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Latin America Begins Here: Echo Park Anarchists Inspire Long Beach Art Show

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The phrase "Tierra y Libertad" long associated with Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, was written by exiled anarchists living in Echo Park about a century ago. The term "La Raza Cosmica" or the cosmic people, which the Mexican government used in tribute to the country's mixed race heritage in the 1920s, was written in San Diego in the early 20th century.

The idea that key elements of the Mexican identity narrative were exported north to south is part of the "Mex/L.A." exhibit at the Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach. The exhibit closes in just over a week. Exhibit curator Ruben Ortiz Torres walked me through the exhibit when it opened a few months ago.

It's an ambitious show that attempts to show the multiplicity of links between Mexican artists influenced by the U.S., U.S. artists influenced by Mexico, Chicano artists creating a third space, and a Mexican gone mad after arriving in the U.S. Let's start with el loco.

Exhibit curator Ruben Ortiz Torres
Exhibit curator Ruben Ortiz Torres

Martin Ramirez immigrates to the U.S. in the 1920s and becomes a farm worker. Nothing unusual. Years later he's found catatonic in downtown L.A.'s Pershing Square. He's institutionalized. A doctor tries an innovative approach at the time: art therapy. He gives Ramirez art supplies and it's like opening the floodgates. Over the next couple of decades Ramirez creates hundreds of drawings that are folk art, abstract art, and collage. It's fascinating to me to think of what triggered Ramirez, the shock of immigration, the hardships of a foreign culture; there's little documentation so most of what we have to go on are his drawings. Five of them are on display in the Mex/L.A. show.

There's a painting of Emiliano Zapata shown in an L.A. gallery during David Alfaro Siqueiros's 1932 visit to judge art for the Olympics and during which he created the Olvera Street mural America Tropical.

There's the mother of all lowriders, Gypsy Rose, parked in the museum lobby. To me the amazing paint job is Pollock, Matisse, and colonial Mexican painting.

There's Yolanda Lopez's oil pastel triptych that's empowered Chicanas since she created them more than 30 years ago. In them the stiff aura of the Virgen de Guadalupe becomes a super-heroine cape. It's Lopez in the modern depiction holding a dying snake, in reference to the Aztec creation myth. This show's mix of Mexican, Chicano, and art by Charles and Ray Eames and Julius Schulman is a temporary vision of the possibilities of a Latino museum in Southern California. There is none now. Sure there are plenty of Latino art galleries, but all you have to do is look at the Latino museums in Chicago and Albuquerque to realize L.A. should be ashamed of being so far behind.

It's significant because this exhibit is the first time Museum of Latin American Art in Long Beach has shown art by Chicanos in a significant measure. I'm told it took a special action by the board because the museum was founded to show art by artists born and raised in Latin America. Mex/LA argues that Latin America begins here.

Poet and Journalist Adolfo Guzman-Lopez writes his column Movie Miento every week on KCET's SoCal Focus blog. It is a poetic exploration of Los Angeles history, Latino culture and the overall sense of place, darting across LA's physical and psychic borders.

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