A Brief History of the Wall Arts with Themes of the Chicano Art and Mural Movement

The creation of murals has a long history of telling stories everywhere in the world. This art form can be traced from the early beginnings of human settlement to the present. The Chicano Art and Mural movement was an integral part of propagating the message of the Chicano Movement while maintaining their culture and soliciting solidarity among their community and other devalued and marginalized groups. The Chicano mural movement is based on the creation of wall art with themes dominated by sociopolitical ideals while glorifying Mexico’s native and indigenous history, Spanish and colonial exploitations, emphasizing cultural identity and political action teamed with the struggles and lives of common men and women.

Murals are an important medium for artists to express themselves publicly by creating messages on buildings, housing projects, schools and churches. Most murals are large, open air, free to the public, and created and seen by the community involved. “No single style unites them; their commonality, to the degree that it exists, derives from the thematic factors and what might be called “the Chicano point of view,” a difficult thing to define and one that, even now is undergoing transformation” (Goldman, 258). Murals do share bringing art to a local level, speaking to people’s pride and neighborhood identity while reclaiming their cultural heritage.

Chicano murals burst onto the United States scene in the social and political activism scene of the 1960’s. During this time unlikely alliances formed to improve life for the underserved both in gender and race. In Natalia Molina’s book, How Race is Made in America she writes, “how the racial construction of one group affects others, sometimes simultaneously and sometimes at a much later date” (Molina, 5). She describes this as racial script, “society highlight the ways in which the lives of racialized groups are linked across time and space thereby affect one another, even when they do not directly cross paths. Racial scripts function in three main ways.

First, they highlight how racialized groups are acted upon by a range of principals, from institutional actors to ordinary citizens. Second, all groups are racialized, but we often do not recognize this shared process, and thus we fail to see their common connections” (Molina, 6). Speaking with my hometown of Santa Fe artist and muralist Samuel Leyba about his over three decades of creating murals, “he wanted to educate his people about who they were and that they were Americans with the same rights as every citizen.” Leyba grew up as one of 11 children living in a Santa Fe neighborhood at the end of the turbulent 1960s.

He described his neighborhood as not working well with substandard education, little access to healthcare, drug use and death rate above the national average. There seemed to be little possibility for change. Leyba with his artistic talent and education could have left his community, but because of his love of place and family he looked to change his hometown. He wanted to communicate his Chicano heritage in a manner that was confrontational but not offensive. Three strong cultures, Native American, Hipic, and Anglo influenced his prolific mural career in Santa Fe.

While being different cultures they share a common thread, being one of the last territories to become a part of the United States with the feeling of isolation and being ignored by this new government. Leyba described the “mother of all murals” in Santa Fe, created by Zara Kriekstein, Gilbert Guzman, Jerry Garduno, and Frederico Vigil, located on the side of the State Archives Building as a sample of Molina’s theory of counterscripts. Molina explains that among racial scripts there are counter scripts which “brings to the conversation is an entreaty to see how these practices of resistance, claims for dignity, and downright refusal to take it anymore cut across a range of communities of color, thus once again showing us how they are linked” (Molina, 11).

Leyba while not the artist of this mural explains that the artists collaborated to present a message to America. The mural consists of three cultures living harmoniously in the southwest. Men and women dressed in traditional Hipic costumes are dancing together while Native American elders and their children watch sitting under trees. A small Anglo contingency is standing blurred in the background of the mural. All activity is taking place on one side of the raging Rio Grande River. A large brown skinned arm draped in a Native American blanket holds fish, corn, and medicinal herbs signaling life. A large eagle is resting on the fingertips of the large hand.

With the overpowering size of the arm filled with items at the forefront of the mural, it seems to let the viewer know that the Natives have brought their best to America as they continue to honor their past heritage and culture while respecting their American future. The isolation of being on the “other side of the river” has united them in their struggle. The mural is significant in making allies among the Chicanos, Native Americans and Anglos in their transition to their new country.

Chicano murals served as a mirror to the Chicano community reflecting their shared experiences. Art critic and historian Justino Fernandez said, “ To understand this mural art is to consider and submerge oneself in spiritual, social, political,philosophical and historical problems of our time. If ever a subject begged for interdisciplinary analysis it is this juncture of aesthetics, sociology, and politics” (Tibol, 27). In these turbulent political times, murals old and new will continue to communicate to racialized groups to form alliances, acknowledging we have a shared history that should bring us together to help build a more just society.

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