One of my fondest memories growing up was going to the movies with my parents. Even in San Diego, we had our version of the Million Dollar Theatre, but ours was in Logan Heights.“El Coronet” was where Mexican cinema was a weekly Mecca for the culturally starved and homesick. It didn’t matter if I had a small Spanish vocabulary, at 8 years old I began to understand the tension between women and men giving into love, keeping their principles and resolving their differences to come together. All this visual-audio negotiation took place in a spectacular romantic Ranchera Musical, with fabulous costumes, handsome leading men and strong principled women. It was there that the emotionally charged scaled notes began to send chills up my spine, at the same time made my heart well up with cultural pride. My friend, John Santos an Afro-Cuban drummer told me he feels the same deep emotion when he hears bagpipes, because he is part Irish. Makes me wonder if sounds are also part of our genetic make-up. Denise Chavez’novel Loving Pedro Infante reaffirms that we Chicanitas learn about our ideal hombre through these icons of Mexican cinema.
If you Google search “whitewashing murals of East Los Angeles”, you will see that the censorship of murals in ELA is not a new topic. (Read “Looking Up Murals” by Ed Fuentes in this week’s LAeastside blog). By Internet researching you will also see that our East Los Angeles politicians were key in starting the mural and signage criticism, as they anointed themselves the politicians with the best taste in art. All of a sudden everyone that commissioned a sign for their grocery store or mural for their public wall, must get permission to do so. Could this spontaneous whitewashing of thousands of hours of artwork, and the loss of thousands of dollars in commissions, be the way to begin this dialogue? It’s as if none of us were expected to notice that our art was all-of-a-sudden gone. Mom & Pop businesses would rather take the loss than get involved in a civil litigation. They don’t have the time or resources to fight a political machine.
In the beginning of this public art criticism, graffiti spray paint art was scrutinized the most, because (without the benefit of any official study) the politicians said that spray paint art purportedly encourages gang graffiti. Studies point out that lack of fair living income jobs, lack of training post-high school, lack of childcare, lack of social services and lack of community support, encourages gang participation (ergo graffiti).
The muralists that have been a part of creating cultural pride through their visionary multi-medium works and making beauty out of housing projects and businesses that had been tossed away by the rest of the city—now have to become the activists to stop the whitewashing. There are books, films and countless articles that extol the murals of Los Angeles. Many cities in the world took a cue from East LA murals—resurrecting their local cultural pride through the lost art of the mural.
Ok, I agree that I too have wanted to whitewash a mural or two—especially that one off the 101 freeway where the menacing policeman is pointing a finger at passer-bys saying “BUCKLE-UP”. Yet, as an artist who knows the passion, hard work, communicative method, cultural critique that public art is—-my consciousness would not allow me to stop or destroy an art project. Instead I see it as an opportunity to dialogue with the creator and learn what they felt or meant by it. I find whitewashing art as sinister as a book burning. Note, however, that not everyone is like me—some still criticize public art by marring it. Interesting to this, is that no matter how bad of an execution an image of Jesus or the La Virgen is, no one mars it. Think about it. This is the language and dialogue of mural art. This is one of our cultural critical languages in East LA.
How does one go from public civil servant straight to supreme art critique? Oh—yeah, I forgot about the days of royal supported art commissions—-and here I thought we were in a new millennium. Holding back public funds for mural commissions—makes me feel that I need to behave better as an artist. It also helps me understand why Van Gogh cut off his ear.
If we allow our politicians to “know what is best for the community” without our in-put, without conferring with us—then we are no longer living in a democracy. As the people of this city, we have the power and responsibility to make sure that our public servants represent us in the way we want and that each citizen is treated respectfully. Whitewashing commissioned art and then not being able to determine who ordered the whitewashing—is not acceptable. Although this is a time of hardship for the muralists, I think we can best support them by making sure that their voices and visions are not censored.
I apologize to all the ELA politicians who are embarrassed by our art when they bring their West-side friends over to the barrio for tacos—but recognize that these impromptu and planned-out artistic endeavors are who we are.