“The Butcher” by CiCi Segura Gonzalez | Courtesy of the artist
As the election results started pouring in on Nov. 8, 2016, Chicano artist Eric Almanza sat in “utter disbelief,” pondering his next move. He wondered what Donald Trump’s win would mean to a Mexican-American community demonized during the presidential campaign as criminals and rapists. And he worried about how he would break the news to his four-year-old daughter, so excited about the prospect of a female president.
“I thought to myself, ‘What can I do? As an artist here in Los Angeles, father of two, educator, what can I do to bring about some sort of change or awareness?” Almanza said.
That New Year’s Eve, instead of a regular resolution, the artist decided to make a “pledge of resistance,” vowing to “resist Donald Trump and everything his administration stood for.” “My voice is best expressed through a paintbrush and pigment,” said Almanza, who teaches fine art at Humanities and Arts Academy of Los Angeles. “So I feel as an artist that it is my responsibility, that I have to use that gift that I have to express myself.”
Two recent group shows in Southern California – both showcasing Latino artists – explore the idea of art as a form of political protest, some 50 years after the start of the Chicano art movement.
Almanza created and curated “Art as Resistance: Paintings in Protest of a Trump Presidency,” May 13 through June 3 at Avenue 50 Studio in Los Angeles, in response to Trump’s first 100 days in office. He also participated in “E Pluribus Unum: From Many, One,” which explores “the role of immigration in shaping our daily lives and our national culture” through a Latino lens; that show runs June 1 through June 25 at Studios on the Park in Paso Robles.
Los Angeles artist Sergio Teran, who has works in both shows, said he’s reached the point where he cannot remain silent about Trump and his policies. “I can’t be quiet about (it). … It feels so much more vital that I act,” he said. “I have to say something. I have to make work about this (subject). I have to post about it. I have to be verbal about it.”
As a Mexican-American man with a Thai wife and a multiracial son, Teran describes himself as “a person who has sat between cultures.” “My most immediate voice would be that of my environment, which is Los Angeles,” he explained, meaning both the physical space of the city — “nature and pavement colliding together” under blue skies — and the people who inhabit it.
His multi-layered portraits often depict friends, family members and fellow artists, including those he’s encountered as a fine arts instructor at Cerritos College in Norwalk.
Teran’s painting “Saul as Canek” depicts a former student taking a break on a bench. Covered in colorful tattoos — like the espresso maker beside him, they represent cross-cultural pollination — Saul wears a red-and-gold mask associated with Mexican luchador Felipe Estrada, known in professional wrestling circles as El Canek.
Mexican wrestling masks are a motif rooted in Teran’s family history. One uncle was known as Jack the Ripper on the Los Angeles circuit, while another wrestled as the Blue Scorpion in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Masks are “all about identity for me,” Teran explained, representing “a heightening, a strengthening … an empowerment …”
Teran’s painting “Along the Wall” also features a masked man – his face draped in a red bandana reminiscent of those worn by field workers and protest marchers. Instead of a harvest knife, he holds a can of spray paint.
Teran said the piece highlights the importance of speaking out. Although he doesn’t consider himself a “political artist,” “Being an artist of color and … representing people of color as a narrative within the work, I think, is inherently political,” Teran acknowledged.
As an Oxnard-based photographer, Antonio Arredondo Juarez similarly seeks to give voice to the voiceless. His “Cajas de Cartón” series, part of “E Pluribus Unum,” features black-and-white portraits of migrant farm workers mounted on the same waxed cardboard boxes they use to transport produce. (“I wanted to pay homage to the farm workers … to bring them closer to the things they touch and interact with on a daily basis,” he explained.)
“I’ve always had a strong connection with people that are on the outskirts of society,” Juarez said. “Although I’ve never worked in the fields, I know what it’s like to come into this country and be marginalized … I know the struggle of not belonging somewhere of not being wanted.”
Born in Jalisco, Mexico, Juarez was 1 ½ when he immigrated to the United States with his parents. He spent the first years of his life undocumented — living in constant fear of being captured by “la migra” in an immigration raid — before becoming a U.S. citizen in 2003.
Now he uses photography to educate art lovers about the immigrant experience. “Personally, my obligation is to share these photographs as much as possible in order to create a dialog (and) also to make a statement” about our shared humanity, Juarez said, a mission that’s taken on a fresh sense of urgency in a charged political climate.
With “Cajas de Cartón,” “My goal is to put viewers face-to-face, in a sense” with people they might never encounter in real life, he explained, namely the field workers who pick and package their fruits and vegetables. “If they can make that connection, it’s one step closer for them (to realize) ‘Hey … They’re not so different from me.’”
“All they want is to be treated fairly,” Juarez said of the workers. “All they want is a chance.”
“Connecting with people on an emotional level” is also the goal of Guatemalan-born performance artist Maria Adela Diaz, whose video projects appear in “E Pluribus Unum.”
Diaz moved to the United States in 2001 with her daughter, then 3. “Coming here for me was starting over again,” said Diaz, who lives in Los Angeles. “Even though I was already a designer in my own country, even though I was already a creative director in my own country, I … really (had) to start from scratch.”
Diaz speaks directly to the immigrant experience in her performance piece “La Carga,” which finds the artist walking down a dirt road with her daughter, naked, in her arms. “It talks about the solitude that you experience when you are in a different country with a lot of responsibilities in your hands,” including motherhood, Diaz explained.
As her work’s primary protagonist, Diaz often uses her own body “as a canvas to express all these issues in the world” — whether that means bobbing in the ocean in a wooden box, as she does in “Borderline,” or floating down the Drava River in Croatia in a boat, as in “In Transit.” “It’s like doing therapy for a traumatic situation,” she explained.
Diaz’s piece “Caution” is one of two works in “E Pluribus Unum” inspired by the yellow road signs — featuring the stark silhouettes of a fleeing family – seen on the sides of San Diego freeways near the border between the United States and Mexico. The other belongs to Almanza, who remembers seeing those signs as a kid and wondering why people would risk their lives by running onto the road.
“As a child, you can’t comprehend” such a desperate bid for freedom, said Almanza, who was born in the United States. “As you get older, you realize the will to live and to better yourself is stronger than (your) fear.” In his painting “In Search of a New Home,” a man, woman and boy approach the border with a helicopter hovering overhead — although it’s unclear whether they’re entering the United States or leaving it.
Although Almanza has explored the border wall in his art since 2012, “The issue got thrown to the forefront of the consciousness of this country when Donald Trump decided to run,” he said. “I told myself, ‘My work needs to be focused solely on the border and these immigration issues because … I feel that my voice and my message can be impactful more now than ever.’”
Although some of Almanza’s paintings are bold in their condemnation of the border wall — witness the message (“F— Your Wall”) scrawled across a burning fence in his painting “With This Fire, A Rebellion Will Rise” – others send a more subtle message.
“Those Things That Divide Us” portrays a seemingly pastoral scene: a family frolics on the beach in the glow of a gorgeous sunset. “And then you have this ugly wall protruding that kind of ruins the whole thing,” he said.
“The Great Wall of USA” highlights the same stark division, contrasting the bustling highway on one side of the border wall with the wilderness on the other. “It always struck me as odd. … There (are) two worlds placed right next to each other that don’t quite fit with each other,” Almanza said. “What led them to being so different? Because the land is the same. The plants that grow from the dirt are the same. Why has mankind grown so different depending on what side of that wall you’re on?”
Almanza worries that Trump’s policies will continue to alienate Americans from the rest of the world. “We’re metaphorically isolating ourselves and now he wants to physically isolate (us) by building a wall,” the artist said.
That’s why it’s so vital that creators embrace “the raw power of art to convey dissent and resistance,” he said.
Diaz, for one, feels energized. “I don’t like Trump, obviously, but I’m excited about the years to come,” she said. “For me, all of this is like material for work. Even if (the inspiration) comes from the negative, you can still twist it around and leave positive messages through art.”