July 30 2004

How the San Diego Community Got Lost While Mapping Chicano Art

By David Avalos

Collage by David Avalos

Peace and Dignity

When native Elders meeting in Ecuador in 1990 invoked a prophecy foretelling the reuniting of all Indigenous Peoples of the hemisphere they set in motion a series of journeys, spiritual runs spanning the continents of America to unite the Condor of the South and the Eagle of the North. The 2004 Peace and Dignity Journey, the fourth such sacred event, began on May 1st this year with native runners on opposite ends of America in Chickaloon Village, Alaska and Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. The two groups’ convergence at the center of the hemisphere in the Kuna Nation in Panama City later this year will symbolize all Indigenous Peoples joined as prophesied.

On their journey to destiny the runners from the North stopped at the Pala Indian Reservation and then on the morning of July 18 set out for Chicano Park. On the way, inside the Centro Cultural de la Raza (Centro), they exchanged prayers and blessings with the Centro staff in the presence of Yermo Aranda’s La Dualidad, a mural tribute to the native spirit of our continent.

The runners graced the Centro at the same hour that a “Mapping Chicano Art” panel organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego (MCA) would have taken place had it not been cancelled only days earlier. The panel was supposed to be one of many events held in conjunction with the MCA’s Chicano Visions exhibition. It was the only event involving a local Chicano organization in a significant way.

While the runners from throughout North America expressed their gratitude for the existence of the Centro and Chicano Park, sharing their excitement to be in places many of them had only seen in pictures, those responsible for the protection of these consecrated sites of Chicano art and culture were not even talking to each other. The runners charted their commitment to their communities with each footfall on their Journey, while the San Diego art community lost its way mapping Chicano art. The panel’s cancellation disgraced everyone involved.

Off Road - The Cancellation

The cancellation was preceded by a series of decisions revealing San Diego’s collective inability to cooperatively promote the cause of Chicana/o art in an optimal way. Originally, the MCA organized a panel to discuss the impact of Chicano art exhibitions from the point of view of art collectors, historians, and art institutions. In conversations with the Centro the MCA agreed to relocate the panel from La Jolla to the Centro in Balboa Park. The Save Our Centro Coalition (SOCC) learned of the event and contacted the MCA and panelists informing them of a four-year-old boycott of the Centro by some local Chicana/o artists and activists.

A number of artists and cultural activists began the boycott in 2000 as a means to force the Centro’s administration to meet with them and listen to their concerns and demands regarding the organization’s direction. The previous year in the face of unprecedented financial problems and organizational disarray a new director and new board members began a series of changes including dissolving the Visual Arts Advisory Board, unilaterally redefining its relationship with artists through a contract called an “Affirmation of Conduct Values”, temporarily suspending programming, and declaring an interest in refitting the Centro to attract corporate funding. A contentious and unproductive community meeting in May 2000 was the beginning of police intervention, and enough paranoia, outrage and bitterness to fuel a bunker mentality on the one hand and a boycott that has turned into a crusade on the other.

The SOCC vowed to picket the “Mapping Chicano Art” panel if it occurred at the Centro. In early July, one panelist after speaking with Cheech Marin, whose art collection provides the majority of works in Chicano Visions, communicated to the MCA that both he and Cheech agreed that it would be best to relocate the panel. At the same time the Centro communicated to the MCA that the event should not be moved to another location as advocated by the SOCC. On Monday, July 12, the MCA Director decided to cancel the event entirely.

Everyone regretted the cancellation. Folks at the MCA felt that their effort to reach out to the Chicano community resulted in further proof that, ‘no good deed shall go unpunished.’ One panelist felt that the MCA’s lack of thinking through their actions led all of the panelists into an ambush by the SOCC. One member of the SOCC felt that the MCA and the Centro were equally responsible in their concern for avoiding corporate sponsor uneasiness. The MCA insisted that the cancellation was not an endorsement of the SOCC boycott. The Centro was furious that the MCA did not stand by its commitment to their partnership. To this burned-out Chicano artist asked to write a commentary for La Prensa San Diego all parties seemed in some way responsible, having demonstrated all of the political sophistication and finesse exhibited in a Bum Fights video.

Chicano Visions, a significant and problematic exhibition comes to town and instead of applauding its success and discussing its weaknesses the local Chicano arts community proves unequal to the task of finding a way to partner and dance with it. Instead we dash an opportunity for a much needed dialogue, present ourselves poorly to others who might be interested in working with us, and at the end of the day have nothing to show for it but overblown rhetoric, recriminations, and a lack of representation and leadership.

Rear View Reflections

In the early 1990s the MCA and the Centro closely cooperated in the organization of La Frontera/The Border, Art about the Mexico/United States Border Experience. A number of local border artists boycotted that event. But, most did not and the traveling exhibition opened with their works at both the MCA and the Centro. There were neither pickets nor concerns about disruptions. Organizations and individual artists engaged in sometimes-tough negotiations, and a bit of art history was recorded in a catalog co-edited by the MCA and the Centro staffs.

A decade later I ask myself if collectively we have learned anything. The SOCC will not go into the Centro and does not want anyone else to do so. The Centro does not want the panel to occur anywhere else if it does not happen at the Centro. The two organizations act to stymie each other while the MCA that survived an artists’ boycott of La Frontera acts surprised to find that the all Chicana/o artists are not holding hands, doing the friendship dance, and singing De Colores in harmony.

Four years of SOCC boycotts have failed to change the leadership at the Centro. The Centro continues to suffer cancellations of events such as the Hecho en Califas exhibition three years ago and the Chicano Visions panel now. Both endure a relationship whose greatest success has been in limiting the opportunities for our community to see and discuss our art and culture. The status quo is not working. The boycott needs to end and the SOCC needs to stop pretending that it represents all San Diego Chicana/o artists or even all of its website-listed supporters for that matter. The Centro needs to openly sit down and talk in small groups with its various critics, not only the SOCC. It needs to reevaluate the direction of the Centro and its responsibility to the community. It needs to show a willingness to learn some other way of practicing art politics by opening up to others and exercising the diplomacy required of a public organization.

Ideally, when the Chicano Visions exhibition was first offered to the MCA more than two and a half years ago there would have been simultaneous conversations with various Chicano organizations including the Centro, the Chicano Park Steering Committee, Los Alacranes, Voz Alta, various lowrider car clubs and Danza groups, and others. There could have been space set aside in the MCA to showcase San Diego Chicano and Chicana painters overlooked by Chicano Visions and/or spaces such as the Centro and Voz Alta could have hosted their own visions of Chicana/o artists, estilo San Diego.

San Diego’s beloved Chunky Sanchez and Los Alacranes could have entertained the crowd at the Street Festival. The Chicano Now, the multi-media, interactive, and educational counterpoint to Visions, criticized by Robert L. Pincus of the Union-Tribune for not mentioning Chicano Park, could have been supplemented by separate events staged in cooperation with the Chicano Park Steering Committee and located at a truly multi-media, interactive, and educational site, Chicano Park.

The Road Ahead

All of this would have required years of straightforward communications and planning, ongoing coordination, and negotiations over limited resources between and among all parties concerned. All of us are walking contradictions open to critique and we have forgiven each other in the past for working with the police, pandering to corporations, negotiating ineffectively with government agencies, ripping each other off, and sometimes being just plain stupid. Let’s forgive, not forget, and learn from our mistakes and never again be left on the outside looking in when Chicana/o artists, writers and musicians that we all know, love and have worked with throughout the years come to our town.

To paraphrase a San Diego poet I admire, Native Americans realized long ago that their independent nations were tied together somehow through fate and for this reason, we should no longer look at the Chicano community as static, but instead as made up of diverse and contentious parts like the Centro and SOCC, parts that must be linked together productively for the entire community to survive and thrive. We need to take a lesson from young runners like Esmeralda Sanchez and find a way to reconnect here among ourselves in San Diego just as the Peace and Dignity runners are doing throughout the hemisphere.

David Avalos is a Professor of Visual Art at California State University, San Marcos. He can be reached at: davalos@csusm.edu.

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