Thursday, July 08, 2021

What are Chicano Arts and Who Creates them?



Henry "Coco" Montoya voted 1996 Best Blues artist
     The July 6, 2021 La Bloga post, “Collecting Chicano Art,” by Niki De Nenecochea, starts with a provocative statement.   

[La Bloga] Editor: "What is Chicano Art?" A question akin to answering, "What is Chicano Literature?" Clear your throat, rare back, and don't say anything. Let the art do the talking. Arte becomes in the eye of the Collector. Definition by acquisition. Not because the Collector says so, but because the Arte says so. A work calls out "here I am, Chicano Art!" and the Collector buys it using checkbook logic. What moves you to pass or pay?

     It takes me back to the early days of choosing the word “Chicano” to designate, generally, all Americans of Mexican descent, particularly the younger, activist Baby Boom generation coming out of barrios across the nation, except, it got complicated. Not all Americans of Mexican descent came from a barrio.

      I recall the early 1960s debates. The older WWII generation used "Chicano" privately, among themselves, as if it were a sacred word, a source of power, totally theirs. Their parents, many who emigrated from Mexico, saw the word as low-class, used by gente baja, something akin to the term, “cholo,” which often meant an Indian. This was exactly why many 1960s activists called themselves Chicanos/as to take back its power. I won’t go into all the other terms and why they were rejected. I’m assuming most Bloga readers know about those cultural, identity wars.

     The male term Chicano is limiting, excluding females, so the awkward “Chicano/Chicana” usage, shortened to Chicano/a, designating both male and females. I purposely titled this “piece” Chicano “Arts”, plural, to encompass not only painting but all the other creative endeavors, both fine arts and performing arts. It seems all Chicano artists confront the same problem painters face, getting their work in front of the public. If a Chicano painter is dependent on the collector, the Chicano writer is dependent on the publisher, and the performing artist dependent on the producer, kind of the same thing. Someone is paying money for something to sell again, whether a painting, a book, or a ticket to a concert to see Chicano Batman.

     After all these years, the use of the word “Chicano/a” is still puzzling. Now, here we go back to the sixties when Chicano/a artists, students, faculty, and activists debated the issue. I’m not sure anyone ever answered the question satisfactorily. What of those Americans of Mexican descent who choose not to identify as Chicano/a? The term doesn’t offend or embarrass them. They didn’t’ even object to the word itself. For some, it just didn’t apply to them or their lives. Does that make them any less, culturally, descendants of Mexicans?

     When I was a kid in the 50s and 60s, we were all “Mexicans”. White kids were Americans. Kids of Japanese descent were Japanese. We took for granted we were all “officially” Americans. I assume part of this came from the older generations. When my grandparents spoke of “whites”, they said, “Americanos.” That seemed logical to us kids. “American” was an ethnicity not a nationality in our kid minds.

     While growing up, I had lighter skin. People would ask, “What are you,” not “where you from? They knew by the way I spoke and my behavior I was American. Without hesitation I’d answer, “I'm Mexican,” and not think I was saying I had any relationship to the country south of the border.

     In those years, few Mexicans migrated to Los Angeles, especially the Westside, where I lived, except, of course, for our grandparents, aunts and uncles who had migrated, in massive numbers, fleeing starvation and violence during the 1910 Mexican Revolution.  There were sprinkles of migration from Mexico to L.A. in the years following WWII, mostly relatives coming north looking for work.

     Where I grew up on L.A.’s west-side, you rarely heard Mexican kids speaking Spanish in public, probably because many didn’t know how. Those few friends whose parents spoke only Spanish answered them in English, or a pidgin Spanish. Those of us who still had grandparents mangled Spanish in our own way, to make ourselves understood.

     In my school, out of a class of  some 25 kids, mixed ethnicities there were only three kids from “Mexico-Mexico,” and two of them were brother and sister. Ethnicity wasn’t even an issue. Kids were teased more about their social class than their ethnicity.

     Growing up, I’d heard the word “Chicano” used but never “Chicana,” as if it was rude to use for a woman. Usually, it was my dad or one of his friends who would say, “Yeah, you know, Joe Sapien, that Chicano from Venice.” They’d pronounce the last name “Say-pee-in,” and not “Sah-pee-ahn,” the correct pronunciation. My father once told me they pronounced their friends’ names the way the teacher’s pronounced them in school, even though they knew the correct pronunciation. Only my grandfather called my dad Ramon, his real name. To everyone else, it was Ray or Raymond.

     In my neighborhood, there were quite a few of us, Mexicans. We were pretty acculturated. We played whatever sport was in season, no soccer. In summer we’d be in the nearest public swimming pool, or visit friends and listen to rock ‘n roll. I had Mexican friends who drew pictures of cartoon characters. I don’t mean doodles. I mean really good pictures and tape them to their walls. 

     I had friends who were musicians and played in bands. A lot were athletes. Most did well in school and minded their own business. Sure, there were the guys who started drinking early and got into trouble, more from boredom than anything else. Then there was the small band we called “Pachucos” a term left-over from my dad’s generations. For some reason, they were the smallest group, kids in gangs, not very respected among the rest of us, but they seemed to get the most attention, in or out of school.

     It wasn’t until college in the late 60s, early 70s, for the few who even attended, we began hearing the word Chicano, part of the college lexicon. The name confused me. Were we all suddenly Chicanos? Very few guys in my neighborhood called themselves that.

     In college, some guys even started wearing huaraches and sarapes, and the girls wore colorful skirts and flowered dresses, Oaxaca-style, though most of our ancestors came from central or northern Mexico, and not Southern Mexico. A Spanish course was about the closest you could get to studying anything culturally Mexican. One day in an English course, I heard ranchera music coming from the classroom next door. I later learned, it was the first Chicano Studies course introduced into the Spanish department curriculum, a real battle to get it included, too.

     In the early 80s, I heard two Chicano grad students arguing whether Chicano Studies was a legitimate academic field, one pointed out, since there was so little source material. For a minute, I thought the two would come to blows. The student receiving his Ph. D. in Latin American Studies stood firm, spouting Chicanos themselves couldn’t agree on what the field encompassed. 

     Was it studies by “Chicanos” or studies about Chicanos, and what was a Chicano, anyway? The other student, studying for an M.A. in Chicano Studies, a newly minted program (not a department) said the only way to produce source material is for faculty and students to start studying Chicano Studies seriously and build a foundation. Everywhere you look in the Southwest, there is source material. It's been overlooked.

     I recall hearing Cesar Chavez caught hell because he said his movement wasn’t a Chicano movement. It was a farmworkers movement, even if the masses of people he mobilized to support him were urban Chicanos. They wanted him to claim his Chicano-ness. Chavez was an old-timer, my dad’s generation, a tad out of step with the times. His was a labor movement not an ethnic movement.

     He even scandalized Chicanos by referring to Mexican nationals as “wetbacks,” and it didn’t appear he thought anything of it. I have to admit, my dad and his generation also used the term, and, like Chavez, couldn’t understand why the younger generation got so upset. It took a while to convince my dad how harmful the term could be, not only to Mexican migrants but to us, the descendants of Mexicans. He finally got it. So did Cesar Chavez.

     So, as we again look at los artes Chicanos/as, I ask a question. Does Chicano art include any American artist of Mexican descent, or is it a particular kind of art, whether fine arts or performing arts? I once remember asking a fairly successful Chicano (my designation not his) musician friend if he’d ever performed with Los Lobos. He said he’d been on the same program but not stage. He raved about their performance and musicianship. Then, I remember him saying, something like, “They could go much further if they didn’t lock themselves into only the Mexican-thing.”


Daniel Alonzo, one of many superb painting of Sana Monica at Sundown

     So, is an artistic “work” considered Chicano art if it has a Chicano theme, whatever that is? A friend, Daniel Alonzo, from Santa Monica, a Chicano, who paints the most wonderful, vivid portraits of the Pacific Coastline, no apparent Chicano-theme, but definitely a Chicano spirit in Danny's work. Is he a Chicano artist? Could his work be called Chicano art? Yet, you never hear his name linked to Chicano art. Does it depend on which collector exhibits the work or who collects it?


Thom Enriquez early version of "Terror Dog" for Disney, maybe inspired by La Llorona stories or King Kong

     Another friend, Thom Enriquez, a descendant of a Californio family, raised among Mexicans, Japanese and Anglos, spent his career in animation at Walt Disney Studios. He created iconic drawings for Disney’s movies, like Mulan, Dinosaur, Ghostbusters, the Lion King, and many others. One of his drawing goes for upwards of $10,000. Is his work Chicano art? I sure get a sense of that "dark" Chicano spirit when I see his drawings.    


Coco Montoya, In the blues groove

     Coco Montoya, a Venice boy, a blues man, who first kicked around in Westside bands, as a kid, got a break to travel with blues-great Albert Collins, his mentor. After leaving Collins’ band, Coco toured ten years with John Mayall’s Bluebreakers, filling the vacancy left by guitarists Eric Clapton, Peter Green (who wrote Black Magic Woman), and Mick Taylor (Rolling Stones). He now has his own band and has toured the world. In 1996, he was nominated and won the Best Blues Artist. When I listen to his albums, I hear Chicano influences, in the songs he writes and chooses to record, something in his voice, traces of Little Willie G., and even in deciding to include of the old Chicano favorite, “Big Boy Pete” in one of his albums. Is he a Chicano artist? In fact, is there even a category in Chicano art for music?

     When I think of Chicano art, for some reason, I think of skeletons, low-riders, field workers, abuela’s kitchens, religious and indigenous iconography, especially the Virgin Mary, Frieda Kahlo, and the works of the great Mexican muralists, but is this Chicano art? Many Mexican muralists studied in Europe or with teachers in Mexico who themselves studied traditional art forms.

     What about a family friend, Tony Viramontez, a Westside Chicano artist fashion-designer who took New York by storm in the 70s and 80s, until his untimely death. He never denounced his Mexican-ness. Would his designs, internationally renown, not be a representation of Chicano art?

     Even in writing, some of the earliest short stories and poems may have been the purist forms of Chicanismo/a, Alurista, Cervantez, Salinas, Abelardo, Castillo. However, when the Latin American Boom hit, Chicanos started modeling their word after “new realism” of Rulfo, Fuentes, Garcia-Marquez, Borges, Neruda, Latin Americans heavily influenced by Europeans and Americans, like Joyce, Faulkner, and Steinbeck.

    Maybe los artes Chicanos are much broader and wider than we think. I recall a jail scene in Luis Valdez’ Zoot Suit, when a guard questions the ethnicity of the only white kid hanging out with Pachucos. The kid sneers and tells the guard something like, “I’m Chicano too, see.”

     Is he Chicano, really? Can he be Chicano? If he’d written a poem or painted a picture about his experiences, could it have been considered Chicano art? Who determines, the collectors, the publishers, or the producers”? How about Dan James (Famous All Over Town), Richard Rodriguez, Ruben Martinez, Michele Serros, Samuel Zamudia (Sam the Sham and the Pharos), Rudy Martinez (Question Mark and the Mysterians), Freddie Fender, and so many others, is theirs Chciano art?  

     Have we created our own canon in which all our art must fit nicely into a box to be considered Chicano art or does the designation itself limit indo-hispanic artists’ work? Is an artist a “Chicano/a artist” or is he/she an “artist who is Chicano/a?”


msedano said...

have we? i look for answers. this is a great essay, ese.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for publishing this thought provoking essay. Growing up in mostly white, So.California neighborhoods, but knowing I was different based on my home and family lifestyle, and the proximity of the border, were constant reminders of where my origin story began. I lacked the smarts of the barrio, I did not dress or speak like the kids from PV 13 or Dog Patch. I was aware of their disdain, and I was lost between my environment and my culture. Then I took my first Chicano Studies course at CSULB. The dept was basically brand new. The professors didn't make me feel any less of a Chicano than them, or the rest of my classmates. I was introduced to the poetry, fiction, and non-fiction of my people. I was assigned readings in historical events no one dared teach in the public school I had attended; for the first time I heard about the Zoot Suit Riots, the names of Mesoamerican deities, Reies Tijerina, and the fact that most big cities in the mid-west had sizable Chicano and Mexican populations. It made me whole, and since then, fellow writers and artists have affirmed my self-identification as Chicano.

The question this brings up is does our art remain Chicano, or in a capitalist society where commodification is paramount in order to create monetary value and profit, do we allow and accept it when our art is given the all-inclusive label of "Latino/a/x?" (Hey, an artist who doesn't have a day job has to eat, pay the rent.) I feel that Latino/a/x is a generic term, mostly for the benefit of marketing and political purposes. Can we switch back and forth when it is convenient? ~ Richard Vargas

This essay asks questions and says a lot of the things I've pondered for a long time. Thanks, Em, for presenting it to us. I'm sure it will generate many responses. Or it should.

ndeneco said...

Daniel Cano, a very thought provoking article. I appreciate every label, as it changes with each generation, whatever it takes to identify us as a culture, people, and as contributors to maintaining and advancing the legacy of our antecedents, elders, tribes and collective brown energy. Adelante! - Nicki De Necochea

msedano said...

Richard Vargas, thank you for reading La Bloga. Nicki and I were window-dressing on the set. It is Daniel Cano's work.

Daniel Acosta said...

Danny, your essays here are always thought-provoking and articulate. This one is no exception. I usually call myself a Mexican-American writer not limited to Mexican-American themes. I have no need to defend my choice of handle.(Insert winking Smiley-face here.)

Manuel Ramos said...

Great work, Daniel Cano. These are the kind of "conversations" we need to have to preserve and enhance the organic concept of chicanismo. If we ask "What is Chicano art (or music, literature, food, etc.)?" aren't we really asking "What is a Chicano/a?" The search for identity never ends and evolves continuously. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Hello Hola Hi--this essay was such a flashback to conversations we in Chicago's Mexican-American (Tejano) Chicano artist circles were having in the the mid 1970s to the late 1980s-- the verdict was this-- READ Prof. Juan Gomez Quinones' excellent essay "ON CULTURE" his unpacking of the ethnic/regional/class connections of the entire multi-generational population of "Chicano/Mexican American" should shed great LIGHT on this topic. We had a joke going around the visual art circles that if another artist did another skull or an eagle and serpent he or she would be choked. There is such a thing as originality, sometimes you just have to take chances and experiment in your genre--by the way, I was the director of the non-for-profit arts organization Movimiento Artistico Chicano, MARCH, Inc. for nearly 12 years so I had plenty of discussions with artists of all kinds looking to become known.