'América Tropical': The Making, Unmaking, and Remaking of a National Treasure

Under a protective canopy attached to the second story exterior wall of Italian Hall, conservation experts work on Siquerios' "América Tropical." I Photo courtesy of The Getty.

Writing on the Wall guest editorial continues with Leonard Folgarait, Professor of History of Art at Vanderbilt University. He teaches and researches modern art of Latin America with a specialization in the twentieth-century art of Mexico. Folgarait is the author of "Mural Painting and Social Revolution in Mexico, 1920-1940: Art of the New Order" (1998) and "So Far from Heaven: David Alfaro Siqueiros' The March of Humanity and Mexican Revolutionary Politics" (2009).

Los Angeles has changed profoundly since 1932, when the Mexican mural painter and political agitator David Alfaro Siqueiros painted "América Tropical" on a wall high up and almost out of sight in downtown. A city then beginning to establish its infrastructure and culture, Los Angeles is now that self-multiplying megalopolis that people either love or hate.

Los Angelenos have also changed, especially its citizens of Mexican descent, from a struggling minority to a people well, but not fully, integrated into every aspect of the city's industry, culture, and politics. If the Mexican-based population continues to increase, Aztlan will be reconquered, even if only symbolically.

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But some things have not changed. The super-charged immigration issue becomes more heated, Mexican migrant workers are under stronger vigilance, and legal residents fear the loss of that protected status. As more Spanish surnames appear in the rosters of our nation's baseball teams, or heard speaking at Republican and Democratic conventions, more such names appear on lists of the deported. And the drug violence is spilling across the border, fed by the drug market that already has rendered that border invisible.

If it were not for historians like Shifra Goldman and Josefina Quezada, the radical critique of United States imperial violence toward Latin American indigenous peoples of those times (the original subtitle of the Siquerios mural is: Oppressed and Destroyed by Imperialism) is understood as cultural context, its initial whitewashing -- both literal and figurative -- is known to be angry censorship.

Will the docent program fully contextualize the agitated forms and surfaces into its history of the patronage, with references to what Los Angeles was like in those days, or explain away the force of the original message? Will the twisted and tortured martyr on that cross spark another round of indignation by those who not familiar with the messenger? Or will that message, with its new status as a cultural artifact protected by public and private conservation, tame anti-immigrant aggression in the teeming and roiling jungle of the Southwest?

As an art historian who values historicizing art above all else, as a way to expose the ideologies of the art and of its circumstances of production, I fully welcome the unveiling and its resultant exposure of the conflicted conditions of the making and unmaking and re-making of the painting (that remaking itself has its own tortured history, fully indicative of the true interests of city administrations for past decades). As an art historian, I can't wait to see the unveiled painting, and applaud all the forces that have brought it and us to this point. As a citizen who values the unvarnished impulse of engaged and committed art, I wish very much that the original content is not "explained away" nor made to serve some notion that the conflicted relations between the peoples of Mexico and of the United states are over, because they are not, not after NAFTA and not after the appearance of tall fences.

Eva Crockcroft and Alessandra Moctezuma working on their 'Homage' | Photo courtesy of The MCLA
Eva Crockcroft and Alessandra Moctezuma working on their 'Homage' | Photo courtesy of The MCLA

Remember that a painted wall does two things: it emphasizes that it is a barrier by the mere fact that we notice it as a wall when it is painted; a barrier separating spaces and people, such as border fences. A painted wall as "América Tropical," however, because it pictures a deep and realistic space, also dissolves the wall and suggests that the power of the image is to look through rather than at the wall. In this way, a painted wall loses its qualities of separation and instead joins spaces and concepts, and perhaps people. A whitewashed wall only separates and denies access.

"América Tropical" was painted to invite access to its meaning, but to insist that any such meaning will be and should be contested and fought over. That is the nature of political art. By looking into its spaces and its protagonists, we are invited to ponder our own politics and to side with those who would protect it or cover it up. Such ponderings and debates are worth having. Controversy can lead to enlightenment. A slightly smaller copy of "América Tropical" is on display in East L.A. at 3802 Cesar Chavez Avenue, painted by Eva Cockcroft and Alessandra Moctezuma, with the title, "Homage to Siqueiros."

After you see the original unveiled and marvel at the power of political art, do travel to a version that has never been whitewashed. May both versions, simply because there are two, enlighten us and shorten the literal and political distance between them. May both painted walls serve to join us rather than to separate us.

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