Organize Your Own? with Garcia, Gaspar, Marroquin, & Romero at MCA Chicago

Organize Your Own Panel Discussion”

Moderator: Anthony Romero

Participants: Eric J. Garcia, Nicole Marroquin, Maria Gaspar

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

March 15, 2016


This panel asked artists to consider what “organizing your own” might mean in ethnically specific cultural contexts. The four participating artists considered the history of the impact of the Chicano civil rights movement on their organizing and practices as Latinx artists. The panel includes a screening of the film American Revolution 2, directed by Mike Gray and Howard Alk (Film Group, 1969).


ERIC J. GARCIA: I’m going to begin with an Aztec legend. The Aztecs believed that they originally came from a mythical homeland north of Mexico, called Aztlán. The Aztecs were nomads at one point. They ventured from Aztlán down to Lake Texcoco, where they eventually made the capital of their empire, Tenochtitlan, which is present day Mexico City. I want you to keep this Aztec myth in the back of your mind because it will be relevant as we move forward.

Centuries later, specifically in 1519, Hernán Cortés and his conquistadores arrived in Mexico and conquered the Aztec empire. Inevitably, the Spaniards mixed with the indigenous people and became something new. They created a new mixed culture, a mestizo culture. This mestizo culture rallied against the Spanish crown and was able to cast off the shackles of colonialism in 1821, when Mexico became its own independent nation. Now if we move further north, we see that there is another nation butting up against the once very grand landmass of the Mexican nation. In 1846, the United States, President Polk, and the idea of manifest destiny arrived in the Southwest. What we now know as the Southwest was then the Northern Territories of Mexico. Within two years, by 1848, almost half of Mexico’s nation was taken. California, Nuevo Mexico, Tejas, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Colorado—all these Indo-Hispano surname states. Do we ever wonder why most of these names are Spanish? It’s because they were once part of the empire of Spain, they were once part of the nation of Mexico, and now they belong in the hands of Uncle Sam. Along with these new territories that the United States absorbed or stole, it also took with them the populations that lived there, the Spanish-speaking populations that had lived in these territories for centuries. The United States, with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, promised these populations that their language, religion, and their land would be protected, but unfortunately this was not so. They, the Spanish-speaking peoples, became foreigners overnight in their own land, and this population had to assimilate in order to survive. Unfortunately, it became harder and harder to assimilate in a society that did not like nor want to have anything to do with the “other.” For example, the term “colored”; it doesn’t specifically mean Black people. “Colored” means people of all colors other than white—the “red” man, the “brown” man, the “black” man, and even the derogatory term, the “yellow” man.

As we move on through the decades, this inevitably frustrated the Mexican Americans, as they would now be called. They would try to prove their allegiance to this new government— they learned English—but they still could not fit in. Even though they were fighting and dying in wars overseas for the United States, they still were not accepted. They were coming back from wars like Korea and Vietnam, and they were still considered the other, foreign. This frustration inevitably boiled over during the Civil Rights Movement. In the different struggles that were going on in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Chicanos would use the Black Power Movement as a model for their own struggle for rights, specifically with leaders like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King as their guides and role models. The Black Power Movement was asking: How can we understand ourselves and defend ourselves? How can we self-determine our situation? The Mexican Americans started to ask these same questions. They were trapped in between spaces, as Anthony was talking about, this otherness. They were not accepted in Mexico, and they were not accepted in the United States. They were not accepted on either side of the border. They were born and raised in the United States, but of Mexican descent. There was a disconnect in both nations for these people; they were people without a nation. Eventually, radical Mexican Americans started thinking of themselves in different terms and with a different understanding of being, and they developed the term “Chicano.”  With the help of this new term the Chicanos identified themselves as a new movement.

With that term, Chicano, they also began to understand that they needed to learn more about themselves, versus just learning about pilgrims and George Washington. They started looking at their own histories and understanding that they had their own heroes and heroines, and they had their own myths and legends, just like the legend of Aztlán. The Chicanos absorbed the specific legend of Aztlán, and they began to use it in their own way to understand that, maybe, that mythical homeland of the Aztecs way up north was actually the Southwest where they lived. And maybe they were going to take back Aztlán from the occupying nation who stole it.  And this is how the Chicano movement evolved into a very radical, nationalist, and, sometimes militant, movement. Corky Gonzales, in his Manifesto, El Plan Espiritual de Aztlán, specifically states that art will be used as a tool for the struggle of independence and nationalism. This became one of the core aspects of Chicano art during that time—that it would be used as a tool and a vehicle for the struggle itself. You can see that in this political poster created by Malaquias Montoya, back in 1973. He is equating the Chicano struggle with the struggle that was happening in Vietnam during that time. He is equating his brothers in arms, the Viet Cong, with his own people in the Chicano movement, both of whom were fighting the United States against oppression, against occupation. I think it’s really interesting that they were not looking only within the borders of the United States but beyond, to other international struggles against colonialism.

I was fortunate enough to have been exposed to some of the remnants of this struggle in my own life, while I was in school at the University of New Mexico. I was taught by one of the Chicano Studies professors that lived during that time, Dr. Charles Truxillo. He was a radical Chicano Nationalist, very controversial, and I was able to absorb that history and spirit of resistance from him, which I implement into my artwork. History is the galvanizing force behind my art, and I create with the intent of using this art as a tool or vehicle to share the Chicano history with others. This is what became a motivating force to create what I create. I jump between many different media. I paint murals; I draw political cartoons published around the nation; and I do site-specific stuff, as you see here at the National Veterans Art Museum. I mix media and I do different things, but all of the work has the commonality of talking about the past and what it is to be here in the present, and all the political circumstances involved with different complications of race, history and politics that are happening not only here in the United States but abroad.


MARIA GASPAR: Hi, my name is Maria Gaspar; I’m an artist and educator. I’m going to focus on one specific community project, a project called 96 Acres that began in 2012. But before I start talking about that project, I want to look at a couple of works that really formed my political imagination as a young artist growing up in La Villita, or Little Village, on the west side of Chicago. I was really inspired by and worked with many murals as a kid. Although I never got to work on the Wall of Respect, for me, that project really represented an interesting, radical way of thinking about the way that communities can create their own kinds of narratives. Created by a group called OBAC, the Organization of Black American Culture, the mural was collectively conceived and produced by artists and non-artists as a way to highlight local black heroes and leaders. This piece by Hector Duarte is a project that he did a couple of years ago where he’s portraying himself underneath these sharp barbed-wire images, his hands held out in almost a position of arrest. This mural is literally on his home, about a block away from the National Museum of Mexican Art. I’m interested in looking at the politics of space, the way that brown and black bodies think about a sort of spatial justice. What are the ways that artists can intervene in architectures of power or powerlessness? How can the body become a political space, inserting itself into a political space and then reclaiming it? But I’m also interested in the idea of legibility and the freedom to also be illegible as a space of freedom. In looking at these architectures and thinking about public space, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my collaborators thinking about borders and walls. This is Border Church in Tijuana, Mexico, where two communities on either side of the wall come together in a ceremony. What are the politics of space and geography? What are the psychological elements of a place like this? The formal and informal elements that monitor behavior, or direct behavior, and the way these spaces keep people apart, spaces like the US–Mexico border.

In thinking of these spaces and the way that one kind of adapts or works against them, I started to look at the largest architecture of my neighborhood, the Cook County Jail. It is the largest jail in the country; it holds about 100,000 people per year, mostly Black and Brown people. A group of artists and educators started to really think about how communities across the street from the jail interact with such an oppressive space? But also how can radical interventions create counter-narratives around these places of power, and how can people collectively counter these issues of isolation, displacement, and oppression? I came across this manifesto recently, made by Arturo Romo, called Crystal Brilliance Manifesto from 2005. It was exhibited as part of the Phantom Sightings exhibition at LACMA. He’s talking about a new muralism; he’s talking about the tradition of poster art, of a kind of democratic artistic process. And in it, you see these really amazing tripped-out images. This is the part that I really love the most: he says, “Seek to reinterpret the flatness of the building, plow through the picture plane . . .  emphasize the flatness of the building as well as the illusionistic nature of the roundness that you might have taken for granted while being by your training desire. Transform the building into a crystal, into a mirror. Transform the exterior of the building into an interior space. But please, transform that building, change it into something else. Luminize it.”

The jail is 96 acres of compound. It is about the equivalent of 74 American football fields. This is a view from the administration building, looking all out towards La Villita, a community of about 80,000 residents, many of them youth. 96 Acres project is a series of community-engaged, site-responsive works that address the impact of the Cook County Jail on Chicago’s West Side and communities of color. We are interested in generating alternative narratives of power and thinking of a way to create a vision of transformation and healing. This is the #60 bus going from the east side of the neighborhood to the west side of the neighborhood, looking at the jail. There are some informal things that happen around the jail every year. Every September, you can experience the Mexican Day parade comprised of floats, cowboys, cowgirls—set up just outside of the jail wall in preparation for the long walk down 26th street. 96 Acres is comprised of lots of educators, artists, activists, many of whom are  in the audience, different kinds of collaborators. We’ve worked on audio archives, really focusing on people’s personal stories, first-person narratives, and the sharing of those stories. What we’ve noticed is that when we ask young people, “Who here has had a personal experience with the jail?,” many of them raise their hands. But what kind of spaces or places for dialogue do we create so that we can come together and talk about these things? We organize things like educational workshops, with many different community leaders, artists, educators who are interested in engaging the body, the youth, and the way that youth organizers are organizing in their own high schools and communities, learning from them. Throughout that work, we have produced eight site-responsive of projects that have ranged from zines and comics, to photography projects and a piece by Bianca Diaz, a two-page spread of a comic of mothers who are incarcerated and their families. We have worked with other artists to produce site-specific work; this is a photo studio situated across from the courthouse where the artist took photographs of all the passerby as a way to document and share stories. I’ll show you a little clip from this project by Yollocalli Arts Reach. It’s a reverse graffiti project where they use stencils to remove the dirt from the walls and the sidewalk to reveal text. . . ..


[video clip]


She ends with a really important point—that sometimes people don’t do bad things to be in there. We’re really thinking about and looking critically at the space and thinking about the issues around mass incarceration in this country. We incarcerate two and a half million people, more than any other country in the rest of the world. And she’s talking about the prison industrial complex; she understands that there are private prisons that exist that are mostly imprisoning people of color and the poor. I have a couple other pieces, but I invite you to go to the website to look at a couple of other projects that we’ve done, including a series of projections that tell stories from both sides of the wall about the experience of incarceration. Anthony asked two questions during his introduction; he asked, “What do we need?” and “What do we do?” And I was recently at a presentation by an artist, Amalia Mesa-Bains, who was talking  about equity, organizing, and  art . . . she asked the audience, “What do we have?” She was pointing out the resources that communities already collectively have. So I just wanted to put that out there as well: What do we have? Thank you.


NICOLE MARROQUIN: The Lower West Side of Chicago has been organizing for a really long time, and these are out takes from a film called Mi Raza: Portrait of a Family, made in 1972 by a filmmaker named Susan Stechnij, who was, according to Olga Herrera, a member of MARCH, the Chicano organizing group. Susan was a student in anthropology at UIC at the time. This is one of the pieces of material that I used when I was working with students at Benito Juarez High School. What I started looking at was a series of school uprisings that happened from 1968 to 1973, more or less. The main organizers of the 1968 walkouts were two Chicago Public School students named Victor Adams and Omar Aoki, featured here in Ebony magazine. Victor Adams  was a student at Harrison High School. These walkouts happened in October, a couple of months after Dr. King was killed. The students organized three walkouts in one month; one of them had 28,000 students; another one was estimated at close to 60,000 students.


On October 16, 1968, there was a meeting at which Latino students, who were walking out with the Black students, presented their manifesto during a meeting of the Black student organizers. I’m really interested in moments of solidarity between organizing groups, and I feel like there’s so many of these moments that aren’t talked about. I think that movements are led by youth, so my very first impulse was to run to the group of high school students that this would mean the most to, give it to them and see what they would do with the material. Let me read a quick quote from a student named Salvador Obregon who was in the 1968 meeting. He said Principal Burke had threatened him with deportation as an “undesirable alien” if he participated in or led the walkout. This was at a school that’s at 24th and California, which is now Saucedo Elementary. I found this picture [projected], about a month later, of a 1973 walk out. It was all 9th graders who led this. This is a map from 1968, so Juarez is where the heart is but it hadn’t been built yet. I’m talking about Harrison High School and Froebel, which, in 1964 was converted to Froebel Branch—the 9th grade branch of Harrison High School—and here is Benito Juarez, which is where the students who would have gone to Harrison and Froebel before, currently attend.

I started to work with Paulina Camacho and her students; she’s the head of the art department at Benito Juarez. I’ve been talking about this with her for a couple of years, and, over time, students have really taken to this project. We got accepted to a conference to talk about the outcomes of the work, which I’m going to show you. This [projected] is the timeline of events, and interestingly I found a picture from 1968 of students marching on the Board of Ed. with a coffin with a cross on it, and then, in 1973, the same community of students having a march with a coffin symbolizing the death of education. The marches were called Liberation Mondays in 1968. The thing I found so exciting about these Tribune articles and the photos, is that it’s similar to what’s happening now, when people say, “It couldn’t be these students; it must be outside agitators.” There’s a bunch of people saying, “This doesn’t  have anything to do with civil rights,” and calling the marchers hooligans or pranks. But  then there’s this really elaborate performance, and all these props, and the students are organizing in these huge and phenomenal performances!


A lot of what I’m talking about here is coming out of a dissertation by Jaime Alanis, who was looking at Red Squad files, currently housed in the Chicago History Museum. The police were the ones who were recording a lot of this information, just so you know. [The students and I] spent a lot of time looking at pictures and investigating what they are; you can’t take it at face value. This is another one [projected image] that I found on eBay. It was actually published in newspapers around the country,. This isn’t, like your romantic, righteous civil rights moment, where you hear electric guitars blaring in the documentary, like in the documentary, Chicano! People were injured and arrested. We can only see what the Tribune printed here. There were four Spanish-language newspapers that followed the story that are not in archived at all. We had a lot of other sources, like the 1973 yearbook. Students at Benito Juarez High School started to work with these images and I thought, “Who is this most important to? Who has the most at stake?” And it would be the 9th graders who attend Benito Juarez High School, which is the school that was built as a result of the uprisings. They know more than I could ever know by digging in any boxes. I realized that staring at the yearbook photos at the faces of the actual people who led the walkouts, who were there, who were either the witnesses or the leaders, that the students would intuitively ask the questions that needed to be asked. The students were thrilled to work with primary sources. I asked them a couple questions: What do you think happened? What would you have done? And what would you ask them? And these people are now around 56 to 60 years old, we figured. Students have been working with the images, and they’ve made hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of collages. The students had all my material at their disposal, at one point, and we were all sort of deducing what had happened. There’s the staircase, there’s the police . . . the riot cops showed up. One student was pretty much on the same page as me, really just wanting to know what happened on the stairs, that day in 1973, and so he animated it.


Another student is organizing her own archive, with images that she thinks are the most precious and that need to be saved, putting them in an order that reveals how she is interpreting them. Another student surprised everybody at a critique less than a week ago with this little tiny 2-inch sculpture of Froebel that fits into a box where you have to peek at it through these tiny, itty bitty holes. It’s about a 3- by 4-inch box, which sort of meant that this is all you are able to understand of the story of Froebel. Other students took it into their own hands and did a site-oriented burning piece where they took a giant photo of the riot cops and burnt it at the site where the school was. I’m just going to show you a little part, but they showed it in reverse so that the history would then begin to be revealed. And it says on it, “The truth always comes out in the end.” 64 students are currently proposing their own individual projects. While there’s so much that they’ve seen, there’s so much they haven’t seen. We just got cutting room floor out takes from this film, 100 minutes of them. There’s no sound; it’s just bits and pieces from the lives of the people that lived on the same block as the school and some of the kids that went there. We’ve just started.


ANTHONY ROMERO: I work in a lot of different ways, but for the purpose of this panel I’m going to focus on projects that have to do with organized interventions into institutional spaces. A few years ago, myself and an artist named Josh Rios were invited to Texas State University, which is in a small town called San Marcos in South Central Texas. For this project, we decided to create a temporary space that was attached to the art school. We asked all of the art professors who were teaching classes during that semester to give us their syllabi and any lectures that they might have for the week of our residency. We chose a number of courses, one course from each day. We invited a group of students from across the school, so these were not just art students; they were also biology majors and other kind of science majors, mathematicians, etc. Each day we would visit a different class. Students were asked to pay attention to three things: one was the way the architecture of the room impacted their learning. This could be the way that the chairs were arranged, how big the projection screen was, the kind of media the professor was using, etc. The second was the performance of the lecture, how that professor was communicating the information. The third was the larger context of the university. The university was funneling money into a lot of sports activities and was defunding other things. At the end of these class visits, we would all get together and we would share our notes with one another and build performances out of the experience in the classroom. These performances were all open to the public and took place in the main lecture hall.

Another recently completed project was that last summer, another collaborator, J. Soto, and I were invited to teach at Oxbow School of Art and use the opportunity to collaborate with the school to create a scholarship for Latina/Latino people to attend the school. I like this project very much because it sits just outside of my artistic practice and has a relationship with these kinds of activities, but maybe more directly impacts the institution and opens up the opportunity for other Latinx artists to occupy similar spaces. The student on the right is the first recipient of the scholarship, which was given out last year; this coming summer will be the second year.

The final project is something that I’m working on with a theater company in Mexico City called Teatro Linea de Sombra, a socially engaged theatre company based there. For that project, we’ve connected and will connect with artists in Chicago, as a way to think about the relationships between places like Juárez, Mexico City and Chicago. I just spent the last week in Mexico City: working with these artists. During that week, I was thinking about this quote from the artist Bas Jan Ader: “Who will fight the bear? No one? Then the bear has won.” When I think about the projects that the other panelists have talked about so gracefully, and I think about my own work, I think in part that it has to do with identifying these troubles, the “bears,” let’s call them. And in creating the conditions in which we might return the pressure of that force that is bearing down upon us. As a group, we’ve been talking a lot about the possibility of creating a Latinx Artists Retreat, in a way modeled after the Black Artists Retreat that Theaster Gates has been doing with a lot of other collaborators for a few years. This, I think, emerges from a similar place of both wanting to create the conditions for establishing stronger networks amongst ourselves—creating a kind of political cohesion across our practices and our regions and territories—and also to begin to think about how we might negotiate our entry or reentry or disavowal of pre-existing institutions and organizations.


I’m thinking about how nationalism for Black Americans, in particular citizenship, has always been an ongoing struggle, a little bit in a different way than I think Latino Americans sort of deal with. I’ll speak for myself instead of on behalf of all Black people, but I will say that [I understand] this question of not really feeling as a Black individual that I can entirely claim my citizenship to the States, nor can I really claim my citizenship to Africa. I’m wondering if you guys can speak to maybe how that pertains to your coalition. I don’t know if everyone is from the same place; how does that work? How is nationalism maybe or maybe not informing the retreat that you’re talking about?


EG: I think that’s super interesting because when we started meeting about this panel talk, we were talking amongst ourselves about where we come from and how each one of us has our own unique places and terms that we identify, even though we’re under the umbrella of Latinos or under the umbrella of Mexican-Americans. I still consider myself a Chicano, from the Southwest. I am originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico; I’m Nuevo-Mexicano, I’m from the other side of the Mississippi. Versus my comrades; some are from the Midwest, some are Tejano. There are all these different labels, even though we’re under some sort of umbrella.


NM: I actually was thinking about this concern that I have through the project that I am working on. For example, in 1968 when the organizing was happening, and there was all this solidarity, it was invisible in the news. In the Tribune it would say, like, “the 300 Puerto-Rican students and Black students and ‘others’ march” because they didn’t have any statistics on the Mexican or Mexican-American students because they were categorized as white. My birth certificate says white—that’s how segregated schools were desegregated without having to trouble the waters. All of this changed in ’72 in the case of Cisneros vs. Corpus Christi ISD, when it was determined that discrimination was occurring, and Mexican-American students were re-labeled, and could not be used to desegregate black schools. It’s still a difficult set of terms and we are all coming at it from different ways. I’m from Texas, and I didn’t know anything about this. My birth certificate says white. I didn’t find anything out about this until I was figuring out this history in the process of working on this project. And I’m relatively new to this history situation, and it’s really unlocking a lot for me around these topics. My parents were involved with Chicano movement people in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is really different; we all are coming from really different places, which makes it  difficult to define.


MG: I think a lot about how displacement and placelessness, or lacking space, is also really central to being able to unionize or form community. These are just things that are on my mind; I guess I’m just seeing some of the bridges between these two different constituents, groups of people.


I have a question that piggybacks off the quote that you ended with, about the bear. What is the “bear,” in the context of providing an interior cohesion of Latinidad? Or providing exterior pathways for alliance that we saw through the documentary? What is the “bear” in your own work, in the sense of the communities that you work in, and in your sense of working across community towards a shared antagonistic frontier, or however you imagine it?


EG: I don’t like that animal, the bear. I would say the bald eagle. That’s the one I’m fighting against. And when I say that, I do mean specifically, Uncle Sam. That’s what the Chicano militant movement is talking about, this government in itself. The Chicano movement, was fighting back in the day against poverty, healthcare, foreign wars, domestic wars. The work that I’m creating right now is about those same damn things! This country hasn’t changed very much. I was at the rally the other day against Trump, and it was disgusting. It was ugly to see a new generation of white supremacists out there, young, teenage youth. It was ugly.


MG: To add to that, I’m thinking a lot about how do artists or educators, activists, create moments or spaces for liberation. What are the ways that these artistic projects, at least those that I’ve been engaging in with collaborators, how did these projects become spaces to reimagine 96 Acres? Can we collectively reimagine what that space could look like? A lot of the time we can’t imagine it; we don’t have the ability to do that. But as soon as we can start to challenge each other to rethink that and really identify those spaces of oppression—and the jail is in fact one of them—that maybe we can transform that space in a new way through collective action.


AR: I think that for me, as a person in the world who happens to be an artist and a person of color from a working-class background, that this sort of confluence of what we might call blessings, has put me in a position in which I encounter lots of different kinds of bears. And lots of different forests. So it’s more difficult to identify what the bear is and where it’s coming from and how we might fight it. As we walk into the forest, we might find that we are lost amongst the trees and are surprised to find the beast in the shadows. This idea of identifying places, or opportunities, in which resources have been evacuated, allows us to create situations in which we might reinvest resources or divert resources into other places. It’s not so simply a question of representation, but rather about the distribution or redistribution of resources.


[I have a question] about how the idea or definition of the word Chicano came about. I was born and raised in Little Village, Chicago, and one thing that always sparked me growing up was an identity issue. When I went to Mexico, I really wasn’t part of Mexico, so I wasn’t part of the people there and they noticed that and saw that. And the same has happened to me here in the United States. So it’s kind of like you’re out of tune; you’re just this guitar that’s been played out of tune and you’re just not ever really understood. Does that affect you? Because I really didn’t think of that Chicano word, until you just mentioned it. And it makes sense. But how does it influence your work, your work of art, and how you try to find or evolve this aesthetic?


EG: I think I use the word as an advantage to me; I don’t use as a disadvantage. I am able to pick visually and historically and philosophically from Mexico and from the United States, because I’m from both worlds. I have a foot in Mexico and a foot in the United States. Even though I straddle this border. I use it to my advantage. And then along with that, it comes with this baggage of politics of radicalism, and I accept that as well because my artwork is all about history and using it as a way of challenging, but most of all questioning. I’m not giving answers; I’m just posing questions. And hopefully someone else who looks at my art can find some answers from it. Hopefully, I’m praying! If nothing else at least get you thinking or have a dialogue about these bigger issues of who are we, where we come from, and where we stand in the present state.



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