A Word About Chicano Art


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 at the time of the Spanish intrusion into the Americas.  After all, if a Mexicano can be pronounced and even spelled as “Mejicano”, I can also hearMechicano” in reference to the Mexíca, and that then aptly becoming, at some particular time in the U.S.A., “Chicano”. 

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, but 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, 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.  Thus “Chicano” became synonymous with being in tune with the Chicano political movement.

“Chicano” became the politically-charged term for a politically with-it Mexican American 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.  The Chicano political movement generated this kind of thing:  it came as a jolt to mainstream Mexican-American politics because it was pushier and more radical and whoever made that remark was reacting to the heat generated by that political ardor.  Most politicians eventually came to terms with the new, edgier politics and fell in line, except, of course, for the unrepentant vendidos.

Today, “Chicano” has lost a bit of that old political edge and its usage is fairly accepted as a specific alternative term for Mexican-American, rather than the more remote designations of Latino or Latinx, neither of which I can personally relate to at all, especially the latter.  Spanish is of course a Latin language, as is French and Italian but we don’t call those nationalities “Latinos”.  “Latino” is also quite Eurocentric; “Chicano” is not, nor is there an aspiration to that; we are good enough as we are without putting on Euro airs.  I don’t mind being referred to as a “Hispanic”, though, because it relates me to all those other nationalities of the Americas that speak the language that binds us. 

Chicano Art….

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 a 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 a lot 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 an art reflecting 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?   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. 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 an ever younger generation 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 cultures in this country. 

I like to think that Chicano Art, rather than expand the edge, or meaning of what art is, has pushed itself over the edge, landed on its feet and become something else….does it matter?  Chicano Art is not culturally neutral, and being seen as “universal” doesn’t seem to be a major concern, certainly not with me.  Pushing the edge of what art is starts seeming less daring than going over the edge and then seeing if anything really happens at all, one way or the other.  It would be unfair to suggest that all 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 inclusive.   I see a lot that is akin to “Chicano Art” sans specific labels and there is no real reason for labels.  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.  I guess it must be universal art after all!  Go figure….

Temporary con….

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 further about it though artists do torment themselves with those preoccupations anyway.  Does the label stigmatize an artist?….perhaps.  Someone once said that “Chicano Art” is a ghetto where we put ourselves, 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 go 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 concerned with mainstream art trends, but I did once jump on the hardly trendy “Chicano Art” bandwagon 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 is in museum collections.  Be reminded that contemporary art is only that and please also note the ”….temporary” part of it.  Surely we can shoot higher.  Enough said….