by Carlos Francisco Jackson
Posters, art, and the Chicana/o consciousness.
Serigrafia is an exhibition of Chicana/o posters from California that is touring California, and has already been exhibited at the UC Davis Design Museum, Arte Américas in Fresno, and the Pasadena California Museum of Art. I served as one of the cocurators of Serigrafia. Recently, I stepped back from the exhibition and contemplated the significance of this collection of Chicano posters from 1969–2011. In doing so I was reminded of my initial encounter with Chicano social serigraphy (screen printing) through a class I took with Malaquias Montoya, professor emeritus of Chicana/o Studies and Art at UC Davis. Malaquias Montoya was one of the founders of Chicana/o social serigraphy, and his posters are well represented in the exhibition. He developed a Chicana/o community-based art curriculum that included a poster workshop and a mural workshop. Malaquias instituted both of these courses in the newly created Chicano Studies Program at UC Berkeley in 1969. The poster and mural classes are still taught today, where I teach, in Chicana/o Studies at UC Davis, which is a direct result of this curriculum created in 1969. The work on view in Serigrafia charts the work of some of the most prominent printmakers to have emerged from the Chicano Movement and the development of a Chicana/o consciousness. The posters on view are representative of a “space” where Chicana/o identity and consciousness have been explored, expressed, and challenged while simultaneously serving the community through advocacy and engagement. Chicana/o identity has often been framed as an essentialist category for which people are either included or excluded racially. Yet, like the posters on view in Serigrafia, Chicana/o identity has been transforming ever since the initial idea for its framework was written in 1969 in the founding document of Chicana/o Studies, El Plan de Santa Bárbara. The posters, as “spaces,” mirror Chicana scholar, Rosa Linda Fregoso’s framework for Chicana/o identity as she defined it in 1993 stating, “Chicano refers to a space where subjectivity is produced (p.xix).” If the posters on view in Serigrafia are spaces where subjectivity is produced, then Chicana/o consciousness and identity has, since its inception, been overwhelmingly forward-thinking and visionary in representing a more just future for communities that have been historically marginalized and underrepresented.
I initially encountered Malaquias Montoya in the fall of 1996 when he came to give an evening presentation to a group of Chicano students at a theme dorm called Casa Cuauhtemoc on the UC Davis campus, where I was a first-year student and resident. Malaquias Montoya had come to Casa Cuauhtemoc to give an hour-long slide presentation on his work. He presented on a mural that he had conducted and completed in Tijuana in 1986 as part of the Festival de la Raza. His slide talk outlined the entire mural process from conception to completion. The swiftness in which he painted the mural is what I recall being the most striking thing about the presentation. The actual painting of the mural took no more than a few days to complete. He spent as much time engaging with the community before he began the scaled drawing as he did working on the actual painting. His prep work included scanning the environment, meeting with residents in the nearby community, talking with community leaders and activists, and entering into dialogue with community educators and cultural workers. Fundamentally, the slide talk—and I didn’t realize this until later—emphasized that the work of a Chicano artist is rooted in community engagement through culture as a means to empower, educate, and foster transformation. Malaquias engaged the community, a community he was a member of, and yet he also challenged that community to reimagine itself through the imagery in this mural. The mural ultimately was a discussion of the historical legacy of colonialism, imperialism, and the struggles that the Mexican, Mexican American, and Latin American diasporic communities had faced through multiple layers of conquest.
It was because of this presentation that I sought out Malaquias the following year. As a nineteen-year-old second-year student, I was active in several Chicano student programs and would spend quite a bit of time in the Chicana/o Studies department. In the fall quarter of 1997, I introduced myself to Malaquias while he was standing in the hallway of the department after a faculty meeting. I asked him if I could enroll in his upper-division course titled Chicana/o Poster Workshop. This course was quite popular with many of the active Chicana/o students. The class was designed to teach students how to create silkscreen posters by requiring them to represent prescient topics in posters, which would ultimately be distributed within the local community or a community-serving organization. Students were widely aware of the importance of this course, which is why the course would fill its enrollment cap within the first few hours of open registration. When I saw Malaquias in the Chicana/o Studies department hallway and walked up to him to ask his permission to enroll in the poster workshop, I did so because enrollment was restricted with a prerequisite that students needed to have taken Survey of Chicana/o Art. If you had not taken that course, you could enroll but you had to seek permission of the instructor first. I introduced myself to Malaquias and quietly asked for his permission to enroll. When Malaquias asked if I had taken the prerequisite, I responded that I had not. Hoping to convince Malaquias that I was worthy of enrollment, I explained that I was a member of MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán) and active in several Chicano student-serving programs. Malaquias was not swayed and said that if I was to enroll in the poster workshop I would need to take Survey of Chicana/o Art. I walked away defeated, as I had no intention of taking an introductory course on Chicana/o art. I did not understand how Chicano art related to my interests in community-engagement and activism. Clearly, I was naïve and uneducated regarding the history of the movement’s importance. Malaquias’s denial of my request to enroll in his poster workshop turned out to be a gift, one that would transform my life.
When I approached Malaquias, I did not understand why it was important for me to take Survey of Chicana/o Art before enrolling in the poster workshop. At the time, I was interested only in raising my consciousness, political activism and engagement, and enrolling in classes to help me understand the reasons inequality existed back home. To me, these were found in lectures and seminar courses in Chicana/o studies and in departments such as history, political science, and sociology. I was not aware of any value the arts would have on my educational path at the university. But, to ultimately enroll in the poster workshop, which I was anxious to do, I needed to take Survey of Chicana/o Art. So, in the fall of 1998, a little less than a year after I initially asked for permission, I enrolled in Malaquias’s survey course. The only way I can describe the experience of that course is to say that I left it completely transformed—transformed as a person in every way.
The Survey of Chicana/o Art course led students on a path to understanding the influences and context in which the Chicano Art Movement emerged. Malaquias’s students had to read articles about the importance of representation and resistance to the dominant culture that had structured inequality for marginalized communities, and he shared examples of community-engaged art practices such as colectivas and talleres. The class ultimately left students with an appreciation of why the silkscreen poster and community mural were two unique Chicana/o visual art forms and why these practices were still taught within a Chicana/o studies department like that of UC Davis. In this course, Chicano identity was never presented as a race-based category. Rather, in the context of this course, being a Chicana or Chicano was to be a person committed to community engagement, social justice, antiracism, and equality. Had I not been required to take the survey course first, I would not have developed a full appreciation of the significance of the Chicana/o Art Movement and the role of the poster within it. A poster would simply have just remained a poster. For me, I know that the poster would not have developed into what it has become, a space where Chicana/o consciousness is recorded and expressed.
My transformation began during the survey course when Malaquias showed the first set of what would be several sets of slides of Chicana/o artists. I most looked forward to the days when Malaquias showed slides of the artists’ works we were discussing in the readings. The slides that Malaquias showed initially were about the influences to the Chicana/o Movement, which included images of the Mexican Mural Movement, Jose Guadalupe Posada’s broadsides, the Taller de Gráfica Popular, and printmakers from revolutionary Cuba. As the quarter went on. Malaquias showed more and more work by Chicanas and Chicanos. I remember Malaquias sharing drawings and prints by Ester Hernandez and Yolanda Lopez. I was incredibly moved by their work and by the respect with which Malaquias presented it. Malaquias was a towering figure to me and many of the Chicana/o students on campus. It was incredibly powerful to see him humble before the work of Ester and his contemporaries. I now understand that this humility was an expression of respect for those who are engaging culture within the framework of the Movement. I remember looking at the images that were projected out of the slide carousel in our darkened classroom, wondering why I had not seen these images before, wondering why they were not part of my upbringing. Today, as a faculty member in Chicana/o studies, what I most often hear from students who are engaged in our curriculum is, “Why didn’t I know this earlier? Why wasn’t I taught this before I arrived on campus?” The common frustration is one that I experienced as a student. Why did I have to come to UC Davis, 400 miles from home, to learn about who I am? The knowledge and history of who I am and where I come from rightfully belongs to me. There is a feeling of frustration and anger that more people haven’t had the opportunity to learn about this heritage and see these images.
These images represented my family, my mother, my uncles, cousins, grandparents, and community. The works were not simply mirrors for their likenesses; they were images that transformed their likenesses to represent gods, heroes, leaders, and monuments. Yolanda Lopez’s Margaret F. Stewart: Our Lady of Guadalupe and Ester Hernandez’s Virgen de las Calles presented as people what I saw represented in their work—my family and community. These artists represented who we are. They revealed to me the extent to which I, and my family, had not been properly represented in the dominant culture and even in the daily encounters of the Mexican American experience. I thought to myself, “Where were these images? Where could I find them? How could I make them my own? How can I share them with others?” To discover the answers, I went to the library and looked for books. In 1998, very few library books had reproduced images of Chicana/o art. I found the CARA catalog, checked it out, and carried it with me wherever I went. I found the 1969 edition of El Grito that had a portfolio of images of the newly formed Mexican American Liberation Art Front. One night when I was at LA Pena Cultural Center in Berkeley I found two copies of Malaquias Montoya’s Adeline Kent Award Catalog for sale for $15 each. I bought both copies. I leafed through these catalogs so much that I wore down the edges of the paper and had started to wear down the quality of the reproductions. Words cannot express how important those images were to me.
Malaquias did not present his own artwork in Survey of Chicana/o Art until the end of the quarter. On the second to last day of class, he showed a full slide carousel of artworks that described his trajectory as an artist, from the earliest Yo Soy Chicano posters created in San Jose and Berkeley between 1967 and 1969 to his most recent series of pastel drawings on paper that commemorate the recent passing of Cesar Chavez. On the last day of class, we discussed and debated Eduardo Galeano’s article, “In Defense of the Word.” I recall, quite vividly, the emotion in our classroom as we attempted to comprehend Galeano’s words: “We are what we do, especially what we do to change who we are: our identity resides in action and in struggle. Therefore, the revelation of what we are implies a denunciation of those who stop us from being what we can become (Galeano, p.190).” I left that day knowing that my identity had the opportunity to be defined not by what I am, but rather by what I do. At the time, I did not have the language to describe what I felt inside or what I knew about myself and what I needed to do. Retrospectively, I can say that at that point I knew I wanted to contribute to this movement of cultural workers. I didn’t know how. I simply knew that in some way my life was going to be dedicated to fostering the expansion of the arts to represent the breadth and weight of the Chicano experience so that the broader community would have access to the arts, not as an activity of leisure but rather as an indispensable part of creating equal representation for a community that has been, too often, rendered invisible.
This essay began when, as I was walking through Serigrafia experiencing the posters on view, I recalled feeling the same as I did when I attended an exhibition that was recommended in the Survey of Chicana/o Art syllabus. Malaquias had placed several local and regional Chicana/o art exhibitions in the course syllabus so students could see and experience the artwork being discussed in class. I was able to attend one of the exhibits of Malaquias’s posters at Laney College’s art gallery in Oakland. I drove with a friend to Oakland to view the exhibition. I was not able to attend the exhibition opening, which undoubtedly was a powerful event with historical activists and cultural workers as attendees. Laney was the community college that Malaquias and Manuel Hernandez worked with to support their community art silkscreen centers in East Oakland during the 1970s. I visited Laney during the week on a normal business day. The gallery was empty. My friend and I quietly walked around and experienced the artwork in a very private and quiet manner. On view at Laney were twenty of Malaquias’s most iconic screen prints: his poster addressing Wells Fargo’s support of the dictatorship in Chile in the 1970s, Argentina’s dirty war, and the Bakke decision. All of the posters were framed in simple, natural-colored wood frames with basic mats laid on top to crop out the very outer edges of each poster. The uniform nature of the frames created a consistency among the works that was not present in the diversity of imagery and wide breadth of topics represented in the posters. Malaquias created each of the posters, so he is represented in each poster. But, as a whole, they were diverse as a collection of artwork. The exhibit included posters using oil-based inks and other posters using acrylic inks. Some were created using only an X-Acto knife, creating hard edges throughout the imagery, and some were made using loose drawing techniques and hand-cut lettered stenciling. Posters addressed the inhumane conditions of farmworkers in the Central Valley and valorized the decolonizing efforts of activists in Angola. The works were transnational yet rooted in a Chicano perspective. The posters were largely historical, yet there were contemporary issues confronting the Mexican American community. The work represented Third World solidarity, which spoke to my developing understanding of community.
As a student in 1998, I sensed a thread, an expression of consciousness among some Chicano students that was highly exclusionary. There were Chicano students, especially those who were politically active, who had very strict notions of what constituted inclusion in the category “Chicano.” Chicana/o community membership among many of my fellow classmates fell along rigid boundaries defined by politic, dress, and language. Malaquias’s work was liberating because it crossed boundaries and borders. What unified his work was a commitment to speak against injustice and make these images and ideas available and accessible to a broad community constituency. The work on view at Laney College affirmed the idea that to be Chicano, or to be a Chicano artist, was to be someone committed to a life of approaching social justice through community collaboration. From the very beginning, the work was about community self-determination and social justice. Cultural nationalism, while sparsely representative through indigenous iconography, was not a force within the works on view at Laney. Cultural nationalism, a very prominent ideological force at the outset of the Chicano Power Movement, would eventually be widely critiqued for its rigid boundaries and essentialist racial framework. Malaquias’s work was only essentialist in that it was essentially antiracist, preferring resistance to injustice. This was something that I tacitly or internally understood while viewing the show at Laney College, but it was not something I had the language skills to fully articulate until now.
The Serigrafia exhibition presents a selection of the most iconic, historic, and significant Chicana/o posters created from the outset of the Chicana/o Movement. The significance of this exhibition is not that a diverse collaborative team of cultural workers curated it or that it is one of the few national, traveling exhibits of Chicano posters to be organized. Nor is its primary significance due to the inclusion of several generations of artists, including those who created this cultural form of engagement and emerging artists in their twenties and early thirties who were mentored or inspired by the pioneers of the movement. Although these are unique and highly significant aspects of this traveling exhibit, I believe the most unique aspect of Serigrafia is that it demonstrates the trajectory of the Chicano Art Movement, specifically Chicano social serigraphy as being informed and defined by a productive quality based on antiracism, decolonization, and community self-determination. The Chicano Art Movement and the self-designated category Chicano were not race-based alignments where inclusion or exclusion was based on narrowly defined qualities outside of people’s control. Chicano art and Chicano identity are not simply politicized markers for Mexican Americans or the culture they create. Rather, as Ian Haney Lopez states in his book Racism on Trial: The Chicano Fight for Justice, Mexican American activists in the 1960s invented the category Chicano. This invention was to represent a “productive quality (Fregoso, p.xix).” Rosa Linda Fregoso, in the introduction to her book The Bronze Screen, states that Chicanos did not “invent” themselves but rather “reinvented (imagined anew) a ‘community’ of Chicanos and Chicanas (p.xix).” For those new to the Chicano Movement and, specifically, the Chicano Art Movement, their first question when encountering this might very well be, Why is it be necessary to create “anew” a group of people who already exist? The answer is readily evident in the posters on view in Serigrafia.
Significant portions of the works represented in Serigrafia were made at the outset of the Chicana/o Movement. The beginning of the Chicana/o Movement in the mid-1960s represents a rupture—the point in history when the Mexican American community began to view inequity and underrepresentation as evidence of a society that had structured inequality along racial lines. The era before this rupture has been described as the “Mexican American Generation.” The Mexican American Generation produced socially oriented organizations such as the GI Forum and LULAC that advocated on behalf of the Mexican American community. Despite this, it was an era that largely sought community self-determination through assimilation into the dominant culture. The assimilationist efforts of the Mexican American Generation were largely built around deficit thinking discourses: the notion that there were shortfalls within Mexican American culture and those shortfalls were the reasons inequity and lack of resources existed.
For Mexican Americans during the post-war period, this framework subsequently necessitated assimilation into the dominant culture as the only path for self-determination. This “deficit thinking” discourse, as Martha Menchaca states in Recovering History/Constructing Race, largely grew out of an effort “to blame Mexican Americans for the social and economic problems generated by Anglo-American racism (p.15).” Menchaca charts how in 1968 Octavio Romano-V, an early anthropologist and Chicano scholar, explained that the dominant culture had “ignored the way in which racism historically had been used by Anglo Americans to obstruct the social, economic, and political mobility of Mexican-origin people,” and he described how “Mexican Americans were studied ahistorically in order to ignore the vestiges of Anglo-American racism—such as segregation, employment discrimination, racist laws, and police violence.” In this case, the term ahistorical describes Mexican Americans as an “immigrant and peasant-like group who had not contributed to the nation’s infrastructure culturally, technologically, or architecturally (Ibid.).” This perspective marked as invisible the Mexican American community’s historical legacy in the Southwest and their contributions to the growth of the nation’s economy and infrastructure.
Ten years after I initially took Malaquias’s survey course, he retired from UC Davis, and I, a recently hired assistant professor in the department, had the privilege of organizing his retirement celebration. In thinking about the construction of the Mexican American community as ahistorical, I now refer back to a profound statement shared on the day of Malaquias’s celebration. Greg Morozumi (long-time activist, organizer, cultural worker, and former student of Malaquias Montoya at UC Berkeley between 1969 and 1971) was the last of many speakers celebrating Malaquias’s impact as an educator and artist. When Greg came to the podium, he said: “When the Third World Solidarity Movement and Chicano Movement began, we didn’t even know who we were. The significance of the cultural movement was to create a new understanding of who we are.” Greg, in his tribute to Malaquias, talked about the significance of Third World cultural movements in the Bay Area during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Greg’s statement that “we didn’t even know who we were” highlights the degree to which communities that had been historically marginalized had internalized the dominant culture’s ahistorical perspective. The significance of the Chicano Art Movement lies in the productive quality in which a new identity and consciousness was realized and expressed within its activity and cultural production. In this way, each Chicana/o poster historicizes, repairing the damage an ahistorical perspective has wrecked over generations.
Serigrafia presents two types of Chicano posters, both similar but with important distinctions. The first type of poster represented is that which primarily addresses an issue of culture or what I would call an expression of Chicano consciousness. These posters visualize new empowering images of what would represent a new Chicana/o identity. Posters such as Barbara Carrasco’s DOLORES are examples of works that visualize representations of an identity not fixed within a cultural nationalist, racial, or ideological framework. These works are created not necessarily for a specific event, rally, or organization. Rather, they serve as artistic representations of some ethos or cultural figuration that enhances our understanding of how the community is being “imagined anew (Fregoso, p.xxiii).”
The second type of poster represented is more issue driven (politically, socially, economically, etc.). This second type of poster is primarily represented in Serigrafia. These posters address issues affecting a dynamic, ever-expanding, and changing transnational community. Therefore, through posters for a community clinic, boycott, rally, fundraising drive, or political action, the ever-changing and growing understanding of Chicana/o consciousness is revealed. These posters bridge the development of new representations of consciousness with tangible applications. Posters are often categorized as design, propaganda, and/or didactics. They are very rarely categorized as art. Within the Chicana/o Art Movement, there is no distinction between a fine print and a poster. There is no high or low culture: there is simply the invention and subsequent creation of a space where subjectivity is produced, all in the service of community self-determination.
Therefore, the poster can be a tool for social purposes and an ever-changing and developing space for the expression of consciousness. In this respect, the poster itself serves as a metaphor for the category Chicana/o. The category Chicana/o has, since the outset of the Chicana/o civil rights movement, vexed individuals who have tried to define the parameters of its definition. Chicana/o ultimately is a category or identity that is fundamentally self-designated. Chicano has most often and regularly been stated to be another racial classification for Mexican Americans. This is understandable because the term “Chicano” emerged through the Mexican American civil rights movement of the late 1960s. Despite this specificity, the term Chicano from the outset was developed to represent a category of cultural politics that challenged racial constructions. As stated in El Plan de Santa Bárbara, “Chicano, in the past a pejorative and class-bound adjective, has now become the root idea of a new cultural identity for our people [emphasis added].” This document, drafted by students and community activists in 1969, outlines “community self-determination” as the essence of Chicano commitment. In this respect, Chicano is an idea that is informed by a commitment to community. The idea, then, is manifested through various methods. Rosa Linda Fregoso addresses the issue of what constitutes Chicano cultural production by stating: “The quandary in the self-designation Chicano undergirds the cultural category, Chicano cinema, because what to call the people of Mexican origin (“Chicano,” “Latino,” or “Hispanic”), or whom to consider for membership into the Chicano nation, depends on one’s politics and the context of the term’s usage (p.xviii).” I would swap the word “art” for “cinema” within the context of Fregoso’s essay. I would even go so far as to say the words “politics,” “identity,” and “culture” could be swapped for the word “cinema.” Fregoso states that she handles the problem of self-designation or classification of Chicano cinema (culture, art, politics, identity, etc.) by “de-emphasizing the biological claims to authenticity, yet accentuating its productive quality. In this respect, Chicano refers to a space [emphasis added] where subjectivity is produced (xix).” The poster serves as the subjective space described by Fregoso. Within the designated image area of the paper or substrate, you have representations of transnationalism, gender equality, international solidarity, and decolonizing practices where antiracism and social justice serve as the common denominator. Within this space, this subjective space that is the poster, we can see an opening up of access and expanding conceptions of social justice and equality that begin at the onset of the movement and become more prevalent as we move closer to our contemporary context.
In 1999, viewing the exhibition at Laney College was the equivalent to someone telling me where I’ve come from, who I am, and where my community is headed. The great absence of Chicano history, culture, and art from the K–12 educational curriculum and its absence from representation within the dominant culture has, for generations, created alienation. The experience of standing in the empty gallery at Laney was profound. As Gloria Anzaldua states, before something new can be created to truly foster a new way of relating to each other “our mothers, sisters, brothers, the guys who hang out on street corners, the children in the playgrounds, each of us must know our Indian lineage, or afro-mestizaje, our history of resistance (p.86).” The posters at Laney and the posters in Serigrafia demonstrate the internal process Chicano artists have gone through to understand the root idea that forms Chicano identity. Anzaldua explains this by stating that the “struggle has always been inner, and is played out in outer terrains. Awareness of our situation must come before inner changes, which in turn come before changes in society. Nothing happens in the ‘real’ world unless it first happens in the images in our heads (p.87).” Malaquias, Ester Hernandez, Yolanda Lopez, Juan Fuentes, Barbara Carrasco, Rupert Garcia, Ricardo Favela, Jesus Barraza, Melanie Cervantes, Favianna Rodriguez, and Ernesto Yerena are a few of the artists represented in Serigrafia who have taken on that important work of imagining anew our collective experience and its relationship to the tangible issues of the day, be it forty years ago or yesterday. The expression of Chicana/o consciousness and the aspirations of this movement have been imagined and vocalized through the process of printmaking.