Number 40, Spring 2003

Art Takes Center Stage
by Frances Fernandes

Art erupted from Harry Gamboa like molten lava and the arts community looked the other way.

But Gamboa found ways to get their attention. When he noticed Chicano artists were totally absent from the huge Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1970, he and his arts collective spray-painted the museum walls with graffiti-style art.

Front Page A
Courtesy of Steven Lopez, a program assistant for the Gluck Fellows Program of the arts at UC Riverside. Lopez, a 2000 UC Santa Barbara art department alumnus, is an independent Riverside artist.

And they signed their work.

Their art was born of civil rights protests and the anti-Vietnam War movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s. Even “Asco” (disgust), as the East Los Angeles collective called itself, proclaimed a rejection of the status quo.

The group’s artwork embodied that disgust. That art of ideas rejected the institutionalized art hanging on the walls of museums and homes of the wealthy.

Thirty years later, the institutional art world still isn’t beating a path to Gamboa’s door. In 1998, when UCLA’s Chon Noriega sought funding to assemble Gamboa’s collected writings for publication, he found little financial support.

UC MEXUS has long recognized how UC artists and scholars struggle to get their projects off the ground, and offers seed funding through its annual grants programs.

In the last couple of years alone the Institute has commissioned a musical composition, helped underwrite art and photography exhibits, performances of theater, dance and literature, the making of movies and collection of the work of indigenous writers.

Equally as important, UC MEXUS funding has forged connections among artists and academics, provided resources to students and members of the community, and pierced many of the myths about Mexico and Mexican Americans.

“The arts exist to express points of view that are outside the political system,” says Noriega, a professor of film and television and director of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. “The arts say there are other ways of thinking, other issues that are part of the debate.”

Such was the case with Gamboa. Raised in East Los Angeles, which he described as “an armed camp,” Gamboa had an early education in the values of the mainstream. In first grade, when a teacher heard him speaking Spanish, she made him wear a dunce cap in class with the word S P A N I S H emblazoned on it.

A decade later, he was organizing student walkouts and demanding meaningful education to prepare Chicanos for something more than a career as cannon fodder inVietnam, said writer Susan Otto. Such experiences fueled Gamboa’s political and artistic selves. His art did doubleduty – protesting the political and educational systems that further disadvantaged Latinos, and challenging accepted ideas of art as objects rather than ideas.

Cover of Urban Exile
"Urban Exile" by Harry Gamboa, Jr.,
University of Minnesota Press, 1998.

By 1998, the artist had accumulated writings that documented an entire era in the history of a movement little reported by mainstream media or academia.

In 1998, Noriega figured it was time people knew more about him and began casting around for support to anthologize Gamboa’s material. Although scholars and the art community had begun to recognize his work, the publishing community still lagged behind. Noriega spent 18 months searching for a publisher, until the University of Minnesota Press stepped up to print Urban Exile: Collected Writings of Harry Gamboa Jr.

“Without a book like this you basically have a false history of what happened in the 1970s and ‘80s in terms of Chicano cultural production,” said Noriega. “By publishing (this material) all at once you are making it available to anyone who has access to a library.”

If funding for such projects was problematic in 1998, the intervening five years have not been kind to artists nor to academics like Noriega seeking to conserve the artists’ work. Although National Endowment for the Arts grants have increased slightly, performing artists and those who support them, have been seeing the overall financial picture get grimmer and grimmer over the last couple of years.

“The arts are the least-funded area in civil society,” Noriega said. “Even at the university, research funds have diminished.”

At the same time, newspaper headlines nationwide have been screaming the news of the decimation of state funding of the arts.

“I don’t think we have a public understanding of why the arts are important,” Noriega said. “Art won’t feed you or save you from a car wreck, but in the end it does something that is much more necessary for a human society.”

Noriega’s comments find agreement among his colleagues.

“The arts feed us intellectually and spiritually,” said UCLA Theater Professor José L. Valenzuela, also a professional director. “It’s part of our daily bread. We can’t abandon the arts in a society that is evolving every day.”

Just as Gamboa’s art and writing traced the history of Chicano protest in Southern California, other artists have written from their personal and cultural history as well.

“I was inspired by the Chicano movement and coming of age in the Southwest,” said playwright Carlos Morton, director of the Center for Chicano Studies at UC Santa Barbara. The more than two-dozen plays he has written have been performed all over the United States and Mexico. One of them – Johnny Tenorio – was recently produced in Morelos, Mexico.

A Chicano rendering of the Don Juan story, Johnny Tenorio, drew accolades from Lee A. Daniel of Texas Christian University, who called it a mix of universal literature with one of Mexico’s oldest traditions, The Day of the Dead.

“This excellent example of bilingual Chicano theatre also provides an ideal vehicle for the dramatist to analyze two preoccupations – machismo and donjuanismo,” he wrote in the introduction to Johnny Tenorio and Other Plays.

As with Gamboa, the inequities and injustices Chicanos often face trigger his inspiration, Morton said.

“I am writing about their problems and the things that are holding Chicanos back.”

That point has not been missed by those in the theater world.

Carlos (Morton) ha vivido y realizado su trabajo teatral en el corazón de su propia experiencia: las contradicciones de la cultura Chicana,” theater director and Jesuit Jack Warner told a Mexican radio interviewer.1

The issues Morton addresses in his plays keenly interest people in Mexico, who see Chicano theater as a window into the lives of so many of their relatives living in the United States. Morton has been instrumental in that theater to a Mexican audience, most notably in his recent Morelos production, supported in part by UC MEXUS.

During a UCLA theater festival last year, more than 400 Chicano and Latino students, and members of the public, saw Morton’s play, The Many Deaths of Danny Rosales. The piece deals with the issue of police brutality as played out in the ripped-from-the-headlines story of a young man shot to death by the highest ranking police officer in a rural Texas town.

The play was one of ten that student groups from around the country produced for Chicano Theatre Festival 2002. Each group rehearsed a different play, and then met at UCLA to perform and critique them during the five-day event.

Valenzuela, who organized the festival, had never ventured into the student theater arena before. The pace he set for the participants was stiff. In addition to critique sessions, evaluations and writing workshops daily, each group performed its play twice: once for their fellow students and again, in the evening, before a sold-out house in the 500-seat theater.

Despite two years’ hard work and difficulties raising the $205,000 the event cost, Valenzuela doesn’t regret his foray into student theater.

“It was electrifying,” he said. “There was incredible energy . . . . This changed some people’s lives.”

The community has changed so much with the influx of Central Americans that many Latinos don’t feel a sense of identity with the Chicano experience, he said. But, once the students learned about Chicano history and culture, they felt a greater sense of inclusion and a corresponding responsibility.

“One thing we said to them was, ‘We are the older generation, and we are passing the baton to you.’”

The UCLA group has taken that challenge to heart. After working with Valenzuela on their festival play, the group now writes and produces plays dealing with contemporary political issues. One of those students, Tonatzin Esparza, auditioned for a professional production Valenzuela was directing soon after the festival concluded. That part led to a slot in the George Lopez Show on ABC.

Valenzuela continues his involvement with student actors. This summer, he is leading a three-week acting program on campus. And, despite the work involved, he also is considering an encore to the Chicano theater festival.

“I have the idea of taking it to Mexico. Perhaps next year in Veracruz,” he said. “There was a Chicano festival there in 1974 so it would be timely — a thirty-year anniversary and an opportunity for student exchange. The options are limitless.”

Limitless options are what UC Davis Professor Inés Hernández-Avila found when she sought a grant to document the history and work of an emerging movement of Mexican indigenous writers. Her project, The Power of Native Languages and the Performance of Indigenous Autonomy: The Case of Mexico, has put her at the center of a major indigenous language writers’ movement in Mexico, and provided innumerable contacts among Mexican and Latin American writers and scholars.

Hernández-Avila’s introduction to these writers took place in 1997 when she was invited to Mexico to participate in a hemispheric meeting of indigenous writers sponsored by the Asociación de Escritores en Lenguas Indígenas (ELIAC).

A Chicana and Nez Perce poet, she was the only U.S. representative taking part in a gathering of writers whose work is performed and published bilingually — in Spanish and in their indigenous language. Her own Native American roots, combined with her own literary background, inspired her to explore the language and literature of these Mexican indigenous writers.

“My excitement was generated by the public performance . . . literary recital and song of work native writers produced in a diversity of native languages and translated into Spanish.”

An invitation the following year to be a judge of the Premio Continental Canto de America de Literatura en Lenguages Indigenas enabled Hernández-Avila to become familiar with an extensive network of writers and their work, and confirmed her deep desire to witness and record their performance. The grant that began as a way to record the history of ELIAC quickly turned into a major commitment to indigenous writers at the national and the regional level. Chiapas writers particularly express their struggle in their native language clearly and defiantly, she said.

Another grant facilitated a trip to Chiapas where she met and documented the work of a group of women playwrights, Fortaleza de la Mujer Maya (FOMMA), whose work she has begun to film.

Back at Davis, Hernández-Avila is assembling a multi-lingual collection of indigenous poets of the Americas from Canada to Mexico.

Composer Silvestre Revueltas might have counted among the artistic treasures that was almost lost, had it not been for the attention of musicians and academics like Byron Adams.

Adams was drawn to Mexican music through his fascination with the intersection of nationalism and modernism in 20th century music. He built a graduate seminar around the phenomenon of nationalistic impulses playing out in European music that he likes to call “shepherds and Nazis.” Then Revueltas came into the picture.

“Here is a composer within this hemisphere who exemplifies these intersections at a level that equals any of those I have studied,” Adams said.

“The composer’s music engages Mexican folk and popular music with modernism in a way that is much more seamless than, say, Aaron Copland or his Mexican contemporary Carlos Chavez,” he said. Both composers made a clear distinction between their populist and their high art music.

A performance of Revueltas’ “Noche de las Mayas” by the Pasadena Symphony so engaged Adams that he sought a way to bring this music to the campus community. He received a UC MEXUS grant that enabled him to undertake a collaboration with Universidad de las Américas at Puebla (UDLA) and mount a Revueltas study day at UC Riverside, including a talk by UDLA dean of humanities and Revueltas specialist María Luisa Vilar Payá.

Adams invited the Denali String Quartet to perform a cycle of the complete string quartets of Revueltas, which he said needed young musicians with fire in their bellies. This is one of the first performances -- if not the first – of the complete string quartets of Revueltas given in Southern California, Adams said.

“We were forced to turn people away from the concert.”

The Revueltas day accomplished more than a mere introduction to a new composer, Adams said.

“When people think of music in Mexico they think of ballet folklórico,” he said. “There is an extraordinary and distinguished tradition of high art and high art music – of an international quality.”

Now Adams and Vilar are thinking of another collaboration, this time involving a group of Mexican women composers.

The rhythm and pulse of Latin American music found voice before another academic group in a new quintet for piano and strings by UC Berkeley’s Jorge M. Liderman.

The piece premiered May 4 to rave reviews by San Francisco Chronicle music critic Josh Koshman.

“Liderman writes with a deft combination of rhythmic fluency and instrumental resourcefulness,” he wrote. “The new piece finds him at his most overtly charming.”

Rave reviews are nothing new to the Argentina-born music professor whose works have been played all over the word by many of the best-known names in music.

Working with the Mexican Cuarteto Latinoamericano, and pianist Sonia Rubinsky, Liderman says he was able to refine the piece before the performance and subsequent recording session.

Producing a CD of the new piece was a part of his grant agreement, which also called for an additional component dedicated to UC Berkeley student composers. They spent a session with the four musicians from Cuarteto Latinamericano, who listened to and critiqued their compositions.

“The good thing about the UC MEXUS grant is that it not only allowed me to write and record the new piece, the students got something out of it too,” he said.

Having the musicians on hand was a boon for Liderman, who was able to hear his piece in its entirety for the first time.

“I made a lot of revisions during rehearsals,” he said. Liderman hopes to have a CD ready for distribution by year’s end.

Between now and the end of the year, a different art form is on display at the UCLA Fowler Museum, with partial support from UC MEXUS.

Adam & Eve
Photo by Don Cole, courtesy of
UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.

Trees of Life: Popular Art from Mexico — a bilingual exhibition, running through December 28 — takes a popular Mexican art form and shows the candelabra-like structures at their most sublime.

In addition to the 85 distinctive pieces from the three villages of San Juan Metepec, Izúcar de Matamoros and Acatlán de Osorio, outside financial support helped enrich the exhibition with photographs of the artists at work, bilingual text and video footage.

These arboles de la vida have been the village of Metepec’s signature for a half-century. Although a few other Mexican towns produce similar work, the 30 or 40 families in Metepec are generally seen as the masters. The artistic tradition in this region goes back 4,300 to pre-Aztec times, according to local historians. The roots of the tree-of-life tradition dates back to the Aztecs, but in this format, arboles de vida are a purely 20th century, and mostly Christian phenomenon.

Adam and Eve and religious images remain the favorite subjects, but artists have been known to stray from traditional themes. Metepec artist Oscar Soteno once made a tree based on scenes from the adventures of Batman and Robin. His uncle Tiburcio Soteno, a gifted artist, has made epic trees based on such themes as Mexican history, the encounter of the old world with the new, and the movie, Like Water for Chocolate. He once made a tree of life growing from a clay skull the size of a basketball.

Noah's Ark
Photo by Don Cole, courtesy of
UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.

Arboles de vida gained popularity in part because of the promotion of indigenous arts by such people as Frida Khalo and Diego Rivera, said Museum Director Marla C. Berns, exhibit curator. A book is planned, and museum officials say it will be the first such volume on this kind of artwork.

The exhibit seems to be a hit with educational groups, which are flooding the museum with requests to visit. Activities involving children and families have been an important aspect of this quintessentially Mexican exhibit, Berns said.

A quintessentially Mexican hero and an extraordinarily mysterious historical personage, Francisco “Pancho” Villa captured the imagination of then-graduate student film-maker Phillip Rodriguez. An enigmatic figure, Villa, the son of illiterate peasants, became one of revolutionary Mexico’s most powerful leaders by age 36 whom people passionately loved or hated.

Now a fellow of Marymount University’s Center for the Study of Los Angeles, Rodriguez credits his grandmother with the inspiration for his documentary dissertation project on Villa, supported in part by a UC MEXUS grant.

The Rodriguez family left Mexico, Rodriguez’ grandmother told him, because Villa had taken a fancy to her sister. Hearing this, their father uprooted them and fled before Villa could return for his daughter.

Rodriguez unearthed a wealth of information, photographs and film clips about Villa before he and his crew set off for Mexico in search of witnesses to history. The newspaper ads they placed, announcing their search for people who remembered Villa, drew a surprising response, he said. And the anecdotes of people they met, including Villa’s wife, form the core of Pancho Villa & Other Stories.

Critics praised the pioneering use of new digital technologies to create a contemporary feel to the 250 vintage photographs of Villa and the Revolution (1910-20), and the authentic motion picture footage that U.S. and Mexican film crews shot on the battlefields.

Rodriguez’ UCLA adviser Chon Noriega, meanwhile, continues with his efforts to preserve the recent history of the Chicano community and the artists that have grown out of it. At the end of May, art curators came to UCLA from all over the country to begin selecting the first eight Latino artists for a mammoth research and monograph series.

The artists being selected, like Gamboa, are those who challenged and engaged the art world and have been neglected by critics and academics. They are artists who documented the civil rights movement, whose art reflects social protest, cultural identity and historical awareness.

Once again, a small UC MEXUS grant helped fertilize the soil. Now, Noriega said, several foundations have requested proposals. The Hammer Museum and Los Angeles County Museum of Art — the same institution that so angered and rejected Gamboa — have expressed an interest.

“These projects and many others, such as those by Judy Baca, are only the tip of the iceberg,” said UC MEXUS Grants Officer Dr. Andrea Kaus.

“While it is encouraging and exciting to support the start of such projects,” Kaus said, “we are only seeing a small part of what the university is and can be doing.”

From new young artists to senior faculty with a broad perspective on artistic and cultural traditions, passionate and dedicated individuals sometimes can get a project to the point where it flourishes with only a small amount of seed funding, she said.

“We receive the smallest number of proposals in the arts,” Kaus said.

“Nothing would make me happier than to see the arts take a stronger hold of the Institute’s grants programs.”