Chicano Lightning

This show bristles with so much energy, it threatens to blow down the museum doors.

Hey, vatos, I'm back in my old haunts. It's Wednesday morning, and I just sucked down a whole bowl of menudo — extra picante to make me sweat like a pig — for this chingazo of a hangover. David Hidalgo is in the back room noodling on his guitar to Sabor a Mi. As usual, I can hear the low growl of the Golden State Freeway through the back window, and if I walk down to the corner, I just might catch a glimpse of the San Gabriel Mountains — if the smog hasn't fizzed up like an Alka-Seltzer cocktail. Like old times.

But somebody keeps telling me I'm really in a place called Fort Lauderdale. I'm not in East Los at all but in this arty-looking place, the Museum of Art. This doesn't add up, because the pictures on the walls are by my homies. It's not the usual stuff like Blueprint for an Ant Colony or Beef Stew #4, which looks like somebody dumped all of his meat and potatoes on a canvas. No, this art is about us, homeboy. You'll recognize those faces, those body types. You'll see the familiar dusty palm trees of L.A. and the cacti of South Tejas. You'll feel the electricity, the hair-raising energy, of our people.

And wait a minute. Isn't that Cheech Marin up there, talking about "art"? It seems that Cheech actually gave up the grifa (like, "reefer," white boy) for a spot at the lectern.

Valadez's Pool Party and Almaraq's Sunset Crash (following image): Swept into violence like logs over a waterfall
Valadez's Pool Party and Almaraq's Sunset Crash (following image): Swept into violence like logs over a waterfall

"Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge," an amazing collection of works by 26 Chicano artists, has been traveling around the country for five years now. Its arrival in Fort Lauderdale brings it to the far eastern corner of our would-be newborn Latin nation. Someday, they'll all recognize us for who we are. Those pinche gabachos can throw up their pathetic border walls and round up all the wetbacks they want. Latin America has already staked its claim on this curious Sunbelt land, and there's no turning back. How long before we get white guys with leafblowers coming around to clean up our yards?

Half of the paintings in the show are owned by Cheech and his wife, Patti. Cheech is nowhere near as spaced out as he used to portray himself in movies like Up in Smoke. I start to say something about that but then figure those old routines he used to do with Tommy Chong might be played out a little for him. Like, how many times a day does somebody come up to him and say, "Hey, Cheech, Dave's not here..."? As it is, a very straight-looking lady in high heels who wanted to let him know she was hip to the Cheech persona tells him, after complimenting him on his taste in art, "I was a child of the '60s." She wiggles her eyebrows a little, like maybe Cheech might want to step out into the parking garage and share a few tokes for old times' sake.

But Cheech has other things on his mind. He talks about how Chicano culture is no longer "just a colorful side alley that gets brought out every Cinco de Mayo" and how there's a cultural "continuum" between Mexico and our own Borderlandia.

He's got that right. The art on the walls of the Museum of Art demonstrates, among other things, the old melting-pot principle of how the more you try to melt into the mix, the more your identity keeps hanging around. There's a lot of academic talk at the press opening about the "influences" on Chicano artists. Yeah, I could see the garish colors and lurid portraiture of the German expressionists in the work of, say, Diane Gamboa and César Martínez, whose stark pictures of the kind of people you might come across on Broadway in downtown L.A. or in South Phoenix seem to jump off the walls. Take Martínez's portrait of The Man Who Loves Women, a startling block of a man with a lumpy biscuit face adorned with a pencil-line mustache, the Virgin of Guadalupe tattooed on his chest, and a naked woman on one arm under a rolled-up sleeve. He's reminiscent of some of those harsh Grosz characters from Germany's Weimar days but still fresh and new, as if he's just sprung to life fully formed.

I can see impressionism and postimpressionism in the Chicano artists. Is Margaret García's luscious Janine at 39, Mother of Twins anything but a nubile Gauguin princess transported to the Southwest, surrounded not with orchids and banana plants but maguey and nopal?

The Mexican Big Three — muralists Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco — are present too, of course, with their palmy Mexican themes and their messages of social protest. Check out Frank Romero's diptych The Arrest of the Paleteros, which shows the LAPD rounding up unlicensed Mexican street vendors in Echo Park, with the suspects, including a few kids, backed up against a fence with their arms up and the park's lake ablaze with red and pink, as if the world might catch fire from the outrage at this police atrocity.

But these artists aren't, for the most part, married to any sort of academic traditions. As much as you can discern traces of the old Europeans, there are even more obvious signs of comic-book culture or movies or television, like Spanish telenovelas. Violence seems to thrum underneath the scene, like a heartbeat, or else it breaks into view with bursts of fire and blood. There's Adan Hernández's Drive-By Asesino, a frightening figure in a slouch hat, firing a gun from the back of a streaking car, the explosion of his discharging bullet reflected in the lenses of his dark glasses. See also Hernández's astounding La Bomba, showing a man hurtling through the air with fire and other debris, propelled by an explosion.

Vincent Valdez takes a historical view in Kill the Pachuco Bastards!, a depiction of the so-called "zoot suit riots," when World War II sailor-thugs invaded Chicano bars to beat up Mexicans for entertainment. Valdez portrays it on a big, cinematic canvas, with blood spurting from one attackee's finger clenched between a sailor's teeth. In the background, a sailor clobbers a woman over the head with (had they no decency?) a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe. My God, Chicanos seem to be swept into violence like logs over a waterfall! Even the cars turn into fiery explosions, as in Carlos Almaraz's splashy pictures of freeway crashes.

Let's not forget John Valadez's riveting you-are-there depictions of Chicano life. Valadez is so skilled with pastels or oils that he can capture the subtle ripple of adipose tissue on the back of a woman's leg or the fuzzy texture of a Persian rug. But there's always a disturbing spin to his scenes, like Pool Party, with two girls doing menial tasks in their backyard, oblivious to the raging brush fire behind them. And Patssi Valdez's dreamscapes, coursing with energy, like the picture of a girl asleep in a four-poster, floating on a sea that bulges with tide lines.

That's it, vatos. Go on home, fire up the grill, throw some fajitas or some asada on the charcoal, and drink a cerveza or two, because you won't be able to sit down after this show. It's white water and the hum of power lines and the jaguar's leap. It's lightning that's about to strike, and you can feel the hairs tingling on your arms.

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