In 1993, the CARA exhibition ended its three-year traveling run at the San Antonio Museum of Art. “CARA: Chicano Art Resistance and Affirmation” was the acclaimed Chicana/o art exhibition organized by UCLA’s Wight Gallery and a large team of Chicano scholars, artists and curators. Opening in Los Angeles in 1990, the groundbreaking exhibit featuring the work of over one hundred artists traveled across the country, marking a watershed moment for Chicano art, one of acceptance, inclusion and a national recognition of the genre. The moment however stood in stark contrast to the events of the following year when Proposition 187, the nativist California ballot measure that called for the denial of public services such as education and health care to undocumented immigrants, passed with almost 60% of Californians supporting the measure. While it seemed like Chicana/o artists had made some inroads into the nation’s mainstream art world, the blatant racism inherent in the so-called Save Our State initiative (as Prop 187 was branded) suggested otherwise.
More on Prop 187 and the movement it inspired
At the time of Prop 187, Chicana/o artists had, after struggling for decades to find a place within galleries, museums and universities, established a strong, if small, niche in the Los Angeles art world. Many of the artists who found themselves with invitations to show at private galleries, mount exhibitions, perform at universities and secure significant public art contracts, had for the most part been informed by and/or were active participants in the Mexican American social justice movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, now commonly referred to as The Chicano Movement. The movement’s most crucial issues of the day revolved around the anti-Vietnam war movement, labor issues — particularly the United Farm Workers Union — and the struggle for equal education, inciting large protest rallies, marches and school walkouts. While issues relating to Mexican immigration to the United States were relevant and foundational to the Mexican American community, other issues were far more compelling to the generation of young Chicanos coming of age at this time. Chicanismo was the strategy employed to build a movement and inform a new visual culture and iconography. The concept of Aztlan emerged as a sacred landscape that grounded the movement with the notion of a spiritual homeland and culturally connected U.S.-born Chicanos to Mexico and its Indigenous past.
For the most part, Chicanismo and Aztlan informed the rich, visual language of Chicano art as well as its public and performative culture from its inception in the mid-1960s through the 1970s. Unfortunately, the slogans such as La Causa and Viva La Raza did not recognize, let alone remedy, the gender and sexual preference inequalities rampant in the movement and the genre. As such, Chicana and LGBTQ artists emerged with powerful and now iconic visual responses, while more progressive and conceptual urban collectives pushed the envelope on performance and iconography. Self Help Graphics, the most established art space on L.A.’s Eastside, showcased the work of progressive community artists. By the mid-1990s, it was internationally renowned for its printmaking ateliers, Day of the Dead altar making and exhibitions. As the millennium approached, a handful of artists who emerged out of the Chicano Movement found commercial success, while significant Chicana/o art collections were being built by private collectors, and murals influenced by Chicana/o artists could now be found around the world. But there were cracks in the walls. Chicanismo alone could not save the community from the growing onslaught of the Save Our State ideologyin the final decade of the 20th century.
Towards the Millennium: Zapatismo, Chicanismo and the Transformation of Chicanx Visual and Performative Culture
The rise of the Zapatista movement in Chiapas in response to the impact of global capitalism at the timely moment of the signing of NAFTA in January of 1994 provided an alternative vision for a new generation of artists. Just like the Chicano Movement, it would be the youth that would create a new model that would shape Chicano popular culture and identity in the coming millennium. This new era of globalization would launch a very different approach to artistic activism among Chicanx youth who had come of age with the burgeoning prison industrial system, which increasingly criminalized Black and Brown youth; the post-Rodney King verdict uprising and increasing marginalization, notwithstanding a strong consciousness and connection to Mexican immigrant communities and Indigenous groups. Immigration was not an abstract concept but a lived experience as emerging artists were often immigrants or children of immigrants. Prop 187 became the catalyst for a newfound activism against racist, anti-immigrant sentiment, while Zapatismo was embraced as the model for organizing. By the millennium, emerging artists and activists, now known as artivists explored online communication and mobilization, digital media, zines, pan-Latinx coalitions, feminism and open LGBTQ expression, transnational cultural aesthetics and employed fusions of theater, hip-hop, rap and Mexican traditional folk music as public, political platforms. In the meantime, first-generation Chicanx artists pushed forward the foundational concept of Aztlan, while embracing the principles of Zapatismo and engaging with younger artists as both mentors and comrades-in-arms.
By the mid 1980s, the international worldview inherent in Chicana/o art would link the genre to struggles throughout Latin America, Africa and the Middle East. Chicana/o artists rose up in solidarity with the growing community of Central American refugees migrating to Los Angeles fleeing civil wars and unrest in their homelands. First-generation Chicana artist Yreina Cervántez, along with ESA/EastSide Artistas, including Gloria Alvarez, Frances Salome España, Marialice Jacob, Norma Alicia Pino and Kay Torres, organized the exhibition, “Alerta!” at Self Help Graphics in 1987. A passionate testimonial and critical response to the border policies of Howard Ezell, the INS commissioner for both Presidents Reagan and Bush in 1980s and ‘90s (he would later help write Prop 187), “Alerta!” displayed the intersectionality and solidarity with immigrants while foreshadowing the political struggles in the decades to come. Cervantez’ work consistently draws upon indigenismo as a means to expose the mythologies and inaccuracies referencing Mexicano, Latino and Indigena populations in the United States as illegal aliens.
Click through below to see more works from 1987's "Alerta" at Self Help Graphics.
Artist Sandra de la Loza recalls the cultural milieu of arts activism in Northeast L.A. at the time of Prop 187 as richly creative, with political struggles ranging from anti-Prop 187 protests, to support for Indigenous rights, to confronting environmental issues and police brutality. Her collaborations with the Aztlan Cultural Arts Foundation at the Old Los Angeles City Jail were foundational to the development of her political consciousness and helped her find her voice as a young artist within diverse, progressive art collectives. De la Loza’s early photographs provide not only a glimpse into the activist community’s response to the injustices of the time, but also reveal her early experimental approaches to documentary photography.
Click through below to see more of Sandra de la Loza's work.
Xicana artist and activist Felicia Montes was an undergraduate student in Los Angeles exploring her creativity in the post-187 years. She found inspiration at the People’s Resource Center (PRC) founded by musician Zach de la Rocha in Highland Park. This experimental art space was ground zero in providing support for young artists on the Eastside and being a place to collectively develop their political consciousness and share their artistic expressions. Montes, along with a group of like-minded women artists, began meeting at the PRC and founded Mujeres de Maiz (women of the corn) in 1997.
Xicana artist and graphic designer for the organization, Margaret Alarcón, recalls the group as a powerful and necessary group of activist women, rooted indigenous consciousness as well as being feminist, multiracial, intersectional and intergenerational. In 1997, some of its members traveled to Chiapas with other politically active Chicanx artists and musicians for the Encuentro Chicano Zapatista in 1997 (this was a series of meetings in Chiapas with young Chicano artists and Zapatistas enabling dialog and exchange of ideas between them). Upon their return, they integrated Zapatista organizing principles and women’s revolutionary laws into their organization, which sought to nurture women’s creativity, wellness and accomplishments, with an unapologetic and revolutionary consciousness. Both Montes and Alarcón credit the post-187 political moment and the PRC in Highland Park as foundational, laying the groundwork in allowing Mujeres de Maiz to grow and evolve into the significant Los Angeles grassroots, multimedia arts organization it is today.
Author’s note: The changing identity labels used in this article such as Chicano, Chicana/o, Chicanx and Mexican American is an attempt to reflect the changing contexts and socio-political perspectives of this community through the decades.
Top Image: “Metamorphosis, 1995” by Margaret ‘Quica’ Alarcón is a photo collage triptych with pantone marker. | Margaret “Quica” Alarcón