Storytelling is Part of L.A. Mural Tradition

David Alfaro Siqueiros I © Luis. C. Garza

One of the steadfast rituals of Mexican muralism is the passing down of stories, which is now part of the Los Angeles mural tradition. Luis C. Garza, a photojournalist and independent curator, has a unique angle to that.

Like others bringing awareness of the impact of David Alfaro Siqueiros, Garza's dedication is enthusiastic. His exhibitions and participation in lectures include "Siqueiros in Los Angeles: Censorship Defied," which ran at the Autry National Center from September 2010 to January 2011, in an academic and cultural partnership with The Autry, Lynn La Bate and Melissa Richardson Banks. It focused on Siqueiros' seven months in Los Angeles.

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He has another major contribution to the understanding of Siqueiros. It comes from witnessing the artist first hand as a young photo journalist, and documenting a personality whose fire was not stilled by age. It can be seen through a series of photos taken in 1971. Garza often recants the story, which most recently was published in Fall 2010 in The Autry's publication Convergence:

It was 1971 -- an era of worldwide turbulence and social unrest. The United States was at odds with itself over an unpopular war being fought in far-off Vietnam. Student protests, civil rights demonstrations, and assassinations ruled the day.

Within this setting, as fate would have it, I first came to meet famed Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros at the World Peace Conference held in Budapest Hungary. This was an international gathering of representatives voicing party lines over current political issues, and he and I were members of the Mexican and American delegations, respectively.

During those troubled times I was a UCLA film student and staff photographer for La Raza magazine, the journalistic voice of the Chicano movement in Los Angeles.

Siqueiros, upon hearing there was a Chicano in attendance, called for an introduction -- "Compañero, cuentame de este movimiento Chicano" -- and invited me to join him and fellow delegates in conversation, drinks and laughter that lasted well into the wee hours of la mañana.

Garza's role of storyteller is not limited to inside walls of museums and lecture halls. In April 2012, he joined the pilgrimage to Olvera Street to watch the canopy for the Siqueiros Interpretive Center be lifted into its place in preparation for the October 9 unveiling. A worker did not know what the fuss was about, Garza said to me a few days after the event. He passed on a story about passing on a story:

It was day's end as I reclined against a rooftop wall, or the end of a long shift for the brawny hard-hat foreman who joined me.

My gaze was fixed upon the newly crowned mural shelter canopy that his team of construction workers had just set in place.

My reverie broke when asked, "What's this about?"

"It's about history."

"So, what's on that wall?"

I turned to face a weary, square-jawed worker, bearing an American flag shoulder patch.

"Cemented on to that wall, behind that protective panel lies an 18x82 foot mural completed on October 9th of 1932, the first of its kind," I responded. "A Mexican artist by the name of David Alfaro Siqueiros painted it, he was in political exile."

"Who?"

"You've heard of Diego Rivera?"

"Yeah."

"Los Tres Grandes of Mexico: Orozco, Rivera and Siqueiros, well, he was the youngest of these three great muralists."

Also a soldier in Mexican revolution, a communist, major union organizer, fought in the Spanish Civil War, and the inspiration for a modern outdoor mural movement that begins right here, where he planted the seed, on that wall."

"And, by March of 1934, the first third, visible from Olvera Street, was whitewashed, and then completely covered by the late 1930s."

"Why?"

"'La América Tropical, Oprimida y Destrozada por los Imperialismos;' depicts an indigenous man lashed to a double cross beneath the American eagle of imperialism. A sap-driven jungle surrounds the crucifixion that is set in front of an ancient, crumbling Indian temple. To his right, atop a pedestal are two armed soldiers prepared to wage battle. It wasn't quite what they expected."

His walkie-talkie cackled a command, as he picked up his gear to leave and said, "Well, it sure was the truth."

In speaking with Garza over the years, his delivery can be riveting performance. It is as if he just got back from 1971, or from a rooftop in 2012, and wants to share an experience. That is the true gift of a storyteller.

David Alfaro Siqueiros I © Luis. C. Garza

Photos © Luis. C. Garza

The stories continue with a series of programming leading up to the unveiling of América Tropical October 9. This Thursday, September 27, at 7 p.m., an outdoor multi-media show "Under the Stars - with Gregorio Luke" will be held at Father Serra Park, in front of Union Station. "For the first time in El Pueblo, Los Angeles, where Siqueiros painted his America Tropical mural 80 yeares ago. See this multimedia presentation by Gregorio Luke on David Alfaro Siqueiros, where his murals will be projected life-size on a giant screen, his career and artistic innovations will be discussed in detail."

About the Author

Ed Fuentes is an arts journalist, photographer, graphic designer, and digital muralist who covers a variety of topics and geographies in Southern California for KCET.
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