In the catalog for the exhibition Printing the Revolution: The Rise and Impact of Chicano Graphics, 1965 to Now, curator E. Carmen Ramos identifies that the revolutionary moment of the Chicano movement “signified an individual and societal paradigm shift, as citizens, residents, and entire communities demanded equality and justice” (Ramos 2020: 23).1 The artists who participated in the Chicano Movement, or el Movimiento, rallied for broad-term social change for their community by creating “visually arresting works that catalyzed a Chicano public coming into awareness of itself” (24). It was in this moment, 1975, that the Royal Chicano Air Force (RCAF) and La Galería de la Raza (Galería), artist collectives in northern California, created a graphic calendar series titled Calendario de Comida 1976. The calendar celebrated their collective Chicano identity through art and food that, in part, helped stage “critical debates about US history and identity” (25). The calendar reflected and highlighted indigenous food knowledge, the colonial impact of food, and the reimagining of political and social justice through a shared food culture. This 12-month calendar (plus a cover), printed in 1975, features a unique approach to food history, from celebrating Mexican foods and Indigenous crops such as corn, to exploring the poor’s reliance on food stamps.2
The artists were familiar with a tradition of illustrated calendars created as giveaways from local stores and restaurants that commonly portray scenes of Mexican indigenous myths. Artist Juanishi Orosco recalls the use of calendars as sources of art and identity: “We took a step consciously in the seventies…to project…the true values that we have in our community” (Diaz 2017: 150). The calendar prints consist of three registers: a main image, a small section in the upper-right corner that features more imagery or a poem, and the monthly calendar box at bottom left, sometimes with additional imagery or phrases. A few of the prints include poems, often with wordplay that reflects the playful but pointed nature of the subject, sometimes highlighting the bilingual and bicultural voices, culture, and reality (Diaz 2017). For the Calendario, they adopted the calendar format to explore Chicano foodways and history, often infusing the pre-Columbian stories and Aztec and Mayan imagery into the artwork, privileging ideas of tradition and identity.3 This was a collaborative effort between the RCAF and the Galería, which created this as a $25 fund-raiser for both groups to help sustain their community efforts.4 The reliance on and use of pre-Columbian ideas was strategic, respecting knowledge of traditions past, about healthy foods drawn from pre-Columbian ideals, and acknowledging the role pre-Columbian traditions have played both in the community and globally (Diaz 2017).
The calendar, created in 1975, was firmly bounded by the counterculture revolution and the good food movement, which posed questions about alternative food histories and alternative foodways.5 Reforming the food system and “voting with your fork” reflected the values and work of community activism.6 Increased immigration from Mexico and Central America was changing the social landscape of cities across the United States. This period saw the growth of Mexican food businesses and restaurants, both fast food and high end, across the nation and globally,7 as the new approach to foodways gave rise to the importance of native knowledge. The new social, cultural, and technological landscape informed, and was reflected in, how Chicano activists and the general public acknowledged and interacted in daily life.8
The Artists and El Movimiento
The Rebel Chicano Art Front (later The Royal Chicano Air Force) was created in 1969 by art professors José Montoya and Esteban Villa, along with many other artists, activists, community organizers, poets, and teachers at California State University, Sacramento. As artists and art students, they worked informally to support community events with creative endeavors. The group eventually came together under Joe Serna and Ricardo Favela in 1972 to form the Centro de Artistas Chicanos, an organization that provided much-needed community space and support for after-school arts programs, a library and book store, community Breakfast for Niños, curandismo workshops, and even a training program in auto body repair. To supplement the meager city and private funds for the Centro, the artists organized art and gallery shows, art auctions, and sale of prints in the bookstore. Originally called the Rebel Chicano Art Front, the collective would sign the pieces “RCAF,” which some would confuse with the Royal Canadian Air Force. Being a creative bunch, they changed their name from the Rebel Chicano Art Front to the Royal Chicano Air Force. They embraced this new identity and ambiguity, obtaining Army surplus clothing and creating “ranks” of general or “creative mechanicos cosmicos”—cosmic mechanics. They created a fairy-tale origin story, claiming they flew here in adobe airplanes from the mythical homeland of Aztlán. This playfulness broke down many social barriers in the barrio and within the larger Sacramento community and helped them tackle serious subjects through their programs and art.
Like the Centro and RCAF, the Galería de la Raza was formed in 1970 by more than a dozen artists in San Francisco’s Mission District as a community arts space. Like many other community institutions, the Galería started as an independent entity, founded to serve art and artists not included in mainstream institutions (Cordova 2017). An earlier organization, Casa Hispana, created in the 1960s was a Hispanic cultural center where many of the Galería artists got their start. The Galería was later funded by the Neighborhood Arts Program, with the goal of creating a space for arts education and arts activities. The Galería countered the segregation of mainstream organizations by opening a space for Latino artists to exhibit their work (Cordova 2017: 85). They created mural programs, residency programs, and Day of the Dead celebrations. The Galería became the artistic and spiritual hub of the Mexican American community. As recently as 2018, the Galería hosted an exhibit titled Comida es Medicina, which aimed at uplifting the knowledge, traditions, and practices of immigrant and indigenous members of our communities in relation to food, ancestral knowledge, and respect for Mother Earth.9
Both the RCAF and the Galería can be tied to a broader wave of political and social activism for communities of color in the 1960s and ’70s. Community organizations around the country began advocating and organizing for more political and social empowerment to counter the discrimination, oppression, and neglect that many Latino communities experienced. While the rise of the United Farm Workers union, driven by the ongoing struggle of Latino farm workers, was one of the most visible achievements of the Movimiento, they also contributed their energies toward fighting discrimination, neglect in city services, widening economic gaps, lack of representation in politics and art, and other issues. The GI Bill sent many Chicanos to college, opening young eyes to new ways to fight injustice. Many young social reformers took advantage of funds from the War on Poverty programs to establish community service organizations and improve social services. The RCAF and the Galería, and like organizations, were formed to creatively instill pride, dignity, and respect in the Chicano community (Hillinger 1979). These groups built their own community spaces, arts spaces, and educational spaces to reach Latino communities in ways that prominent art and cultural centers did not.
Art became one of the fronts in the fight for community self-empowerment and advocacy during the Movimiento. Art schools and colleges in California and New York organized artistic workshops to help combine art with social movements (Goldman 1984). The RCAF and Galería members also drew artistic and activist inspiration from a long tradition of printmaking in Mexico, such as political and cultural artist José Posada in the 1890s and the Taller Grafica Popular in the 1930s (Goldman 1984). The reliance on silk screen poster art with a pop art aesthetic created a whole new movement and vocabulary of artistic forms, colors, and representations that drew from Mexican heritage but were also easy and quick to replicate (Diaz 2017; Goldman 1984). For Chicano activists, this mixing of pre-Columbian, Mexican, American, and European history was a strength to highlight, not suppress. They “privileged Pre-Columbian imagery and spiritual concepts…as a cultural foundation for a shared Chicano identity” (Diaz 2017: 3) Posters in shop windows and the creation of murals made the streets a gallery space that advertised United Farm Worker events, social justice gatherings, health initiatives, and other affairs. The artists pushed for a decolonization of Chicano thought by reimagining colonial histories through the imagery employed and where and how the images were seen (Diaz 2017). Transcending their present with the past, supporting people that work the land, and centering on the community’s needs can be seen in their food art. The Chicano civil rights movement succeeded and was sustained in part by such imagery.
The 1960s and ’70s were a volatile time, when the struggle of farm workers and the fight for civil rights were tied up in ideas about identity and respect. The invisibility of Chicano representation extended to everyday life. Mexican traditions, arts, culture, and food were not seen as mainstream. The pre-Columbian and mestizo symbolism used in these images was more than cultural affirmation—its use transformed and connected the past to a cultural reality (Diaz). The inclusion of land and sacred space, like a community bakery, or the role of women as tradition bearers, and the importance of corn as a spiritual and nourishing element can be seen in these images. The simple act of drawing food transformed history and culture into a political and health struggle (Klein 2015). However, Chicano artists have often exploited the trope of women as cooks. For instance, the cover image (figure 1) shows women as tradition bearers, those who do the cooking and have knowledge about plants and food. The Chicano movement and Chicano art have been heavily criticized for the lack of representation of women in leadership roles and for perpetuating stereotypes, as women are commonly depicted as subservient to men. Only two women are featured artists in this series: Lorenza Campusano de Camplís and Patricia Rodriguez. Despite the criticisms, however, the RCAF and Centro de Artistas did have women organizers who initiated and organized community programs, using food as an entry point. Lerma Barbosa ran the Breakfast for Niños program and spearheaded the Conferencia Femenil in 1974, which included curandismo-medicinal plants workshops (Diaz 2017: 158). Women also organized and ran the Fiesta de Maíz ceremony centered on women’s spiritual and bodily health and honoring the role of women in sustaining the community.
The images and poems that accompany the prints highlight a decolonized reflection of food, health, and culture. As art historian Shana Klein claims, “Representations of food in American art and culture are neither innocent nor straight forward, but politically charged pictures driven by ideologies that support or challenge an imperial agenda in North America” (Klein 2015: vi). These images assert that food is political, cultural, healing, and empowering. In reflecting on what decolonizing food means from both a health and an identity perspective, scholar Catrióna Rueda Esquibel argues that “vast systems of white supremacy and colonial regimes of power and knowledge have led to an erasure and devaluation of the contributions of indigenous people and cultures.”10 She argues, much as Chicano activists and artists from the 1970s argued, that we must pay attention to the cultural context of where our food comes from, who cultivates it, how it is prepared, and how it is consumed (Rueda Esquibel 2016).
For more images and examples that relate to food activism, please visit Printing the Revolution: The Rise and Impact of Chicano Graphics, 1965 to Now. https://americanart.si.edu/exhibitions/chicano-graphics/online
During the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History’s annual Food History Weekend 2020 Food Future: Striving for Justice, we explored how the pandemic has affected the food system and included stories of essential workers who put food on tables, of food insecurity caused by loss of income due to the pandemic, and of smaller-scale alternative means of feeding ourselves and our communities. Although no longer available online, as part of the program we included six of the calendar images. This article is a deeper exploration of that program. https://foodhistoryweekend.si.edu
Jeffrey Pilcher has written about how Mexican national identity is constructed through foodways in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He examines class, status, indigenous history, and politics through the lens of food and popular dishes.
Both the RCAF and the Galaría produced calendars from about 1973 until 1977, some collaborative and some independent. The 1975–1976 series was the only one to focus entirely on food.
The National Museum of American History exhibition Food: Transforming the American Table explores some of the technological, social, and cultural shifts in American food. Through different main sections we explore: “Julia Child’s Kitchen”; “New and Improved!”; “Resetting the Table”; “Brewing a Revolution”; and “Wine for the Table.” The cultural and social changes explored here can be found in the section “Resetting the Table.” https://americanhistory.si.edu/food
“Voting with Your Fork,” National Museum of American History. https://americanhistory.si.edu/food/resetting-table/voting-your-fork
“Mexican Food Revolution,” National Museum of American History. https://americanhistory.si.edu/food/resetting-table/mexican-food-revolution
British food writer, cooking instructor, and anthropologist Diane Kennedy published the acclaimed book, The Cuisines of Mexico in 1972. Aimed at a general audience, the cookbook is known for celebrating the rich diversity of Mexican foods and cooking techniques and is credited with bringing knowledge of regional Mexican cuisines and its history to the United States. Kennedy is often criticized for having a strict interpretation of what Mexican cultural food dishes should be. She has also been accused of appropriating dishes and recipes.
See, Galería de la Raza Presents Comida Es Medicina. www.galeriadelaraza.org/eng/events/index.php?op=view&id=7316
“Dismantling Racism in the Food System,” Food First. https://foodfirst.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/DR7_Final-2.pdf