This is produced in partnership with Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles.
An outsized painting of a young boy now greets visitors in the second-floor rotunda of the Central Library in Los Angeles, a scene from the city etched on his small arm: palm trees, an electrical pole and a Los Angeles Police Department helicopter.
The painting is one of eight in the exhibition “Visualizing Language: Oaxaca in L.A.,” created by Oaxacan artists Dario Canul and Cosijoesa Cernas of the art collective Tlacolulokos, named for their hometown of Tlacolula in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. The mural series, titled “For the Pride of Your Hometown, The Way of the Elders, And In Memory of the Forgotten,” will be on display at the library through Jan. 31 as part of the Getty’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA series of Latin American and Latinx art.
“This is a representation of the children of immigrants who are born here,” Canul said of the boy. “Many immigrants live in poor, dangerous neighborhoods. They want to leave their neighborhoods, but many end up staying.”
Oaxacans began migrating to California in the 1940s, when the now-defunct Bracero Program allowed workers from Mexico to perform short-term agricultural jobs in the U.S. Tlacolulokos’ murals recognize the Oaxacans that have since settled in L.A., particularly indigenous Oaxacan Zapotecs, one of the largest indigenous groups in Mexico and L.A., and “explore language and culture as a key lifeline sustaining the shared experience between Mexico, Los Angeles, and beyond,” according to exhibition organizers.
“Language has always been a motor in the last decades of social activism in favor of preserving a culture,” according to Amanda de la Garza Mata, curatorial consultant for the exhibition and adjunct curator at the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Mexico City.
Tlacolulokos’ murals contain words and phrases in English, Spanish, and three of the more than 50 variants of the Zapotecan language. There are 16 indigenous groups with their own languages in the state.
“There are many immigrants who only speak Zapotecan, not Spanish,” de la Garza said. “It’s an important language in Mexico because of the number of people who speak it.”
The murals reference Catholicism, the predominant religion in Oaxaca. Behind the boy in the painting, faces of the Virgin Mary cover a woman’s arm. A white rosary falls from another woman’s burgundy skirt. A Catholic priest holds a police baton that resembles an incomplete cross. He stands over a man tattooed with Christopher Columbus’ fleet of ships sailing to the New World.
“It’s a baptism,” Canul said. “It means accepting religion with pride and practicing new traditions.”
In an essay commissioned for the exhibition, Mojave American poet and educator Natalie Diaz wrote, “The Tlacolulokos mural is not static or frozen in time.”
“(It) is on the move, in the act of crossing, a bridge connecting two homes situated in one land, a disruption and refusal of a border, a place where a body can cross from violence into love, from history into tomorrow.”
Before working on their murals in Oaxaca for three months, Canul and Cernas spent time in L.A., meeting local urban artists and walking around the city’s neighborhoods.
Oaxaca and Los Angeles meet in their artwork. In one piece, a woman wearing traditional Oaxacan clothing bows over a book printed with the image of the mythical Zapotec Princess Donaji and the lyrics of a Zapotec song. Beside her, the altered names of places in L.A. where Oaxacans live appear on signs pointing in different directions: Pico Union, Oaxakorea Town, Hollyweed, East los, Sur Centro, Little toklolula, Santa Monica. Above them, another sign reads, “Un lugar del tamaño de tu sufrimiento,” which means, “A place the size of your suffering.”
“Immigrants arrive in Los Angeles, and it’s very big, and their suffering is also very big,” Canul said. “They work a lot and some are abused by their bosses. They suffer because they’re not with their children, because they left someone in Oaxaca.”
Another mural features a man who stayed in Oaxaca with his mother while his siblings immigrated to L.A. Behind him, the artists painted the Santa Monica Pier. Under the brim of the man’s cap, they wrote, “Never Forget.”
“Oaxacans in Los Angeles have their history in Oaxaca, but are making their new life here,” Cernas said. “We want to remind them not to forget where they’re from.”
The exhibition is displayed below murals by Dean Cornwell, whose depictions of California’s history, completed in 1933, ignore Native Californian cultures and “fail to recognize the suffering of native peoples during the European conquest, as well as their exclusion from society,” according to exhibition organizers. “The indigenous peoples as displayed in the murals are depicted as uncivilized and subservient, while the conquistadors are shown as the bearers of progress and culture.”
Louise Steinman, cultural programs director and ALOUD lecture series curator for the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, said the Tlacolulokos paintings offer a different commentary.
“I’ve been here 25 years and I’ve been walking through this rotunda and this Cornwell mural has always disturbed me in terms of its portrayal of indigenous history,” Steinman said. “I’ve always wanted to do something about it and it feels like we made a great match with Tlacolulokos. When we look at these beautiful Cornwell murals, we’ll see them in the light of a viewpoint of that time. Now, the murals are talking to each other.”
The new murals rewrite history, de la Garza said.
In an essay about the works, she wrote that they “depict the open wound of colonization, the history of suffering and submission” and show that “the migrant experience is also recognized from a place of pain—the violence of being uprooted, confrontation with another culture established according to different values from their community’s . . . and from a place of social exclusion.”
“Indigenous people don’t need to be represented by others,” she said. “They can tell their own story.”
Part of their story is Toypurina, a Native American woman whose face appears on a skull wearing a conquistador’s helmet in the corner of a mural titled "Wherever You May Go" and painted with the word “Oaxacalifornia.” In 1785, she led a failed rebellion against Spanish missionaries who suppressed Native American culture in what is now L.A.
“Before, the idea was that indigenous people should assimilate and lose their own culture, their language in order to belong to society,” de la Garza said. “But now I think we think differently about indigenous people. They should actually preserve their culture.”
Centuries ago, 16 different cultures thrived in Oaxaca. Tourists now flock to the state’s archeological sites, including the mountaintop ruins of Monte Alban, an ancient city built around 500 B.C.
A mural depicts the two sides of Oaxaca, Cernas said: “the beautiful Oaxaca for tourists, and the Oaxaca that no one wants to see.”
Cernas and Canul met while painting graffiti in the streets of Oaxaca and formed Tlacolulokos in 2006, as months of teacher protests erupted in the region. The strikes, which resumed last year, demanded higher pay and other reforms. Over 75 percent of Oaxaca residents live in extreme poverty, according to The Oaxaca Fund Initiative.
The dearth of opportunities in the region has pushed residents to migrate to other parts of Mexico and the U.S.
“(Immigration issues) that were settled, now they’re not anymore,” de la Garza said. “So we need to think, what is the future? What are we going to do? The hope that we have is that these murals can empower people to think about these topics and to feel like they can do something.”
Author's note: interviews were conducted in Spanish
Top Image: "Wherever You May Go" by Tlacolulokos | Fausto Nahum