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Vincent Valdez's The Strangest Fruit: A Bitter Crop in Texas

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ZootSuitRiots.jpg
Vincent Valdez, "Kill the Pachuco Bastard!," 2000.

Vincent Valdez is a draughtsperson with soul, known for advancing social and political realism in his paintings and drawings as social and political critique. His truck-as-canvas work, "El Chavez Ravine," was prompted by Ry Cooder as a response to "Kill the Pachuco Bastard!" It's also an ongoing conversation, as those ideas from Valdez still move forward. Writing on the Wall asked the remote Professor Andrea Lepage to explain.

By Andrea Lepage

 Vincent Valdez at age 9.
Vincent Valdez at age 9.

More than a decade of Vincent Valdez's early artistic career was devoted to mural painting in and around San Antonio, Texas. These early works reveal both pride and an investigative interest in his Latino cultural heritage. By his own account, "there was always [a] social and political undertone" to his work -- dating back to a public mural he painted in 1985, at the age of nine, under the direction of muralist Alex Rubio.

The young Valdez depicted farm workers with jets flying overhead and inscribed the work with the words: "Make food not war." His early collaborative murals explored topical and social subjects -- "La Virgen de Guadalupe" (1985), "The Vietnam War" (1989), "The AIDS Epidemic in America" (1990), and "Latino Soccer" (1993) -- as well as San Antonio's regional culture, with the now-destroyed "Mi cuidad, mi cultura (My city, my culture)" (2000). His current large-scale hyper-realistic oil and pastel paintings and drawings continue to focus on subjects with socio-political themes.

The artist also defines himself as "researcher -- a bit of a historian." As a student in the BFA program at the Rhode Island School of Design, he investigated the Zoot Suit riots of 1943, during which United States service men stripped, humiliated, and assaulted young Mexican Americans in Los Angeles. From that research, Valdez painted "Kill the Pachuco Bastard!" (2000), a work that is a vivid showing of the dehumanization -- of both aggressor and victim -- that characterizes mob violence.

Just as powerful is his recent body of work, a series of eight large-scale oil paintings entitled "The Strangest Fruit," which revisits the themes of mob violence. This time, Valdez sought an understanding of the widespread lynching of Mexicanos in Texas between 1848 and 1928, and to connect the historical mistreatment of Latinos to the present, Valdez depicted eight men dressed in contemporary garb, positioned as if hanging from a tree or a stage.

 Vincent Valdez, Untitled from The Strangest Fruit, 2013
Untitled from The Strangest Fruit, 2013

No actual noose or lynching stage is visible, the bodies floating in peace, but with violence against bodies preserved as contortions.

"It is important to depict these portraits through contemporary faces and bodies which suggest that the presence and threat of the noose itself has been reshaped, repackaged, and is as present as ever in modern America," Valdez said about his new series, which represents an "obscure part of American history."

Indeed, while the lynchings of African Americans during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries receive scholarly, social, and cultural attention, little has been devoted to the hundreds of Latinos who, during the same period, died at the end of a rope.

William D. Carrigan and Clive Webb are two of the few historians to explore the lynching of persons of Mexican origin or descent in the U.S.: "If the story of lynching is essential to understanding the African American experience, then lynching is equally important to the story of the Mexican American experience."

The series title also connects the paintings to Abel Meeropol's poem "Strange Fruit" which, after the poet set it to music, reached Billie Holiday, who recorded it with haunting reflection in 1939.

Valdez's adaptation of Meeropol's poem explicitly connects the brown and the black experience through his replacement of "black bodies" with "brown bodies."

Texas trees bear a strange fruitBlood on the leaves and blood at the rootBrown bodies swinging' in the Southern breezeStrange fruit hanging from the pecan treesForgotten scene of the gallant SouthThe bulgin' eyes and the twisted mouthScent of desert rose sweet and freshThen the sudden smell of burnin' fleshHere is a fruit for the black birds to pluckFor the rains to gather, for the droughts to suckFor the sun to rot, for the trees to dropHere is a strange and bitter crop

Vincent Valdez, Untitled from The Strangest Fruit, 2013
Untitled from The Strangest Fruit, 2013

To adapt the poem to the Texan experience, the artist substituted the word "Texas" for "Southern," "pecan" for "poplar," "magnolias" for "desert rose," and "black birds" for "crows."

His most provocative substitution is the replacement of Meeropol's "pastoral scene of the gallant South" with "forgotten scene." This particular manipulation of the original poem calls attention to the individuals taken by mob violence, and also reproaches the viewer for forgetting.

For Valdez, the visual stories he tells are not necessarily rooted in his own memories or even in stories passed down from generation to generation, though he notes that knowledge of mob violence against and lynching of Mexicans has been preserved in traditional Spanish corridos (popular narrative ballads) over the years.

Rather, Valdez's impulse to investigate seems motivated by the desire to preserve cultural memory. In a 2013 artist statement, Valdez invoked a famous quotation by the writer Gore Vidal: "We are [permanently] the United States of Amnesia. We learn nothing because we remember nothing." His assertion is in keeping with a recent trend among theorists, who increasingly regard the loss of cultural and historical memory that pervades contemporary American culture, as a type of amnesia. On the importance of cultural memory, Valdez notes that, "Change can't come about until we understand [...] the root of these issues."

In his "The Strangest Fruit" series, Valdez confronts a forgetful audience and forces viewers to acknowledge a prolonged and continuing history of violence and discrimination against Latinos in the United States. By portraying contemporary men, he binds together the past and present to comment upon the current condition of young minority males in the United States, who, he argues, are threatened by "oppressive methods and institutions which are implemented to target and confine young males in society."

Institutionalized violence is a connecting thread among Valdez's works. In this new body of work, he takes a crucial step to link the historical treatment of people of Mexican descent in Texas to the present treatment of minority males in the United States. Valdez's imagery seeks to create memories for a viewer who is unaware of the extent to which Latinos were lynched in the United States, and who also may not know about continuing discrimination against minority youths. His hyper-realist style functions to create vivid memories where there were none in an effort to combat the cultural amnesia so pervasive in our time.

Artist in studio with The Strangest Fruit series I Courtesy of the artist.
Artist in studio with The Strangest Fruit series I Courtesy of the artist.

All images courtesy of the artist.

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