Chicano Movement Chicanx Art: A Domain of Political Dispute

Decolonisation – File photo (19 July 2008) of a mural on Cesar Chavez Avenue in East Los Angeles named Raza Adelante, including the image of Cesar Chavez (centre).
File photo of a mural named Raza Adelante, including the image of Cesar Chavez (centre), is seen on Cesar Chavez Avenue in East Los Angeles, 19 July 2008. The term “la raza” has deep roots in Mexico after that country’s revolution and in the US Chicano Movement of the 1970s which helped elect some of the nation's first Latinos to public office. | Photo (detail): Reed Saxon © picture alliance/AP Photo​

Chicanx art sustains the sense of resistance to US cultural hegemony while it also continues to act as an element for constructing a collective Chicanx memory and it is strained by the political and diplomatic exploitation of the Mexican State. 

By Eduardo Luciano Tadeo Hernández

The second half of the 20th century was marked by the social and cultural activism of different men and women who, at the time, were identified with the third world. In the United States, in particular, the Chicano Movement arose with the objective of putting an end to the historical discrimination and violence against the community of people of Mexican origin in this country, in turn, defending their ethnic identity. There were a range of different strategies for taking action, but some used art and culture as tools for social resistance. Over time, Chicanx cultural expressions have become a domain of political dispute. On the one hand, they continue to act as means of resistance to US cultural assimilation; yet, on the other hand, these expressions are exploited to advance Mexican State political and diplomatic agendas.

The cultural shift in the heart of resistance

From early on, discussion of ethnicity has been at the centre of Chicanx identity and actions, in such a way that - in line with the reflections of Tino Villanueva - the appropriation of the terms Chicanx, Chicana, Chicano was a way of resignifying the negative meaning that was previously linked to this signifier in order to bestow it with pride in the past and in the origins of the community, which we can consider as a cultural and political shift that started with a change in the use of language. From this perspective, the Chicanx community’s cultural expressions are also a reference point for problematizing the way in which the traditional US and Mexican social world are imagined.  
  • Decolonsiation – On Friday, 17 January 2020, a media sneak peek was given of Cheech Marin's private collection that will be part of the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art, Culture & Industry at the Riverside museum in Riverside, California. Cindy Yamanaka © picture alliance / ZUMAPRESS.com
    Elle Carlos, Riverside Art Museum Public Outreach, gives media a sneak peek of Cheech Marin's private collection that will be part of the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art, Culture & Industry at the Riverside in Riverside, California, on Friday, 17 January 2020.
  • Decolonisation – On Saturday, 29 August 2020, demonstrators march to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Chicano Moratorium in Los Angeles. Image of Sport © picture alliance / Newscom
    Demonstrators march during a Chicano National Day of Action rally to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Chicano Moratorium, Saturday, 29 August 2020, on S. Atlantic Blvd. in Los Angeles.
  • Decolonisation – On Saturday, 29 August 2020, Aztec dancers perform to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Chicano Moratorium in Los Angeles.   Image of Sport © picture alliance / Newscom
    Aztec dancers perform during a Chicano National Day of Action march to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Chicano Moratorium on S. Atlantic Blvd. in Los Angeles on Saturday, 29 August 2020.
  • Decolonisation – El Paso, Texas: residents stand near a mural with Chicano historical figures in the Segundo Barrio neighbourhood. © picture alliance / AP Photo
    Residents stand near a mural with Chicano historical figures in the Segundo Barrio of El Paso, Texas. El Paso’s Chihuahuita and El Segundo Barrio neighbourhoods made The National Trust for Historic Preservation's 2016 list of “America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places”, an annual list that spotlights important examples of the nation’s architectural and cultural heritage that are at risk of destruction or irreparable damage.
 
Theatre, literature, visual arts, film and performance art are some of the cultural areas that men and women who identify as Chicanxs have participated in throughout these decades to reinforce Chicanx art, diverse by definition. In the book La creación de la nación chicana: perspectivas historiográficas (The Creation of the Chicano Nation: Historiographical Perspectives) David Maciel mentions some creators, including Bernice Zamora and her poetry, Luis Valdéz with El Teatro Campesino and the novels by Alejandro Morales Old Faces and New Wine and by Gloria Anzaldúa Borderlands/La Frontera. Today, Chicanx works and creators have a global importance that has been understood by the Mexican State, which has sought to exploit these creations for political and diplomatic purposes.   

The State and political and diplomatic exploitation

The recognition of the value of Chicanx artistic and cultural expressions as part of the activities of cultural representation in Mexican diplomacy is relatively recent. This delayed response from Mexican diplomacy can be explained given that, while the Chicanx Movement does celebrate Mexican origin, it also dislocates and resignifies it by using its own reference points of the border and immigration, thus questioning the centralist discourse that is such a constant in Mexican culture.   
 
An example of the Mexican government’s exploitation can be seen in the exhibition Before the 45th | Action/Reaction in Chicano and Latino Art presented in December 2017. It was funded by the businessman Cástulo de la Rocha, founder of the company Altamed, and co-organised by the Cultural Institute of the Embassy of Mexico in Washington DC with Julian Bermúdez as the curator. The exhibition included a variety of pieces, among which there were prints, paintings, photographs, drawings, sculptures and mixed media. The point was to show how Chicanx art represented the different injustices that the community has faced in the United States. The Mexican government asked Altamed to also present the exhibition in Mexico and so, in 2018, it arrived to the Carrillo Gil Museum in Mexico City with the title Construyendo puentes, building bridges: Arte Chicano/Mexicano de LA a Ciudad de México, in a clear counterargument to President Donald Trump’s idea of building walls. As part of the curatorship in Mexico, there was an insistence on Chicanx art being part of US art history.        

“Today, there is a Chicanx aesthetic that is valued by certain political and cultural elites and within institutional structures where Chicanx art is studied and promoted. However, it has not lost its sense of resistance.”

“Today, there is a Chicanx aesthetic that is valued by certain political and cultural elites and within institutional structures where Chicanx art is studied and promoted. However, it has not lost its sense of resistance.”

“Today, there is a Chicanx aesthetic that is valued by certain political and cultural elites and within institutional structures where Chicanx art is studied and promoted. However, it has not lost its sense of resistance.”

On both sides of the border, these exhibits sought to create visibility around the historical difficulties of Chicanxs in the United States, evading the different problems and stereotypes that continue to exist about them in Mexico. And so, although there can be celebration of curatorial efforts that draw attention to the richness of Chicanx culture along with the discrimination and social injustice in the north, when the state apparatus joins in promoting Chicanx culture and does so without a critical eye, forgetting the discrimination members of this community have faced in Mexico, it becomes an actor that appropriates the Chicanx community’s discourse of resistance.    

Resistance remains, despite it all

Today, there is a Chicanx aesthetic that is valued by certain political and cultural elites and within institutional structures where Chicanx art is studied and promoted. However, it has not lost its sense of resistance. This can be seen in the community initiatives of artists who understand Chicanx culture as a living element that is capable of transforming the social environment. An example is the digital exhibition Chicanoexhibit, curated by Abram Moya Jr. and backed by a coalition of Chicanx groups in 2020 as part of the commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the Chicano Moratorium - a peaceful protest that took place on 29 August 1970 with participation from members of the Chicano Movement who questioned the war in Vietnam and where three Chicanos were killed at the hands of US police.    
 
The exhibition shows a variety of pieces that place Chicanx history at the centre from an intergenerational perspective and with a clear political meaning. Emerging artists, master artists, contemporary artists and mural painters participate, creating a hybrid display of symbols that make reference to Chicanx resistance. One of the emerging displays is titled Y la guerra continúa (And the War Goes On), created by Cynthia Salazar, a 17-year-old artist, who portrays a young Chicana woman holding a sign that says “Raza sí, Guerra No” (Race yes, War No) and behind her there is a banner in remembrance of Vanessa Guillen, a Chicana woman who was murdered in 2020. The Chicanx Movement does not only remember the past, it is the constant struggle that women and men of Mexican origin experience in the United States, and this painting and the exhibition itself is an invitation to consider this resistance in current times.  
 
Chicanx art sustains the sense of resistance to US cultural hegemony while it also continues to act as an element for constructing a collective Chicanx memory, and it is strained by the political and diplomatic exploitation of the Mexican State. Perhaps this condition of discursive dispute can be additional evidence of the political significance of today’s Chicanx Movement.