact during at least one Mental Menudo. It's an odd omission, and a disservice to Judithe Hernández' important role in the history of Chicanarte.

Ed de la Loza and MCLA's Isabel Rojas-Williams in Estrada Court, restoration of Organic Stimulus.
The same paragraphs raise one of the few problematic analyses in the otherwise straightforward text. The authors discern ambiguity in the character of mural women generally, Adelita figures particularly, as soldiers or camp-followers. There’s an elaborated discussion led with this thought: “Other women actually served as soldiers, but there is no Spanish word designating them. . . . Almaraz and Hernández, among many other artists and activists at this time, confused two distinct kinds of women active on the front during the Mexican Revolution.” The argument ends in a critical mishmash and explication de texte.

Yet, the critics express no qualms in citing congruencies of Michelangelo and Los Tres Grandes with Herrón’s work, nor find difficulty pronouncing another Ramona Gardens work as weak and incoherent. “to the right is an anonymous mural (#1) (fig. 7.6) depicting pre-Columbian figures including a fetus floating above a streaming cauldron and personifications of Ixtacihuatl and Popocatepetl. The composition here is weak, and no coherent meaning emerges other than a vague gesture toward ancient Mexico and its most popular mythical figures.”

With the authors' position that Ramona Gardens murals represent one of the mural movement's most important depictions of mujeres, readers deserve a closer analysis and definitive argument.

1976 Brooklyn Ave now named Cesar E. Chavez Blvd one of the "mural corridors"
In a massive work of such exquisite detail, a few awkward arguments don’t diminish the value and power of the overall work. In fact, such lapses will be fodder for ongoing scholarship, as well as popular work assessing the same material. As comprehensive as this work proves, there’s ample material for additional study. And, as the mural movement undergoes its contemporary  renaissance, the marketplace of ideas will open its doors and eyes to further explorations of the vitality of Chicana Chicano murals specifically, raza arte generally. This book is an important contribution to the fields.

Give Me Life: Iconography and Identity in East LA Murals will be published later in 2016, or perhaps early 2017, priced like a college textbook at $50.00. University of New Mexico Press deserves kudos for publishing the title. One hopes UNM Press, or another publisher, will release a more accessible volume priced for the popular audience.

**Update** The book's release date is December 15, 2016. An ideal holiday gift!

1976, Unknown location

The Gluten-free Chicano 
Quick Gluten-free Enchiladas Suizas
Michael Sedano

The Gluten-free Chicano likes a bargain as much as wheat-eaters do, and a supermarket roasted chicken is a great bargain, especially when they’re on sale for $5.00. When you buy pre-cooked chicken you can freeze it, but The Gluten-free Chicano prefers to use it within a few days to make several wondrous repasts.

Don’t depend on past purchases. Closely inspect the label to guard against gluten-bearing ingredients. With the all-clear, take it home and use that bird for several quick meals, tacos, salads, casseroles, for sure caldo de pollo. Use everything but the cluck.

Boil carcass, rinse that flavorful jell into the pot. Caldo de pollo for what ails you. Recycle container.

The Gluten-free Chicano cooks for two, so that five dollar chicken made four meals: strip the meat and use the carcass for soup. The legs and wings went into tikka masala. A green salad with chicken was next. Finally, today’s easy and quick enchiladas suizas.

(Chicken tikka masala is incredibly simple. Buy a jar of tikka masala sauce, add cayenne, chopped chiles, a bit of canned crushed tomatoes, the chicken. Simmer to a light boil, garnish with a few cashew nuts,  fresh cilantro leaves and a squeeze of limón. Done.)

Ingredients - Substitute freely
Sour cream
Tillamook cheddar cheese
Chile huero, one or two.
Pimiento-stuffed green olives
Half a carrot
Two green onions
Crushed tomatoes, canned
Corn tortillas

Grate ½ pound of cheese, more or less, and set aside.

Mix two tablespoons of mayo with a scant cup of sour cream.
Thin with 1/8 cup of milk. Set aside.

Spray a baking dish with non-stick spray. Add a couple tablespoons of the cream sauce to the bottom. You will roll the enchiladas in this dish.

Chop the onions, olives, chile huero, grate the carrot.

Chop half a breast of chicken into ½” cubes.

Put two tablespoons of crushed tomatoes in a bowl. Add the chopped vegetables and chicken. Stir together.

In L.A., I shop for Diana’s brand king-size tortillas. Little as I like monarchy,  Diana's manufactures only the “king-size” from just corn, water, and lime; no gum, no preservatives as in other Diana's formulations. Taste, texture, it's as close to a real tortilla de maíz as you can buy on the commercial market.

Wrap four corn tortillas in a dishtowel and microwave 45 seconds.  Now work quickly so the tortillas don't cool. They crack when rolled cool.

Place a tortilla in the cream-bottomed baking dish and swirl it to coat the bottom of the tortilla.
Add a generous amount of the chicken/vegetable mix.
Add a pinch of cheese if you want.

Roll loosely. Repeat until you’ve rolled four enchiladas.

Sprinkle tops with cheese. Add left-over chicken filling across the first cheese layer.

Spoon or pour the remainder of the crema across the tops of the enchiladas.

Cover the crema mix with grated cheese.

Place the dish on a cookie sheet and pop into a 375º oven for 25-30 minutes.

The casserole dish will be hot so the cookie sheet makes it easy to remove from the oven, and any boil-over will not crust and burn your oven.

Two enchiladas per serving make an elegant, easy, and fast fancy-looking meal.


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