RIP: Shifra Goldman, 85, Longtime Champion of Chicano, Latin American Art


There are a few images that come to mind about Shifra Goldman. The story she told me about arriving in L.A. from New York after World War Two and being aghast that the only place to see art was at what is now the Natural History Museum across from USC.

The second is of her as a middle-aged Jewish mother of a young child taking young Chicanos, such as filmmaker Jesus Salvador Treviño, to Olvera Street and showing them the shadows of the 1932 white washed mural "America Tropical." It was the late 1960s and Chicanos were discovering their voice in a city where just 30 years earlier many had been forcefully deported in a period of xenophobia fed by economic crisis.

Under the paint applied by city fathers at around the same time lay a mural by one of Mexico's great artists. The painting portrayed a crucified Indian with an American eagle perched atop the cross. The image was too much for L.A. leaders who wanted to keep Mexicans in their place while freely using sombreros and cactus to feed the myth machine of sleepy Mexicans. She'd take many other Chicano artists to that second story rooftop. She formed a committee to preserve the mural. Next year the Getty is set to open an interactive viewing area next to the painting that tells the story about the painter, the censorship, and the politics of the time.

Goldman earned her PhD in art history from UCLA but her true education was in traveling extensively through Latin America, meeting the artists and furiously debating the creation and influences on their art. She made lifelong friends with her probing intellect and what can be called brutal honesty. The same approach led others who'd worked with her for years to break off all communication.

After I posted about Goldman's death Lisbeth Espinosa, saddened by the loss of a mentor, reminded me that Goldman, "advocated for the need to analyze art through its social framework." She quoted from one of Goldman's writings, "the insertion of cultural practices with in their social and historical context, ideally with the two acting in praxis." Art should not be taken lightly.

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She'd helped me out on a few stories after I got off the bus in L.A. - all bright-eyed - eleven years ago. On May first of last year I organized a poetry reading at Avenue 50 Studio in Highland Park to hear from the writers who'd been influenced by her and from a few who only knew her from her writings. She'd been in a nursing home for a few years, freeing herself only briefly from the grips of Alzheimer's.

The gallery was packed. Some of the artists she'd championed, such as Yreina Cervantez and Barbara Carrasco where there. Ramon Garcia read a poem. As did Gloria Alvarez. In my poem I tried to capture a few of her life experiences in a Dada-inspired style.

George Kalmar, who immigrated to the U.S. as a teen from Eastern Europe never met Shifra Goldman but connected with her left-leaning politics fed by a progressive-Jewish background. He read this poem. Here's Xochitl Julissa Bermejo reading her poem.

Eric Garcia, Goldman's son, was also there to play a few songs dedicated to her. In regular visits to the nursing home, Garcia would play the guitar for his mother. On that night in Highland Park he did so with his teenage son. He's assembled the songs to his mother and calls the project "Songs For Shifra."

Garcia talked about his mother. Once she'd told him directly about the compromise she would be making. He would not see her as much as other kids would see their mothers, he remembers Goldman telling him. She'd be away for stretches at a time, studying, writing, traveling. He sobbed.

Kathy Gallegos, the founder of Avenue 50 Studio, helped write this obituary (.pdf).

Shifra Goldman believed strongly the work of Avenue 50 Studio and Tropico de Nopal galleries, so much that while she was still of sound mind stipulated that in place of flowers people so inclined should donate to the gallery. "Shifra Goldman, Presente!" was posted on more than a few Chicano Facebook pages.

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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