The L.A. County Museum of Art curator was aghast that Southland patrons walking through the galleries looking at 18th century colonial Latin American caste paintings were using them as a litmus test for their own skin color and race.
"Some people were looking at the paintings and trying to do exactly what I was intending them not to do which is trying to identify with some of the people depicted on the paintings," curator Ilona Katzew told me last week.
These casta paintings showed more than a dozen permutations of offspring from couples of different races. The point -- made by the Spanish rules of the time -- was that blacks and Indians were at the bottom of the social ladder and Spaniards at the top. You can try to mix yourself up the ladder, was the impossible message to those on the bottom. Beware of mixing yourself downward, was the message to the Spaniards. Accordingly, some of the paintings depict domestic drama among some of the couples who've dared procreate mixed-race kids. The paintings were created with an insidious agenda, Katzew said, and the experience showed her that perception of race is alive and well.
"The paintings themselves are so artificial and the way race is being constructed is so artificial that trying to fit yourself into one of those categories was almost like a failed exercise. But it also speaks to the still potent meaning of race and how race really affects how people interact, think of themselves, and are thought of in society," Katze said.
The exhibit took place nearly seven years ago but it came to mind as I prepared to sit down to talk to writer Ruben Martinez this Friday evening for a public showing in Pasadena of the PBS documentary he hosted and co-wrote, When Worlds Collide. It doesn't matter from what part of the world we or from where our ancestors came from, we live in Southern California and are living to varying degrees the mestizo, or mixed race, story of Latin America and it's a dynamic that cuts across different cultural experiences. The San Diego artist David Avalos reminded me in this email of one of his exhibits 20 years ago that touches on the mestizo story:
Mon, January 17, 2011 8:04:09 AM
Re: happy new year
From: David Avalos
To: Adolfo Guzman-Lopez
The project mis•ce•ge•NATION, a collaboration with Deborah Small, that included the video, Ramona: Birth of a mis•ce•ge•NATION, a collaboration with Deborah, William Franco and Miki Seifert, was first exhibited at the University of Colorado Boulder in 1991. In my mind the project grew out of looking at my family during holiday gatherings and seeing that my children's primos and primas looked more like a U.N. delegation than some idealized Indian nation. Of course, there were many with strong indigenous features with beautiful caras de nopal, as well as those with Mediterranean and Middle Eastern faces, and blond children with blue eyes as well as the child of an African-American with handsome full features and kinky hair. Deborah Small did some research and found a catalog of 18th Century castas paintings that documented families with mixtures of Europeans, Africans and Mechica that looked like my family and we were off to the races with mis•ce•ge•NATION. The beat goes on, my man. Since 1991 I see an increasing mestizaje within my family as well as within the country as a whole, though I leave it to you to find the statistics that support my claim regarding the nation. My view in 1991 was that USAmerican cultural was blind to the reality of citizens and residents of mixed ancestry. While there are many more images of a national mestizaje today to be found on TV and in films, at the same time I see a President whose imposed identity is African-American while I recognize him as a mixed race son of an indigenous immigrant who was a member of Kenya's Luo people. 'Mixed race son of an indigenous immigrant' sounds like he could be a CSU San Marcos student with a Euro-American mom and a Purepecha dad from Michoacán. Conceptually, he's one of us. So my view has not changed that much. In the face of a much more open representation of mixed couples and sometimes their children, conceptually, as a nation, we seem unable to find a language for acknowledging the simple beauty of our complex social relationships.
The language we're using to describe race is changing under our very tongues. I've talked to Spanish speaking immigrants in Southern California who arrived using the word negro - black in Spanish - to describe an African American but because of negative reactions are now using the word moreno, which means dark skinned. I even see the mestizo story in Avatar, don't you? Jake Sully is caught between two worlds that reject him to varying degrees. That's in great deal the story of Mexican Americans in this country; perceived as betraying Mexico for leaving and forgetting the culture and rejected by mainstream U.S. culture for being too Mexican.
Join me to talk about these and lots of other things mestizo with writer Ruben Martinez this Friday at 7:00 p.m. at KPCC's Crawford Family Forum in Pasadena. Find the info here.
Poet and Journalist Adolfo Guzman-Lopez writes his column Movie Miento every week on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. It is a poetic exploration of Los Angeles history, Latino culture and overall sense of place, darting across LA's physical and psychic borders.