Pilsen, Art and the Continuity of Chauvet

Pilsen, Art and the Continuity of Chauvet



 In The Searchers of Gold (Los buscadores de oro) Guatemalan exiled writer, Augusto Monterroso, who lived in Mexico; said that when he arrived anyplace, he would thank all those who came before him. Be it a day or twenty days before. I remember this idea because when I came to Chicago towards the end of the 1980s, showing such gratitude was foreign to me. Meeting other Mexicans was a bit humbling and surprising. Listening to “Spanglish” for the first time, I couldn’t contain certain amusement, as it sounded hilarious. I started observing the neighborhood’s murals with the same arrogance, unfortunately. While walking through Blue Island and Cullerton, I was perplexed by a mural with Benito Juárez with rough strokes. Later I found out that it was one of Ray Patlán first murals, titled Reforma y Libertad (Reform and Freedom, 1971). This work seemed childish to me: its outline, depth, perspective and I considered it an enormous, extravagant caricature. Yet two blocks away, on the exterior of Benito Juárez High School there was another mural A la esperanza (To Hope, 1971) by Jimmy Longoria and Maló Ortega, Marcos Raya, Robert Valadez, Óscar Moya, among others. This one seemed interesting to me, its strokes and viewpoint captivated the eye even though I did not understand the well-drawn brushstrokes. Its context was still to me.


As time went by and I return to walk the streets of Pilsen, I’ve learned to let myself be surprised by other displays of art that continue to emerge in the neighborhood. The artistic value of certain murals is undeniable and the importance of the architectural currents of its churches. And how can one not pause to look at the cornices of certain buildings while walking through these streets. How can one not stop and look at the intertwined graffiti letters around the alleys or in winter days avoid the enormous Aztec copper suns embedded in the sidewalks. In recent years one can walk the neighborhood during Pilsen Open Studios. This event offers a window to see what’s going on in the art world of Pilsen. New outlines, well-printed serigraphs, oil paintings that choose to go against the current fashion. And in this walk through Pilsen, how can one forget not to go to the sanctuary that has been devoted to the Mexican Art in the United States: the National Museum of Mexican Art? This museum has shown magnificent artworks spanning from the north to south of the Río Bravo (Río Grande).


Pilsen has become a kaleidoscope where different artistic expressions have converged, and one where the historical process to achieve this has been difficult and conflicting. Even though Mexican art has had some recognition now and then in Chicago from the beginning of the 20th Century; it wasn’t until the 1970s when a social and artistic movement began that it set it off. While in the U.S. Southwest the Chicano Movement was gaining momentum, in Chicago it was not taking off. Here another less risky, more alert, yet neither worse, nor better phenomenon was taking place. The Southwest and Chicago formed two different artistic and social movements: Two perspectives that ran historically parallel yet differed in their ways.



The Past Of Two Distant, Yet Brotherly Movements

The labor exploitation in the fields of California and destruction suffered by the settlers of Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico, plus the discrimination, disrespect, callous political representation, and police brutality in urban centers gave birth to the Chicano Movement in the United States in the 1960s. If the parents were the injured party, it was the youth that assumed these injuries and threw themselves into the streets. These Mexican American youngsters were children of immigrants, factory workers, gardeners, day laborers, construction workers, maids.


Under the slogan “Enough” (¡Ya Basta!), they threw themselves at the vineyards of Delano, California to support the farm workers who wanted the right to organize as well as to have a decent living wage. With scribbled “¡Ya Basta!” signs, these Mexican-Americans left the classrooms of Garfield, Roosevelt, and other high school in East Los Angeles and refused to return until the board of education ended discrimination, allowed them to speak Spanish, increased the number of Mexican teachers and added Mexican and Chicano History courses in the curriculum. With “¡Ya Basta!” posters in Crystal City, Texas, the Mexican-American youth demanded better housing developments, better education and labor opportunities. When they were ignored, they founded their own party: La Raza Unida (The United Race). For the first time in the 1960s, young people took possession of their parent’s language, the same one that was prohibited at school. And without any shame they used all available mediums to make themselves heard. To do this, they turned to the rhetoric learned in school, but also to music, theater, poetry, posters, painting and murals. This defiant attitude—repressed until then—shook American society, making the structures of power in the feel uncertain. However, unlike the popular struggle for Civil Rights by African-Americans, the Chicano movement did not spread nationwide, where Mexican immigrants and their families lived marginalized. For example, the artistic demonstrations in California and Texas mirrored the social, economic and political characteristics that were determined by geography, history and cultural fusion. So when the Chicano Movement exploded, the Mexican neighborhoods of the Southwest were already established and this gave them a certain sense of purpose. Similarly, Mexican art surged organically because it had a place (Aztlán), a history; “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us” because “we” are Indians and mestizos (The Spaniards settled in New Mexico in 1598). All these causes were shared mutually by the pachucos and farm workers. Additionally, with the mixture of factors expressed in murals, music, corridos (Chicano folk songs), from songs of the Prohibition era to the music of Los Lobos del Este as this band was first known, theater plays (Teatro Campesino), and academics (creation of Chicano Studies), Chicano art became instrumental. Youth could reclaim Aztlán as their land, myth and language. This is how they created their identity andraison d’être.


It should also be noted that while in Los Angeles there was an “East Los (ELA),” a “El Westside” in San Antonio, and a “El Segundo Barrio” in El Paso, the Tejanos and Mexicans were barely establishing the Pilsen “hood” that was to become the most well-known Mexican community in Chicago and the Midwest. The temporary disparity is understandable in the way these neighborhoods developed, since the Mexican society in Chicago began to take shape in 1919. And throughout the 1920s certain artistic expressions blossomed such as: theatre, music, and poetry. Through the art they created, they began to discover their own national identity. Yet the repatriation of Mexicans in the 1930s almost wiped out the community, which did not grow in any considerable manner until three decades later. In the 1960s, in Texas, New Mexico and California there was a profound sense of being, and of being established. However, in Chicago, Mexicans still felt alienated in these foreign, icy cold lands. And due to the short history of Mexicans living in Chicago, the Chicano art did not flourish despite the remarkable efforts by the Chicano Artistic Movement (1972), made up of: José Gamaliel González, Carlos Cortez, Mario Castillo, Carlos Cumpián, Ray Patlán, Víctor Sorell, among others.


Another distinction is that in Chicago the racial conflict was between Anglos and African Americans; and in the Southwest it was between Anglos and Mexicans or Chicanos. The Chicano Movement in California was stronger due to the fight for civil rights, very similar to the struggle of the African-Americans; but distant to the struggles of the student movement in Mexico.


In Chicago, perhaps because because of the distance from the homeland and nostalgia for Mexico, Puerto Rican and Mexican took shelter in their respective nationalities to protect themselves from the segregated environments of the city. Both communities were discriminated, needed good quality education, and lacked political power. The basis of the Latino Cultural Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago was achieved thanks to the struggle of Puerto Rican and Mexican students. In this way the art from the 1960s and 1970s was an immense shout to Chicago and to the world that there were Latinos in the Windy City. It was an attempt to escape the shadows of the factories and restaurants and achieve some recognition. The artistic inspiration in Chicago was not a product of a movement the way it was in California or Texas. From the start it tried to trace its roots to Aztlán, Mexico or Latin America as the murals from those years show.





Imagining Aztlán, Inventing Pilsen

The Chicano struggle in the Southwest was also a generation rebellion. The youth rebelled against the system that kept them in the oblivion. And they also fought against the older generation, who had been complacent to the system in order to be part of the “American Dream” like the Polish and Italians before them. But they failed, and maybe due to this failure, the Chicano youth fought against the politics of assimilation that their parents embraced. They refused to be part of a naïve middle class. Even though the Mexican community in Pilsen was relatively small in those times, there were many young people from Pilsen who went to the Conference of Chicano Youth in Denver, in 1969. Yet the initial struggle of the Mexicans in the Windy City had a local touch; it wanted a certain autonomy and space for itself. Back then there was a fight for bilingual education, for the inclusion of Mexican teachers in the public schools, and for a historical and cultural recognition in the curriculum.


Facing insults and insensibility in this society, the youth from the Southwest would not tolerate a continuation of living in this manner. Under threats, in fear, working long shifts, living in poverty-stricken conditions, and with no future in sight, they could no longer tolerate the epithets of “ignorant,” “filthy,” “stupid,” “dirty,” and “bitter,” given to them. And for the first time they demanded respect, decent salaries, and a better education. They rebelled against the legacy of poverty to which they had been consigned. They rejected being second citizens. Professor Carlos Muñoz Jr. summarizes in the documental Chicano!: “We were Chicanos because we were proud to be Mexicans. We were proud of our cultural heritage. We were proud of our indigenous roots. That is what Chicano meant to us.”

Aztlán became a calling. Chicanos declared Aztlán as their home, their historic land. They were no longer foreigners, nor were they wetbacks, nor illegal aliens; they lived in their ancestor’s country. In this spiritual terrain, they reconciled with their history and Aztlán became a metaphor that best illustrated their condition. This mythical place gave worth to the Chicano existence. Now they had an allegory to cling to that was not Mexico nor the United States, but a sum of both cultures with all the negatives and plusses of both.


After they discovered their origin, little by little they started incorporating the Mesoamerican iconography into their political battles. In this way when the mobilization for labor rights headed by César Chávez begun in the agricultural fields and extended to the Californian urban communities, there appeared the first pre-Hispanic and religious symbols in signs and posters. The slogans designed were similar to those used in the marches. In both there was a pride recently taken from books. Those early posters were full of slogans such as: “¡Ya Basta!” (Enough!), “Brown Is Beautiful,” “Peregrinación Penitencia Revolución”(Pilgrimage, Penance, Revolution), “No Peace Without Freedom,” and others. With the passing of time, Chicanos returned to the Escuela Mexicana de Pintura (Mexican School of Painting) and also begun to appropriate the pop art that prevailed, as well as making more sophisticated political posters and protest signs.


The movement of expression from posters to murals was imminent in the Southwest. It was due to the need that the youth felt to be reaffirmed in their identity as well as show their discontent against the war in Vietnam and the U.S. government. In this way the Chicano youth began to experiment on the wall of their neighborhoods. They started to paint with urgency, with a necessity. The first murals were cries of anger, but also of pride. Some expressed assimilation very colorfully. Time had to pass and various miles of murals had to be painted before the Chicano murals shone with their own light.


As a reminder of those days in Chicago, today one can visit the ashes of what once was the Chicano brazer in Pilsen: Casa Aztlán. This community center was seized from its old administrators by young activists, some of whom had just returned from the Vietnam war. The ideological change of these Chicanos possibly began in the battlefield as well as from meeting people from the Southwest that found themselves fighting this war. Upon returning to Chicago, they changed their green uniform for a brown one and founded the Brown Berets. Ray Patlán was one of those who joined the battalion of muralists and activists of the community.


And it’s probably upon the walls of Casa Aztlán where the artistic echo became better expressed. This old building could be the best metaphor to display the dreams of a community that little by little was taking shape in the 1970s. In the murals by Ray Patlán, those inside and outside Casa Aztlán, he portrayed the struggles of the Southwest and the murals of the three great muralists. All the while he recreated those pectoral laborers, nude women and men under a collective stress, sons of the copper people, those with smooth optimist faces, others who were traced with tilted brushstrokes, emotional, and earthy. Even though the muralist possibly painted it after attending The Art Institute of Chicago, the final work is a product that shows urgency, and a feeling that it wants to say something and that accomplishes saying it at any given moment in time. Today it represents a record of a restless young man who dreamt, reasserted and invented his identity upon the wall.


Other Chicago painters of those times were a product of the walls, of learning and of the academy, yet others started to cross the border with the paintbrush in their backpacks. Even though many of them collaborated in some projects, they never became a Chicano artistic nucleus the way it existed in many places in California such as: Pocho Ché, Royal Chicano Air Force, Asco, Los Four, East Los Streetscapers, and Las Mujeres Muralistas, and others.


In the 1970s and 80s, the Southwest painters divided their time between the easel and the mural and continued exploring the Chicano soul, its relation with the earth, the neighborhood and the world around them. Some went to school to learn the rules that they had broken in the past; they saturated the canvass with color; appropriated traditions and gave them another touch. They transgressed the stiffness of heroes; proletaritized religious images; modernized the altarpieces as they transformed the altar in the installation. In their visual discourse they turned to humor to laugh at the world, and also at themselves. Their plastic artistic persistence and their admission as members of the faculty in art schools in the Southwest allowed them to continue to share the Chicano experience to the coming generations. But in order for the Chicano art to sprout, the political experience and the social compromise was vital.


In the documentary Chicano, artist Ester Hernández brings to mind that experience: “Chicano art had a very, very important role within the Chicano Movement. It gave visual form to our dreams, our aspirations, our struggles. Because we did not own the media, we didn’t own television, we didn’t own radio, we didn’t own the movies. We own nothing at all, the only way that we could, in many respects, get the word out, be visible, was to create posters, murals, paintings, banners, whatever it took that form in that way we were able to disseminate information.”






Pilsen, Chicago and The Continuity of The Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Other artistic expressions such as music and theater have not been able to take full flight in Chicago. And perhaps this is because of the inability in attracting an audience, or for letting themselves be attracted to the frivolous abstraction of the term “Latino.” This is a very democratic word yet also quite anti-democratic since it lessens the importance of any one culture, for example, the Mexican or the Salvadorian culture (in Chicago today Mexicans make up close to 80% of “Latinos”). In other words, “Latino” has been used to suppress the expression of identity of a community that was born here. In this case the Chicano or Mexican. The subtitle “Art and Latin American thought in the USA” of the Contratiempo Spanish-language magazine, along with names of organizations like the Spanish Coalition For Jobs, Latino Institute, Alianza Latinoamericana (Latin American Alliance) are good examples of how that noun erases nationality. Another example, the universities in the Southwest have Chicano Studies programs. And while this term is democratic, for example at DePaul University and the University of Illinois, there are Latino and Latin American Studies. In this case the word is anti-democratic because very few of the professors are “Chicanos,” the majority of the students are Mexicans, and few Chicano Studies courses are offered. Even so and going way beyond the opportunistic use of the word “Latino,” the noun could be rescued if it wasn’t used as weight by the “power broker”. I believe that it is up to those that cover under the umbrella of the “Latino” concept to dwell it. To shade it along with its neighborhoods, be it Little Village or Wicker Park in order to recover the sounds of its streets, see the colors of its sunsets, feel its summer humidity, and also its icy winter.


Geographically located at the center of the country, Chicago’s nascent Mexican community of the 1960s and 1970s had nowhere to look at. As the community’s art started developing artists looked toward Latin America, Aztlán and more specifically, México. Mexican culture in Chicago has maintained itself isolated, absorbed in itself, even though it is in contact with other cultures, and this we can confirm in its music, theatre, and literature. One can understand this since it’s a way to defend itself against political, racial and classist attacks in this city. It is in this manner that it has enclosed itself. Also, it may be because Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in the Union. All the while and due to its social conditions since it’s a renowned global city, a chord has strengthened that takes and brings cultural exchange between México and Chicago. I’m talking about migration. Even though this has been present in the murals and in the posters of the social justice movements of the Mexican communities in the U.S., it also occurred in the 1980s when the immigration patterns changed. Those immigrating were not only farmworkers, but also people coming largely from the cities, among them artists to be.


At the beginning of the new millennium, another plastic art was maturing, transcending frontiers, and little by little the monarch butterfly became the symbol of migration. Not only as a social allegory, since in itself it has a pictorial quality. The shape and the background go hand-in-hand or as Walter Benjamin put it so well: “Forma y contenido son lo mismo en la obra de arte: son sustancia” (Shape and content are the same in the work of art: they’re its substance). These days, I believe it cannot be any other way. Migration, violence, income inequality, alienation are the themes of our times. Subjects that in one way or another are being addressed via the arts with a good statement. Here and in Mexico we are living disturbing times, yet poetry is flourishing. In these times, the role of poetry and the arts is to touch the soul of the human being, to sway and wake him from this alienation. To sting his conscience and return his lost sensibility to the violence that is bleeding the youth on both sides of the border.


In the film Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog along with a group of scientists and art historians enter a cave in Chauvet, France. Inside they find the oldest prehistoric rock paintings in history (32,000 years old). What’s amazing is the freshness of the lines that aligned together, they illustrate a horde of horses, buffaloes and among all the menagerie the viewer only appreciates the outline of one human being. Thus far, one of the great discoveries is that not all the sketches were drawn in the same era. Five thousand years later after the first horse was drawn, someone else came by and continued the drawing by tracing another horse. Who did it remains anonymous. In a different context, but following the same outline, Jorge Luis Borges rescues the words of Shelley when he said: “Todos los poemas del pasado, del presente y del porvenir, son episodios o fragmentos de un solo poema infinito, erigidos por todos los poetas del orbe” (All the poems of the past, present and future are episodes or fragments of one infinite poem built by all the poets of the earth).


In this way, the poetry found in pictorial works embraces us the same way as those lines in Chauvet, France, continues today in the works, murals and easels produced in Pilsen, as are the embedded engravings, graffiti, and the use of stencils and wheat pastings. If this is not poetry, what is? Luis Cardoza and Aragón said it well: “La poesía es la única prueba concreta de la existencia del ser humano” (Poetry is the only concrete proof of the existence of the human being). The art that thrives in Pilsen, even though it’s been a marginalized community for decades, helps us understand that we are a link with the drawings those anonymous people painted in Chauvet 32,000 years ago. And I think that the real challenge for today’s artist, be it a poet, musician, painter, playwright, etc., is to search the local expressions in this globalized world. And in great measure, I believe that the immigrants, youth activists, and artists, are the ones who are bringing back hope that it is possible to live in a better world.


Franky Piña. Journalist and editor. Piloto is the latest book he produced. The present article was ranslated from the Spanish by Leticia Cortez.


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Marc Zimmerman responds to the presen article: Franky Piñas View of Chicago Mexican Art and Nine Theses about Chicago Art and Space


Zimmerman also wrote: A Brief History of Mexican Art in the City


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