“I will never…”
Sometimes I end up eating my own words almost as soon as they come out of my mouth….”I’ll never do this or that because everybody else is doing it….” In retrospect, that sort of meal led to my Mestizo Series.
During the 1970s, one major staple of Chicano murals was the Virgen de Guadalupe. I thought it was over-used and vowed never to utilize the image in my work, but wait!…. an idea immediately popped into my head, “Mona Lupe: The Epitome of Chicano Art”, a satirical piece. This must have been in 1975 and I set out to do an image of the “Mona Lisa” in Virgen de Guadalupe drag. I did a lot of work on it, acrylic on canvas, in the approximate size of the original “Mona”. Eventually, I felt I was in over my head because I was no Leonardo and I put the piece aside, not to take it up again until about 1991, when I finally finished it.
It became an emblematic image, was exhibited several times and not without offending some religious sensibilities. My “Mona” took on a life of is own and even, like happened with Leonardo Da Vinci himself, rumor had it that it was my own face on it. I was genuinely flattered. I eventually sold it to a collector in Chicago, through whom it was eventually acquired by the National Museum of Mexican Art in that city, where it has since resided, prominently displayed under a protective shield of plexi, not quite as fully fortified as the original “Mona” in the Louvre, but fortified indeed.
Another staple of Chicano murals was a configuration of faces inspired by a Mauricio Eppens bas-relief mural at the University of Mexico City. This was “El Mestizo” which consists of a frontal face representing us mestizos sandwiched between racial, facial profiles of a native of the Americas and a native of Europe. It is a very potent and very emblematic image. “I will never use that in my work,” I said to myself.
Years later, about 1986 or so, I saw a book with a Picasso image that intrigued me, a very simple charcoal drawing of a bull, just the head, and it seemed to have a human face in it. It occurred to me that since I had a special connection with toros, why not do a drawing of my face morphing into a bull’s head. I did, and thought it looked great, very dramatic, but something troubled me. I immediately interpreted it as a symbolic representation of Europe, cattle have originated over there, and I don’t claim to be Spanish. So, why not then do an image of myself, like with the bull, but substitute an animal of the Americas, a jaguar, on the morphing side. I did that and then started thinking of the pair of drawings as a diptych, “Europa” and “Las Americas.” Then my version of “El Mestizo” naturally suggested itself; by combining both animals merging with my mestizo face in the center, race and geographical origin was represented by animal symbols. It was those images that kicked off the Mestizo Series and I went on to do versions with a feminine/feline face representing the Americas. The aforementioned “Mona Lupe” fit into that series classification.
Subsequently, in this Euro-American cultural fusion, even the Virgen de Gudalupe ended up making more appearances in my work than she is credited with in legend. Reinventing familiar images or ideas became a way to expand on the Mestizo theme. This series attempts to bridge that vast expanse, el mar que nos sepára from the cultures that are our heritage. The Mestizo series is my way of dealing with the big picture, a world view and how we fit in it. A lot needs to be put in perspective and a lot remains undone in this series.
But there’s more to this; it had always bothered me that during the prime of the Chicano political movement of the 1970s it was politically correct to identify with the indigenous peoples of the Americas that were subjugated by the Spanish invaders. Nobody went around claiming to be Spanish….too uppity. But to me, it seemed that there was an element of denial regarding the Spanish and European blood in us. We are, after all, Mestizos.
From my own reading of history, it is obvious that both cultures in that conflict called “La Conquista” were very flawed and hard to sympathize with. But I, we, us mestizos, it seems, are a product of that clash and should come to terms with it. Speaking for myself, I embrace everything that could possibly be my cultural heritage.
It is well documented in our family tree that we, the Garzas, in my case on the maternal side, are descended from Spanish Sephardic Jews that had converted to Catholicism by the time they settled in Northern Mexico….and we look it….as do so many in Northern Mexico. Jewish stereotype humor abounds in that region as do foods of Jewish origin. The last time I was in the Monterrey, Nuevo Leon area, I bought, during a stop at a gas station, a small semita (a very plain pan dulce of Jewish origin) packaged as Twinkies are in this country.
I’ve been told that those Spaniards of Jewish origins looking for a place to settle gravitated to Northern Mexico because they could buy large tracts of land very cheaply, the catch being that the area is almost perpetually in a state of drought. Then, they raised goats and sheep because that stock is good at surviving those terrains and that seems, even allegorically, to be the story of my family. The family ranch I used to visit, “Los Garzas”, was fairly large and there was a small herd of cattle and a large herd of goats and some sheep. It is unclear how large the ranch was originally but it probably goes back more than a century and it was broken up into different ranches through inheritance. It was no coincidence that relatives owned ranches all around.
Like so many these days, I spit into a vial and sent it in to be analyzed and got a big surprise. My DNA analysis says I am 44% Native American (Chicimeca royalty, no doubt), genetically linked to the native inhabitants of the northern Mexican states of Nuevo Leon and Coahuila. This makes sense; it is the region of Mexico my Spanish ancestors settled in and became absorbed by. I am also 40% Spanish (royal blood, no doubt), 5% Portuguese, only 5% European Jew, 3% French, and 1% Senegalese, North African and Middle Eastern, respectively. If I sometimes come across as arrogant, it is probably because I am and we can blame that on my French genes. Thanks to science, I now know all this to be as true global warming. It is liberating to know I’m….
100% pure Chicano!
Europa y Las Americas
charcoal drawing on paper
two panels, each 41” x 29”
collection of the artist