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Cruising Down SoCal's Boulevards: Streets as Spaces for Celebration and Cultural Resistance

Ricardo Valverde, "Boulevard Night" (primary)
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Janette Beckman, "Rivera Bad Girls"
Janette Beckman, "The Rivera Bad Girls, East L.A. 1983," 1983. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist

In partnership with the Vincent Price Art Museum: The mission of the Vincent Price Art Museum is to serve as a unique educational resource through the exhibition, interpretation, collection, and preservation of works in all media.

"Tastemakers & Earthshakers: Notes from Los Angeles Youth Culture, 1943 – 2016" is a multimedia exhibition that traverses eight decades of style, art, and music, and presents vignettes that consider youth culture as a social class, distinct issues associated with young people, principles of social organization, and the emergence of subcultural groups. Citing the 1943 Zoot Suit Riots as a seminal moment in the history of Los Angeles, the exhibition emphasizes a recirculation of shared experiences across time, reflecting recurrent and ongoing struggles and triumphs.

Through a series of articles, Artbound is digging deeper into the figures and themes explored in "Tastemakers & Earthshakers." The show was on view from October 15, 2016 to February 25, 2017 at the Vincent Price Art Museum.

Whittier Boulevard, 1979
[Left] "View of Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles just before dusk on September 9, 1979, where the cruisers were out as usual. A section of the street was closed at 9:30 p.m. to prevent gang violence." | Photo: Anne Knudsen, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Prominent cities are often characterized by their streets. Whether it’s the iconic passage known as Sunset Boulevard on the west side of Alameda or Cesar Chavez Avenue to the east, boulevards have the practical function of ordering commerce and traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular. But they are also curated displays of a city’s identity — simultaneously, destinations, as well as, transitory spaces where culture, in its flow, is publicly shaped and performed.

In Southern California, car culture became both a symbol of transcendence over socio-economic and racial boundaries, and played a significant role in shaping the identity of West Coast art. Artists, such as Frank Romero and Ruben Ortiz-Torres, have made cars the subject and object of their work. For Chicanos and Mexican Americans, constructing and riding a tricked-out car became a way to turn vehicles into a cultura, which in its specific insularity could turn its back on a mainstream society that denied them. Cultura, as many barrio sages know, is a way to keep your head up, to smile now and leave the crying for later when the rancheras and beer in the company of your most trusted homies split you too wide.

Gusmano Cesaretti, "Mosca," 1974, East L.A
Gusmano Cesaretti, "Mosca, 1974 East L.A.," 1974, archival pigment print. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist

Cruising, a prominent pastime of Chicano culture, elevates riding a car to a performance — a public ritual of the street. For Eastside communities, boulevards have been a destination for car cruising and low-riding. To highlight its movement and flashy materiality, low-riding drops everything to a lower wavelength. It slows its speed to crawling, reduces its height to nearly scraping. Even the bass drops in sound systems to revel in its sonorous depths. To cruise is to ride a vibration at its heaviest. The car itself is a crown, often laden with precious urban metals, chrome and steel, and crafted with gem-toned fiberglass. The work of Ortiz-Torrez highlights the low-rider and its aesthetics by reconstructing them and re-engineering its hydraulic mechanisms to emphasize its cultural vernacular.

As a transitory public space, boulevards are also locations in which rites of passage are exhibited. On barrio streets, a quinceañera will take the gravity of a queen. In the act of cruising in her limo or decked out ranfla, she presents herself to the streets she had walked most of her life, as a rubber-soled kid, skipping down the gum-stained sidewalk to buy a bag of chips or walking alongside her mother to church on a given Sunday. On her 15th birthday, she navigates on her own terms, cruising down the boulevard. While in church she received the blessings of a priest before the eyes of God and her family, now on the streets, she becomes her own priestess evoking power through the broken asphalt with the wheels of her slow-riding limo. If she is inclined, she may ascend through the sunroof to reveal herself and see the world from these new heights.

And though rites of passage, such as quinceañeras, affirm our location within a social order, in some cases, the act of solely asserting the presence of marginalized bodies of color in public space is an act of political resistance. Over the decades, boulevards have also been used to enact social and political subversion.

Rafael Cardenas, "Quinceanera Limo Swag"
Rafael Cardenas, "Quinceañera Limo Swag," 2014, digital archival print. | Photo: Courtesy of the artist

The 1968 student walkouts and the Chicano Moratorium in 1970 were two key moments that asserted the presence and power of Chicanos in history, culture and politics and established East Los Angeles as a symbolic cultural homeland for Chicanos in the Southwest. The “blowouts” captured the zeitgeist of a rising Chicano movement and represented a political initiation for young Chicano activists who experienced their first taste of political empowerment and would, in the following years, grow to become significant figures in policy, education and art.

Some young participants of the walkouts would also come of age as artists using the streets once again as a platform for their politics and aesthetics. ASCO, the East L.A.-based Chicano arts group that mainly consisted of Patssi Valdez, Gronk, Harry Gamboa and Willie Herrón, initiated their public performances on Whittier Boulevard with “The Stations” on Christmas Eve of 1971. Much of their work took place in public spaces, most notably Whittier Boulevard, including “Walking Mural” (1972), “Instant Mural “(1974) and “Decoy Gang War Victim” (1974), which eventually landed on the cover of Art Forum magazine in 2011.

Newlyweds at the Chicano Moratorium
[Left] Two young men hold a banner which reads, "National Chicano Moratorium, East Los Angeles, August 29." | Photo: Sal Castro, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library  

The Chicano movement reached a momentous yet entropic climax during the Chicano Moratorium in 1970. By then, many teenagers that had walked out of high schools had become politicized college students and rising professionals that were fully self-aware of their political strength. Planned by seasoned activists, the moratorium was a highly organized protest, however, this event erupted into chaos and violence as police shot tear gas canisters to disband the “unlawful gathering.” Students and protesters ran, taking refuge in nearby homes. According to numerous testimonies, police entered homes and private businesses in search of protesters. Most notably, police officers and riot police entered the Silver Dollar Bar where they fired three canisters, striking and killing prominent Mexican American journalist Ruben Salazar.

The unraveling of these events is useful in understanding a crucial function of the boulevard and the gridiron layout of the city — to conduct police and military enforced discipline. In fact, critics of the grid or gridiron layout have noted that its design intentionally prevents and helps control uprisings. In the mid-19th century, Paris reconstructed its city after a brutal French revolution with a new urban layout that employed the modern boulevard as its centerpiece. The controversial author of this layout, Georges- Eugène Haussmann, noted the military value of his design as it prevented the outbreak of riots that had previously plagued Paris and revived not-too-distant memories of the bloody revolution.

In addition to political dissent, the mere presence of brown bodies in a public space has been criminalized in Los Angeles. Loitering laws have been known to target young people and people of color, preventing them from gathering in public spaces. More pernicious gang injunctions make the public gathering of people of color illegal, particularly in historically Latino neighborhoods such as Echo Park that are experiencing aggressive gentrification.

Another function of L.A.’s predominant urban layout, as it is exemplified in the unraveling of the Chicano Moratorium, is its swift disciplinarian reach that could extend from public to private spheres.

Ricardo Valverde, "Boulevard Night"
Ricardo Valverde, "Boulevard Night," 1979/1991, hand-colored photograph. Collection of Esperanza Valverde and Christopher J. Valverde.

In a city known for being largely comprised of countless distinct suburbs, private spaces become increasingly important as subversive arenas for cultural production, transformation and resistance. When authoritarian powers clamp down on public spaces — and privatized cities relinquish public space to strip malls and corporate plazas — homes, backyards and even small businesses become necessary social platforms.

Punk culture has survived and thrived in a network of backyard gigs and homespun venues with the lifespan of a flower, not only in East L.A. but perhaps most notably in the conservative hinterlands of San Bernardino and Orange County. Underground electronic music scenes throughout greater L.A. have mushroomed from fog machine-enhanced house parties to a sophisticated economy of warehouse raves connected to an international electronica scene. Even modest family baptism celebrations in cleared-out garages or quinceañera parties in decked-out backyards or church halls serve as intergenerational, inter-genre mix spots. It’s where many poor and working-class kids learn to dance cumbias and norteñas with their tías and later find ways to mix these with new, more diverse styles that reflect an increasingly cosmopolitan lifestyle, even in the suburbs.

Social media collapses both private and public spheres to create yet another space for alternate cultural narratives. Artist Guadalupe Rosales’ “Veteranas y Rucas” Twitter project documents party culture of the 1990s using social media as a widely accessible public forum. As such, social media — like Southern California’s boulevards — will continue to be useful in organizing critical mass movements in the physical world, and, in some capacity, serve the function of public squares, where communities have gathered to celebrate one another.


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