Chon Noriega | Ricardo Palavecino for "187"

Chon Noriega: Art Helps to Focus and Shift How People Think About an Issue

Chon Noriega: Hello. My name is Chon Noriega, and I am the director of the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center. I came to UCLA in summer of 1992 to become a professor at UCLA. This was just following the Rodney King riots, so it was quite a dramatic way to come into the city. The smoke was still in the air.

Yes, it was an interesting political moment following really a 12-year period defined by the Reagan era, Reagan presidency and Bush presidency. I think there was a lot of optimism on the one hand with Bill Clinton as President. At the same time, there was a sense that there was a lot of unfinished business, that things were changing politically and they weren't really being talked about. I think the first instance of that besides, of course, the riots in Los Angeles was the quincentennial.

It was coming the 500 years since the conquest of the Americas and we're still really taking a fairly romantic view of how it is that we're all here under the rubric of the United States of America. A lot of artists really brought attention to that throughout 1992. What's interesting is that pivoted fairly quickly, from an effort to really bring attention to the impact of colonization to, in 1993, realizing that this was taking a very specific form in terms of rising anti-immigrant sentiment.

Throughout the summer of 1993, you had various artists really getting national attention for drawing attention to issues of anti-immigrant rhetoric, but also continuing racial polarization that really wasn't being addressed. 1993 and 1994 is a moment in which some of the basic elements of our society were shifting from a model that people were familiar with that was largely defined in terms of a white majority to a much more hybrid culture, and to one in which far in advance of the rest of the nation we would have what's called a minority-majority culture.

Now, that's a tautology. It requires really reframing and rethinking. How do we understand the fact that the majority of students in our public schools are not white? In Los Angeles, 92% of them are not white, but we haven't really rethought how we understand education. We're still teaching to a norm that doesn't exist anymore. I think that Prop 187 really called the question in a fairly nasty and detrimental way. The only upside to it is that it wasn't taking place in a vacuum. There was the other half of the population and they spoke up, that is, we're still in the middle of the resolution of that 25 years later.

What you see happening in the early '90s is artists are at once following a tradition of referencing figures like the Virgin of Guadalupe, or Emiliano Zapata, that are kind of heritage figures in a way. They're also really tapping into mainstream media culture through figures like Mickey Mouse, which is used by a wide range of artists in terms of Lalo Alcaraz, Enrique Chagoya, and others. Here is a place we can focus attention through satire. I think it's that mixture of both a notion of culture of origin and its traditions, and the mainstream culture that is everyone's reference point in how to, in some sense, put those two things together.

The great thing about humor is it does bring people together. The thing about the arts is art doesn't happen in a vacuum. You have to find a platform or format, a context to bring people in to experience it. I think the move towards having broader access to, say, mass media or to print media, you're exponentially increasing that audience, but you're also diversifying it. You're getting out of the group of people that share your point of view, and you're beginning to take part in that larger struggle. For which way will people's sentiments go as they think about immigration, as they think about affirmative action, as they think about the fact that we're a multilingual society?

What you have to realize is this is the early days of social media, but it's also a shift from a technology that was very expensive like video, like printing, to something that was much more accessible and could actually be done on a tabletop in many cases. In that moment, before social media explodes and takes it in a very different direction, people had access to things that gave them a wider reach than had been possible in earlier decades.

We're not talking a major network, national television, or the mainstream newspapers. They're really starting on the alternative sector, but they're getting access to a much larger audience and trying to develop what they've done in a largely grassroots, or on-the-ground way, to project out to the much larger readership of something like LA Weekly or of a television series or a radio program.

Daniel Martinez is a Los Angeles based artist who's been active since the late 1970s when he was a student at CalArts. He was briefly part of the conceptual art group, the second phase of the conceptual art group Asco. He's primarily known for his own work as an installation artist and as a public artist, and has done some really phenomenal work that is situated in public spaces and calls attention to the inequities and the disparities that are structured into our society.

When he had a chance to be part of the Whitney Biennial in 1993, he wanted to bring that to bear on the museum itself. The museum and that biennial are really seen as a touch down of-- or are really seen as taking the pulse of American Art every two years. They're typically very controversial because any attempt to define what American art means is going to be very specific rather than reflect the full complexity of what's happening in American art.

He was one of three or four Latino artists that were in the exhibition. His art piece consists of the museum tags, and the museum tags spell out, "I can't imagine ever wanting to be white." What he did is he took the entire audience and he turned them into a symphony that their interactions would bring to the surface the issue, which is-- He was saying that in a satirical mode, which is the baseline is we all need to imagine being white, and some of us are not recognized as such, or will not be recognized as such.

What's interesting is the piece that he did was called an overture, museum tags an overture referring to the opening of symphonic composition. The idea was to really think about the way in which we move and interact with each other. It is like a fairly complicated musical piece. If we make explicit the racial dynamics of that, we have a better understanding of our society.

That caused a firestorm. Every art critic who wrote about it tended to write about it as a literal statement, not as an artistic expression. David Avalos, Louis Hock, and Elizabeth Sisco are artists that were associated with the Border Arts Workshop, but who worked as a collaboration on a number of public art pieces. The first one they did that really received international attention was for the 1988 Super Bowl in San Diego. They're based in San Diego and the San Diego Tijuana area.

There was a billboard on the side of a bus and it said, "Welcome to America's finest tourist plantation." It had the hands of hotel workers in the image. It was really drawing attention to the fact that the Super Bowl, the economy, the place where Pete Wilson was a mayor, really are supported by largely unrecognized and underpaid undocumented labor.

They would then go on to do the Art Rebate in 1993, that in some ways really brought what was called the culture wars to a head by really bringing the focus to not politics, not sexuality and other issues that were part of that, the culture wars, but the place of immigrants in society and their role primarily on economic grounds. That that was really being left out of the equation in order to make it something about legality and morality.

This was followed almost immediately by David Avalos, Louis Hock, and Elizabeth Sisco doing their Art Rebate piece in San Diego, where they took NEH money that had been given as part of an exhibition project on the border and they gave it out in $10 bills to undocumented workers and had them sign receipts, so everything was on the up and up as it were.

That also had a firestorm of response. It was a provocation, and the response was again, literal, which is you're giving money away to the undocumented. That's the problem we have in this country, that the immigrants are taking our money. What the artist understood is, "Where was that money going to go?" It was going to go straight into the economy. What they were trying to do is showcase the fact that however they are here, immigrants who are working are contributing much more than they receive in this society, and that's going unrecognized.

Now, those two things really brought that up to a national debate. Right after that, Pete Wilson comes out with his "get tough on immigrants" policy. That's really the beginning of the campaign that leads to the passing of Proposition 187. That's the context. The context for that political shift was really a prior recognition by artist saying, "Look what's happening. We're being demonized. Our contributions to society are not being recognized. The fact that we are a vital part of the economy is also not being recognized."

In fact, the political rhetoric is the opposite. If you look at the language in Prop 187, it is saying basically, "We have the right to defend ourselves against immigrants who are harming us economically," which is completely wrong. It's an inaccurate statement that gets codified, or is voted to be codified into law.

The graphic arts have always been an important part of social and political movements. It's a way of giving people a very intensified message that is both language-based-- There's usually a tagline, a phrase, something that helps organize people's understanding of an issue, but there's also an image. There's placing an icon or iconography into play in the political arena. I think what often gets overlooked is that there's really been no successful social or political movement that didn't have the arts as a foundation for sharpening and circulating its message.

This is not just a question of sending a telegram. When I say message, I mean helping to focus, but also shift the way people think about an issue. During Prop 187, those that were really pushing for the proposition were trying to put an image in everyone's head. The image is immigrants as taking away, taking away jobs, taking away money, taking away public services that rightfully belong to citizens. That's an image they put into the head.

What the artists began doing was, one, confronting that directly, but also beginning to shift towards another image of workers, of contributors to the economy, of people who are here and who in many ways belong here and have a voice. That's a struggle that's taking place. It's not just political. It's very much about communications. It's very much about aesthetics and how you shift the way you look at things. I think the crossover point is political cartoons. In Los Angeles, we had this very interesting moment where there was a shift taking place in the editorial cartoons for the LA Times.

The LA Times was a largely conservative newspaper, but it had Paul Conrad as its editorial cartoonist. In 1993, he gets moved out and he continues to have pieces shown, but he's no longer the editorial cartoonist. Instead, the LA Times hire somebody at a much smaller paper who had just won the Pulitzer Prize. That's Michael Ramirez, who was a very conservative political cartoonist. He remains the editorial cartoonist for the LA Times until about 2005, so that shift is happening right around the time of the campaign and the election for Proposition 187.

The book Brown Tide Rising by UCLA Professor Otto Santa Ana looked at the LA Times in this period and didn't look at the arguments that articles were making per se, but looked at the metaphors that were being used to describe immigrants. What he discovered is that the LA Times was consistently using metaphors for immigrants that were based on ecological disasters, illnesses, disease, anything but human. It was using these catastrophic and fairly negative phenomena of the natural world and of disease to describe the place of immigrants in our society.

I think, "Wow. Look at this. They're dehumanizing immigrants in the LA Times." They're doing it very subtly by the way in which they gesture towards immigration as a flood or as a disease that is a crippling society. They're able to get the point across without providing any evidence and without actually making an explicit argument. They just slip it into the language and they put images in people's heads that are very negative. The LA Times, I don't think, reviewed the book.


Chon: Concurrently, you have a cohort of graphic artists and, in particular, one who moves into the arena of editorial cartoonist, Lalo Alcaraz. He had started with Chicano Secret Service, a performance group he was part of, a younger version of Culture Clash. Also, Pocho Magazine, which was a zine that reached about 20,000 people. It was like the mad magazine of Chicano culture, but the stock and trade was really the editorial cartoon, or the political cartoon.

I think that humor has been the saving grace of more humanistic politics in the last 25 years. If you do think about what the most effective pushback leading up to the election, was the emergence of a pretty sharp satirical voice coming from the Chicano community. That was some artists that were working in some of the mainstream museums, the people working at community-based, all across. The refinement of that voice was very critical to really having an effective position in confronting not just the proposition itself but the attitudes that allowed that kind of thinking, that kind of hatred to have a sizable majority of the voters.

Those are two separate things. The law passes. It's enacted or not. It gets challenged. That has a very different life, but you're still left with almost 60% of the population thinking this is okay, and that you have to continue confronting after the legal issues get sorted out.

There are many great things that came out of that struggle of Prop 187. I think that happens with every generation, that there is a defining issue around which people come to understand themselves and what they can contribute to the world. I think we are so deep in that moment right now that it's hard for us to see the contours of it. In that regard, it's helpful to look back 25 years and see what did the last generation deal with-- How did they come out of that? What do we as a society have that benefits from that generation? Because I think that we're really coming hard up against the need to do that again, and things are less clear right now.

Spanish language radio is becoming dominant. It's becoming the dominant form of radio in Southern California, and that is giving a platform for discussing these issues both in political commentary or talk formats, but also through music. The music is also able to travel through performances. We have groups like Los Tigres del Norte, for example. They're able to address these issues. They're like a newspaper that shows up at stadiums and connects with people through the music, but the lyrics are delivering the message and strengthening a point of view about who we are.

Both performance artists or theater groups or musicians, a lot of what we get when you think of someone like Richard Montoya, you're getting certain ways of articulating things, but you're also getting a presence and an attitude that says, "No. This is where I'm from. I'm going to be very direct about having a completely different vision than you do about who we all are and how we relate to each other."

I remember seeing Culture Classic performances around that time, both in California and in Texas. The power of what they're able to do to just make you realize, yes, we are very much in our own skin, we have an orientation and a way of entering into the world both socially, culturally, and politically, it was very empowering to see that. It could be as simple as the way Richard would be at the bottom of the Guadalupe Ana, on a stage and then take a puff out of a cigarette. That sense that you can have a sense of humor, a sense of a reverence, and go forth and fight a good fight, I think that was really important.

I think that groups like that really gave people something to hold on to because Heaven knows everything else was shifting in very dangerous directions. This is the surface. This is the life we live. Having that reflected back to you through radio, through TV, through theaters, through art spaces, is an important function of our culture, of media, of our public culture.

As a consequence of the '60s and '70s, there was an infrastructure that was more or less still there that these artists could tap into but they could also push into the edges of the mainstream, and that was very critical. In English language media, you see a lot of the struggle become both very explicit. It becomes acceptable to just demonize another group to at once come from a position of we're a nation of immigrants and we hate immigrants that are coming from south of the border, but also shifting that into metaphor, into insinuation so that it's hard to even figure out where it's coming from but you've been positioned in ways that really make you vulnerable in society.

We have a situation now where with regard to media as a way in which we understand or learn or hear about each other is largely unchecked, and that's having a fairly-- We're seeing a very direct and explicit impact on the political structure that's based on checks and balances. We've had this romantic vision of our media culture. Three networks and a public TV's network have basically three guys that talk to us every night and bring us all together. In the 1990s, we still had that vision of our media culture.

I don't think at that time, and for a long time after, people didn't really consider what it might mean that that's only half of what people are seeing or hearing in California, and that the other half is in Spanish. I think that culminating from Proposition 13, which was very much a race-based proposition to remove funding for schools as it was clear that the students were going to be increasingly non-white, up to Prop 187.

The idea was to basically just try to ignore that and hold onto that romantic vision of a white media culture that brought us all together. It's much more difficult and more complicated to think about a culture that may overlap in areas but it's taking place in different languages and has different orientations toward the world. The US media is the only media in the world that thinks of itself and can think of itself as being isolated and measured only on its own terms. If you look at the media anywhere else in the world, and if you listen to the Spanish language media, the rest of the world is in there.

In the US, it gets a very small portion of the nightly news. It's really engaging with the rest of the world that's not somehow an extension of our own actions. In every other society, even very large ones, it has to be the other way around. There's an entire world out there and we are part of it. Those are two very different worldviews that are taking place in California right now. We haven't really come to grips with how do we take both of those and understand that as a whole. How do we understand that as the true measure of our society? Even now, I still think, well, the media is the English language media, and they have their rewards.

It's only recently we're going to say, "Well, we have to factor them into the Nielsen ratings." We have to factor Spanish language into Nielsen. We have to factor it into the recognition, the recognitions that we have for this industry. We have to be attentive to the regulatory issues in terms of a disparity of pay between English and Spanish, and a disparity of ad rates between English and Spanish when ostensibly that industry is only based on the number of viewers.

What is happening in terms of the arts is you are seeing a kind of return of that impulse in the '60s and '70s to really have art front and center as the new set of political issues and political struggles become clear. Everything is in flux in a very different way than it was 25 years ago. 25 years ago, what became very clear were essentially the battle lines, that one part of the population saw the other part of the population as its enemy, not as its support base, and wanted to get rid of it. It boils down to that.

Today, we're in such a different environment on so many levels. We politically have some of the same issues in terms of inequalities and of immigrants being really at the bottom in terms of access to rights and resources that are due them as they are due to any human being, but the Latino population itself is so incredibly diverse, and it's the majority population in this region.

I think we're grappling with that. It's not just a shift from one thing to another, or one side against another. It's that there is such complexity and diversity to who we are right now that we're still sorting it out. I think in a way, that has resulted in less focus in this current moment. There's great art being made, but it's hard to say in a way that you could 25 years ago, that we know what we have to address, and it's this one thing, and let's push back on it.

That resulted in a wide range of art being made from art that's graphic art or tied to editorial content, to fine art. There were a number of Prop 187 exhibitions that came out following the election, including one in Chicago at Malcolm X College that showcased what Latino artists were doing. I think today, one of the challenges of a very, very diverse society is you really have issues to address on multiple fronts. I think that's where we are right now.

- Written by: Pilar Marrero, Portrait by: Ricardo Palavecino

Find more firsthand accounts of the campaign against Prop 187 here.

Chon Noriega arrived in Los Angeles to become a professor at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) in the summer of 1992. It was a troubling time for Los Angeles, but also a hopeful one.

“The smoke was still in the air,” he says. The L.A. Riots or Uprising had just happened. “It was quite a dramatic way to come into the city.”

The hope came from the idea of police reform and the election late that year of the first democratic president in 12 years: Bill Clinton. Artists in Los Angeles paid a lot of attention to the 500-year anniversary of the conquest of the Americas and the impact of colonization.

But that hope quickly faded when anti-immigrant sentiments began to bubble more and more onto the political arena, even before a group of citizens in Orange County started to gather signatures for what would become Proposition 187.

“Throughout the summer of 1993, you had various artists really getting national attention for drawing attention to issues of anti-immigrant kind of rhetoric, but also a continuing racial polarization that really wasn't being addressed,” says Noriega, who currently holds the position of director of UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center.

In those years, Noriega says, the culture of California society was changing from a white majority to a “much more hybrid culture, far in advance of the rest of the nation into a minority-majority culture.”

By then, a majority of students in the schools of major cities in California were children of color or immigrants “and we had not really rethought how we understood education.”

In the early nineties, Noriega says, artists were at once “following a tradition of referencing figures like the Virgen de Guadalupe or Emiliano Zapata, but also tapping into mainstream media culture through figures like Mickey Mouse.”

In the context of 187 and the social conflict it reflected of a mainstream culture rising up against the new population, immigrants and minorities — represented by Latinos — Noriega references how the beginning of the internet and social media gave many alternative artists access to a broader audience at that very moment. 

“But it's also a shift from a technology that was very expensive, like video, like printing to something that was much more accessible,” he says. “People had access to things that gave them a wider reach than hadn't been possible in earlier decades.”

This period also helped redefine what was considered American Art, Noriega says, referencing Daniel Martinez, a Los Angeles based artist who is primarily known as an installation artist in public spaces.

His participation in the Whitney biennial of 1993, as one of a handful of Latino artists, touched on the racial conflict of California at the time: "His piece consists of museum tags, and they spell out: "I can't imagine ever wanting to be white.”

"He took the entire audience and turned them into a symphony so that their interactions would bring the issue to the surface. He was saying that in a satirical mode,” he remembers. “The idea was to really think about the way in which we move and interact with each other.”

Noriega points to several artists in California, of Mexican and other Latin American origins, who were already pointing to the demonization of the community even before 187, and the role of the undocumented population in the economy and society of the state.

When the proposition qualified, the reaction happened at several levels and in different artistic arenas, he says.

"There's really been no successful social or political movement that didn't have the arts as a foundation for sharpening and circulating its message…it means helping to focus, but also shift the way people think about an issue.”

Those that were pushing the issue, he says, were trying to put an image into people's heads of immigrants taking away jobs, money, public services that belong to citizens.

“What the artists began doing was confronting that directly, but also beginning to shift towards another image of workers, as contributors to the economy, people who in many ways belong here and have a voice.”

“If you do think about what the most effective pushback leading up to the election was, it was the emergence of a pretty sharp satirical voice coming from the Chicano community,” he indicates.

Twenty-six years after Prop 187, Noriega has spent half of his life teaching in the UCLA Department of Film, Television and Digital Media, and he is an adjunct curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).  Shortly after Proposition 187 passed and was stopped by the courts, Noriega became the editor of Aztlán, a Journal of Chicano Studies. He has helped recover and preserve independent films and video art, curated and co-hosted a month-long festival called "Latino Images in Film" on Turner Classic Movies, curated or co-curated numerous groundbreaking art exhibitions and written several books on the history and culture of Chicano and communities of color.


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