Another month, another Mental Menudo! Once again caballero and rabble rouser, Magu, held one of his discussions on art and world around it. This time we were hosted by the Mexican Cultural Institute - board chair Abelardo de la Pe?a Jr. attended and made us feel welcome. Magu, some know him as Gilbert Lujan, invited four artists to participate, and this time the subject was the role of the artist. Barbara Carrasco, Harry Gamboa, Yreina Cervantes and Linda Vallejo all spoke a bit about their careers and backgrounds. Most interesting was listening to these accomplished artists talk about their histories, seeing commonalities between them and feeling as though their stories were familiar; their
histories could be mine or yours. At least two of them went to Catholic schools; three of them were born circa 1950; all grew up in Los Angeles and are well traveled.
The first question Magu put to the artists was how they each viewed Chican@ Culture, in it's diversity, and how they defined it. Linda's response was interesting. She spoke of Chicanism@ as a "Raza Cosmica which is carried in your heart." It wasn't about when you were born, what you did for a living, how much you earned, but that you carried your culture with you in everything you did and honored it. Linda went on to talk about art and that art is about "having an individual statement" and that la Raza Cosmica was in essence an "alchemy of individual statements."?
Barbara then chimed into the discussion, talking about Chican@ Culture as though it is a large family. Chicano Culture was like having a large feuding family- better to have a feuding family than none at all- it was much better than having to go it alone. Barbara went on to talk about how it is false to look at the production of art as being a linear thing on a timeline. Art, according to her, spirals around and it builds upon itself with the influence of the times around it. Touching upon this point later on in the discussion, Barbara responded to the query of how her art evolved by telling of her first encouragement from the United Farm Workers movement and her involvement in the struggle for migrant farm workers' rights. The UFW movement first encouraged her artistic ability and she evolved from there as an artist.
Something very interesting to me were the stories from each of them about how they were viewed by various institutions as inconsequential, or as outright dangerous. Harry spoke of finding his name listed in a book of enemies to the US government - the majority of the others on the same list were dead by various causes, most not natural. Others talked
about their struggle for acceptance, no not acceptance, but of simple acknowledgement as students and professionals of color in academia. This led to a question of how each of them dealt with the hassle of being misunderstood within institutions. Most responded in the same way - they basically found and created opportunities for themselves
until those same institutions later came to them. Harry talked about his outright refusal to go to school at a certain point in his life, and is self taught. Barbara spoke of telling a professor that she would not take her class- she had nothing to learn from her. Yreina found her stronghold in a Chican@ Studies department - rather than an
art department. Linda worked as a student, and worked and worked and worked until they just left her alone with the equipment she wanted to explore- which is what she wanted in the first place.
While many of the artists were of the same generation- one was from my generation and yet they had similar stories to tell about the difficulty of acceptance in the greater institutional/professional world. All of them prevailed and were stronger for their struggles, but this disturbed me, seeing that we might still be fighting some of the same battles over and over and over again. It seems the work of the minority individual in sharing and lifting the narrative, of discussing the realities of their lives is never done. One thing is true, however. We are no longer looking for validation. We learned
not to wait for that, because it may never come. But if we are to live in a world where we are the minority, then our stories, our cuentos, must be respected and honored as much as the next person's.
At the end of the night after listening to all the artists share their cuentos del alma, I could picture the art that came from each of them. Their answers were the strokes of their paint brushes or the clicks of their cameras, as the case may be. This was a discussion filled with some hard truths and many successes hard won. Many thanks to the host,
Magu and especially our brave and courageous artists.