After decades of social and economic discrimination, a sense of self-determination and a desire for immediate social change served as the catalyst for the Mexican-American population of the U.S. during the 1960s. Issues of deep resonance within these communities were brought forward by multiple socio-political mobilizations throughout the country, spreading from farm to urban areas and university campuses. The revolt gave birth to the Chicano Movement, also known as El Movimiento, a civil rights movement that sought to bring equality and ethnic empowerment and pride to Mexican-Americans. 

As much as it was political, the movement was also cultural, helping to construct new transnational identities and fueling a renaissance in politically charged arts. Art became an important catalyst for the plight of Mexican-Americans, creating a new iconography and symbolic language that articulated the ideology of the movement.

The Emergence of Chicanismo

At first a derogatory term for Mexican-Americans, Chicano became a symbol of ethnic pride. The term was appropriated by Mexican-American youth to denote their cultural heritage and assert their youthful energy and militancy, turning it into a politically charged term used for self-identification. 

The art historian Marcos Sanchez-Tranquilino described this notion of Chicanismo as a complex of nationalist strategies by which Chicano origins and histories, as well as present and future identities, were constructed and legitimized. It marked a transformation in the way Mexican-Americans thought about themselves, enabling them for the first time to see themselves as a community with a past and present. 

As the central strategy in the process of self-definition for this community, Chicanismo also became one of the underlying and unifying principles of the Chicano Art Movement. Through many art forms, Chicano artists sought to capture their people’s history and visually represent their struggles. Seeking to create a dialogue about burning issues while empowering Chicanos to construct their solutions, Chicano Art has become a form of popular education, of the people and by the people.

The Self-Invention Through Art

United by political activism and cultural pride, the Chicano Art Movement, also termed the “Chicano Renaissance,” used art as a vehicle in achieving new and more credible human values. These artists aspired to illustrate their identity amid indifference, neglect and denigration. In their search for new methods, forms and symbolism, Chicano artists established strong affiliations with Mexican heritage, reaffirming the Chicano community’s spiritual and political sensibilities.

Seeking to affirm their cultural identity, they began reclaiming their indigenous past, returning to the ceremonies, practices and ways of their ancestors and reviving them in complex contexts. The new iconography and the symbolic language that emerged served to articulate the movement and provide cohesion and a framework within which the culture could understand itself. Their own evolving visual vocabulary and symbolic system became the core of the Chicano cultural renaissance.

Among the main aspects of this new iconography were pageantry and spectacle, which took place in street processionals and ceremonies, and homenajes, or homages to historical figures, family members or community leaders in the form of altars (ofrendas) and assemblages. The celebration of the Day of the Dead, one of the most popular holidays in Mexican culture, became a major component of Chicano art as a means to strengthen the cultural cohesiveness of the Chicano community. It was organized and carried out by a small group of Chicano artists from Self Help Graphics, who introduced Calavera imagery⎯a colorful representation of skulls, altar making and poster art as the central elements of its iconography. By 1974, the celebration attracted the artistic collaboration of a cross-section of the Los Angeles Chicano community. Among the most active ones were the art collectives of ASCO, with core members being Harry Gamboa, Gronk, Willie Herron and Patssi Valdez, and the Los Four, comprised of Carlos Almaraz, Frank Romero, Robert de la Rocha, Gilbert Luján and later, Judithe Hernández. The celebration generated cultural awareness and ethnic pride for the East Los Angeles Latin American community, soon spreading throughout California, and became an integral part of a growing and developing Chicano iconography. 

Art in the Service of the Community

By the early 1970s, the movement had given birth to a generation of artists committed to arts activism in service of its community. This community-based art developed into two major mediums: muralism and cultural art centers.

Artists began reclaiming public spaces, creating murals that spoke of the Chicano experience while encouraging community participation. Alongside pre-Columbian art, Chicano murals drew much influence from the Tres Grandes of the Mexican Muralism: Diego Rivera, David Alfaro Siqueiros and José Clemente Orozco. Adorning walls of the barrios, these colorful murals depicted cultural motifs and figures from their Mexican heritage, representing alternative histories, structural inequalities and unique stories about the merging of ideas, cultures and dreams along the United States–Mexico border. These murals were always collaborative, created by artists such as Carlos Almaraz, Magú, Gaspar Enríquez, Barbara Carrasco and Irene Martínez in conjunction with community volunteers. Chicano art also embraced the expressive potential of graffiti, turning it into another tool of resistance, reclamation and empowerment, expressing a counter-narrative to stereotypes and dominant portrayals of Chicano life in the barrios.

As the movement evolved, Chicano artists explored, created and reinvented alternative art venues for the positive expression of a renewed cultural identity. These venues were dedicated to bringing the community together, disseminating information and education about Chicano art, and providing Chicanos with an opportunity to reclaim control over how their culture and history are portrayed and interpreted by society as a whole. Among the prominent cultural art centers was Self-Help Graphics and Art⎯a hub for silkscreen printmaking, an exhibition location and a space for various types of civic engagement. 

In everything they did, Chicano artists adopted the philosophy and aesthetic of Rasquachismo, which involved doing more with less, combining inventiveness with a survivalist attitude. They used the simplest, everyday materials and elevated them into art. 

The Legacy of the Chicano Art Movement

As it was an affirmation of the complex experiences and vitality of the Chicanos as a cultural entity, the Chicano Art Movement was about people and for the people. The anger, pride and self-healing came out as art that turned a marginalized community into a place of power. Grounded in a cultural landscape that is very much a lived experience in North America, but one that is often informed by the South, or Mexico, it brought new ideas of politics and self-determination to an area that already had pre-existing ideas. In all its versatility and strength, it now makes up a significant part of Los Angeles area history.

At the time, Chicano art was criticized by dominant structures as being too political, too figurative, too folksy, too primitive, not universal, not avant-garde. It only recently achieved wider public recognition, with a few mainstream art institutions opening its doors to it and attempting to understand its heritage. 

Today, Chicano artists work in a social environment profoundly different from the days of the Chicano movement. In Los Angeles, for example, the Latino population has boomed enough to put demographic pressure on cultural institutions to take notice. Whether identifying themselves with the labels or movement associated with Chicano art, many continue to deal with identity politics and reclamation of lost or neglected history and culture. Through more contemporary negotiations and applications in an increasingly changing world, they provide another window from which to view and understand their unique cultural experience.

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