On Chicano Art…. con safos
While hanging out with Cheech Marín in Corpus Christi during a showing of his collection at the Art Museum of South Texas, I asked him about the origin of “Cheech” and he told me what you can now get from Wiki: an uncle, upon seeing him a couple of days after birth, said he looked like a “chicharrón”, a fried pork skin, as in the snack you buy at el H.E.B., here in Texas. I told Cheech that my aunt Beatriz used to call me “Chicharíto” (little pea) when I was very young, which evolved from the endearing diminutive term “Cesaríto” for César, and then became “Chícharo” (pea) as I got older. Fortunately for me, except with my aunt, Chícharo never stuck.
The origin of the term “Chicano” is similarly circuitous and a bit of a mystery to me because, as with nicknames, these designations evolve and become versions, some academic and some popular, and it becomes hard to tell if there is such a thing as a correct one.
México got its name from the Mexíca tribe, pronounced “Meh-chí-cah”, also known as the “Aztec” people. They populated and ruled the valley of central Mexico during the Spanish intrusion into the Americas. After all, if a Mexicano can be pronounced and even spelled as “Mejicano”, I can also hear “Mechicano” in reference to the Mexíca, and that then aptly becoming, at some particular time in the U.S.A., “Chicano”. Pero al fín del cuento, simplemente no se. For all I know, “Chicano” may have resulted from some inane wordplay.
The first time I remember hearing the word “Chicano” was during the 1960s when a close friend from my barrio referenced us as being “Chicanos”. Being a “Chicano” somehow seemed like a good enough fit for me though I had no idea why. Still, I also remember, in subsequent times, realizing that “Chicano” was also considered a somewhat uncivil term in “polite” social circles. It must have been in the last years of the past century that a friend, a well-known academic in cultural and art matters, was supposed to lecture in my hometown of Laredo and was advised to stay away from the term “Chicano”. Arrgh….
For me, all this “Chicano” business started in the 1970s during the early years of the Chicano political civil rights movement, to which I was drawn in San Antonio, Texas. Besides civil rights, a big part of this deal was self-determination regarding our own cultural identity. We started to shift away from being “Mexican” or “Mexican-American”, to being, well, what?….the term “Chicano” already existed but was merely a down-home barrio expression for a Mexican-American denizen of the barrio. More and more, we started referring to ourselves as “Chicanos”, perhaps because it was less acceptable, edgier, and therefore more rebellious than Mexican-American ever could be.
Thus “Chicano” became synonymous with the Chicano political movement and being politically with-it Mexican-Americans in politically-charged times. I have a vague recollection of a prominent San Antonio politician being quoted in one of the local papers as derisively saying the word “Chicano” originated from “chiquero”, the Mexican word for pigsty. That remark was a reaction to the heat generated by political pressure. Remember, the Chicano political movement was mostly propelled by young activists impatient with the pace of political advancement; the mood was “If not now, when?”….cynical, mordant humor circulating among us had Jesus Christ, dying on the cross, telling Mexican-Americans “Don’t do anything until I return”…. obviously it was a generational thing: it came as a jolt to mainstream Mexican-American politicians because the Chicano movement was pushier and more radical. In the end, though, most politicians reconciled with the new political reality and became a positive part of it, certainly so, here in Texas. It was the unrepentant vendidos that faded away, though some still vex us, ensconced in the wrong political party.
Today, the term “Chicano” has lost a bit of the old political edge, and its usage is fairly accepted as a specific alternative to Mexican-American, rather than the more remote designations of “Latino” or “Latinx”, neither of which I personally relate to at all. My primary problem is with the “Latino” catch-all designation itself….Spanish is, of course, a Latin language, as is French and Italian, but we don’t call those nationalities “Latinos”. I’ve tried tracing the origin of the term “Latino”, as it applies to us, but have come up empty though I’ve long suspected that it originated in Argentina, a very Eurocentric South American nation composed of, besides the displaced native populations, numerous and extensive European diasporas. Nothing wrong with being Eurocentric; it simply doesn’t speak for me.
“Latino” is at least twice removed from the specifics of who I am; first, I am a bi-lingual person that speaks español, of which Latin is only the root language, and secondly, I am generationally far enough removed from my European ancestral roots that, culturally speaking, there’s only a trace, at best. As a Mexican-American, the culture I belong to is contemporary “Chicano” culture and identify as “Chicano”. More generally….that catch-all thing again, I don’t mind being referred to as a “Hispanic” because it relates me to all those other nationalities of the Americas that speak the language that binds us.
I do understand that the term “Latinx” is meant to be an inclusive term sensitive to gender-difference issues, certainly a good thing. There is bigotry around those issues and it is time for that sector of the general population to stop thinking of gender differences as abhorrent abnormalities and accept people as they are born to be. Better to deal with the bigotry itself than encode sensitivity, as if that fixes anything. Maybe the term belongs in academia, where I am told it originated….just pronouncing Latinx is off-putting enough for me.
By my own estimate, Chicano Art seemed retro from the onset in the early 1970s, where I specifically come in. Traditional media was the way to go: prevalent was figurative painting, print-making, and posters. There wasn’t much sculpture, nor was there much of the newer, less, traditional modes, nor even abstraction, which was already not new at all. I was one of the few who were into abstraction and sympathetic to the political activism of the time, as were very few others known to me. Chicano Art was about content that was culturally and politically relevant….for it to be “Chicano art,” you had to put the “Chicano” in it. Though my own work now reflects the influences of what was American contemporary art during my formative years, I put those influences to good use, and it became a visual characteristic of my work rather than an end in itself. Chicano Art manifests itself as a specific art phenomenon with an ethnic aspect and a corresponding cultural and political attitude; that, as opposed to art reflects the attitude of an art world that is a culture unto itself.
In the 1970s, the American art world had already moved beyond traditional modes and mediums and may have already declared painting dead at least once. So-called cutting-edge artists were pushing the meaning of what art was, effectively expanding the edge so that everything fits and nothing falls off and lands with a splat.
So why was Chicano Art so retro? Mexican-Americans, Chicanos, as a cultural entity, had little history of a defined artistic output, so we had to start somewhere; Chicano culture itself was a work in progress not yet amply defined. Traditional media and figurative art was better suited to express the message to the targeted masses. Most Chicano artists were well educated and certainly not unsophisticated and many were in teaching positions at major universities, especially in California. They made practical personal choices and commitments to achieve politically and culturally conscious ends in tune with the political and cultural activism of the time and to produce art with that agenda.
But today is not then; we are a generation into a new century. So why does a major Chicano or Hispanic art exhibition come around every few years, tours major museum venues and then disappears until the next re-incarnation? One consistent thing where Chicanos are concerned, with exceptions, is that the usual suspects are usually in it, including me, and thankfully included are members of ever younger generations of artists that bring a progressively new dimension to the thing. “Chicano Art”, regardless of how it is packaged for exhibitions, has taken on a life of its own because Chicano culture has affirmed itself and can’t be ignored due to its undeniable political and cultural clout. It has effectively integrated but has not been co-opted. The same can be said for other Hispanic, ethnic and racial cultures in this country.
I like to think that Chicano Art, rather than expand the edge, or meaning of what art is, has, by its very nature, pushed itself over that edge, landed on its feet and become something else….does it matter? Chicano Art is not culturally neutral, and being seen as “universal” in the usual sense doesn’t seem to be a major concern, certainly not with me…..It is what it is. Pushing the edge of what art is starts seeming less cutting-edge than going over the edge and then seeing what, if anything, really happens at all, one way or the other, but nothing ever does. It would be unfair to suggest that American contemporary art is oblivious to societal issues and specific cultures….it is not….it has broadened considerably over the years and become more ethnically and culturally sensitive, inclusive. I see a lot that is akin to “Chicano Art” sans the specific labeling though I personally don’t mind labels at all. All art does carry a bit of the weight of art history, as it should; Chicano Art wittingly carries that plus a specific cultural, political and ethnic load yet still gets to be shown in art museums. The impetus of its cultural and political underpinnings seems to have impelled Chicano Art to transcend beyond the art world itself and I guess therein lies its appeal, and I do guess it must be universal art after all! Go figure….
Early on, like other peers, I was uneasy with categorization as a “Chicano Artist” because I wanted to simply be considered an American contemporary artist but it wasn’t rocket science to realize that the “Chicano” label was a good fit in my case and I did the sane thing, I embraced it rather than bother with agonizing about it though this artist does torment himself with those preoccupations anyway. Does the label stigmatize an artist?….perhaps. Someone once said that “Chicano Art” is a ghetto where we put ourselves, thus effectively creating that ghetto when the suggestion was uttered. Regardless, I am where I put myself by embracing the label; I own it, it doesn’t own me and it does not limit me, and really, I’m just an American artist, but I insist on going with my own cultural flow.
I’ve never really been an American contemporary artist in the art-world sense because my work has never been about art-world trends. In my case, I was aware of doings in the art world and was influenced by that which applied, but I did once jump on the hardly trendy “Chicano Art” movement gladly because it was a good, timely fit. I assume I’ve been a viable artist in my contemporary times because, to this day, I’m always in one show or another, even though I’ve never been aggressive at seeking shows or promoting my work and some of it has even landed in museum collections, including MoMA. And be reminded that contemporary art is only that and please also note the “temporary” part of “con”.