Greater Mexico refers both to the geographic region encompassing modern Mexico and its former territories in the United States, and to the Mexican cultural diaspora. Exhibitions of visual and material culture from greater Mexico have played an important role in articulating identities and affiliations that transcend limited definitions of citizenship. Following an introductory text by Jennifer Josten, five scholars offer firsthand insights into the intellectual, diplomatic, and logistical concerns underpinning key border-crossing exhibitions of the “NAFTA era.” Rubén Ortiz-Torres writes from his unique perspective as a Mexico City–based artist who began exhibiting in the United States in the late 1980s, and as a curator of recent exhibitions that highlight the existence of multiple Mexicos and Americas. Clara Bargellini reflects on a paradigm-shifting cross-border exhibition of the viceregal arts of the missions of northern New Spain. Kim N. Richter considers how the arts of ancient Mesoamerica and the Americas writ large figured within the Getty Foundation’s 2017 Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative. Xóchitl M. Flores-Marcial offers insights into productive institutional collaborations with transnational Indigenous stakeholders, focusing on two recent Southern California exhibitions of the Oaxaca-based Tlacolulokos collective. Luis Vargas-Santiago discusses how Chicana/o/x art entered Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes in 2019 as a crucial component of an exhibition about how Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata’s image has migrated through visual culture. Together, these texts demonstrate how exhibitions can act in the service of advancing more nuanced understandings of cultural and political interactions across greater Mexico.

El Gran México se refiere tanto a la región geográfica que abarca el México moderno como a sus antiguos territorios que hoy forman parte de los Estados Unidos y la diáspora cultural mexicana. Las exposiciones de cultura visual y material del Gran México han jugado un papel importante en la articulación de identidades y pertenencias que abarcan más que nociones relativamente estrechas como la de ser ciudadano de un estado-nación. Tras un texto introductorio de Jennifer Josten, cinco académicos comparten sus experiencias personales acerca de las cuestiones intelectuales, diplomáticas y logísticas que había detrás de algunas importantes exposiciones transfronterizas de los llamados “años del TLC”. Rubén Ortiz-Torres escribe desde una perspectiva singular: como artista originario de la Ciudad de México que comenzó a exhibir en los Estados Unidos a finales de la década de 1980, y como curador de exposiciones recientes en las que se ha destacado la existencia de múltiples Méxicos y múltiples Estados Unidos. Clara Bargellini reflexiona sobre una exposición transfronteriza y rupturista de las artes virreinales de las misiones del norte de Nueva España. Kim N. Richter considera cómo las artes de la antigua Mesoamérica y de las Américas figuraron dentro de la iniciativa Pacific Standard Time: LA / LA de la Fundación Getty del año 2017. Xóchitl M. Flores-Marcial ofrece una perspectiva acerca de colaboraciones exitosas entre instituciones y interlocutores indígenas transnacionales; examina específicamente dos muestras del colectivo oaxaqueño Tlacolulokos, realizadas recientemente en el sur de California. Luis Vargas-Santiago analiza cómo el arte Chicana/o/x ingresó al Palacio de Bellas Artes de la Ciudad de México en 2019 como un componente crucial de una exposición sobre las migraciones de la imagen del revolucionario mexicano Emiliano Zapata en la cultura visual. Juntos, estos textos demuestran que las exposiciones pueden servir para promover una comprensión más compleja de las interacciones culturales y políticas en el Gran México.

Grande México se refere tanto à região geográfica que abrange o México moderno e seus antigos territórios nos Estados Unidos, quanto à diáspora cultural mexicana. Exposições de cultura visual e material do Grande México há muito desempenham um papel importante na articulação de identidades e afiliações que transcendem definições limitadas de cidadania. Seguindo um texto introdutório de Jennifer Josten, cinco estudiosos oferecem sua perspectiva sobre as preocupações intelectuais, diplomáticas e logísticas por trás das mais influentes exposições transfronteiriças da “era do NAFTA”. Rubén Ortiz-Torres escreve de seu ponto de vista singular como artista originário da Cidade do México que começou a expor nos Estados Unidos no fim dos anos 1980, e como curador de exposições recentes que destacaram a existência de múltiplos Méxicos e Américas. Clara Bargellini reflete sobre uma exposição transfronteiriça transformadora focada na arte vice-real das missões do norte da Nova Espanha. Kim N. Richter considera como as artes da Mesoamérica antiga e das Américas em geral figuraram em grande escala na iniciativa Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA de 2017 da Fundação Getty. Xóchitl M. Flores-Marcial oferece sua visão sobre colaborações institucionais produtivas entre interlocutores indígenas transnacionais, examinando específicamente duas exposições recentes do coletivo oaxaquenho Tlacolulokos no sul da Califórnia. Luis Vargas-Santiago discute como a arte chicana entrou no Palácio de Belas Artes da Cidade do México em 2019 como um componente crucial de uma exposição sobre as migrações da imagem do revolucionário mexicano Emiliano Zapata na cultura visual. Juntos, esses textos demonstram como exposições podem servir para avançar compreensões mais complexas de interações culturais e políticas através do Grande México.

América Tropical or Whitewashed America?

In front of a Maya pyramid, surrounded by stylized Ceiba trees, an Indian was crucified underneath an eagle. This representation, and its subsequent destruction, marked one beginning of modern art in California, when David Alfaro Siqueiros painted the mural América tropical: oprimida y destrozada por los imperialismos (Tropical America: Oppressed and Destroyed by Imperialisms) while exiled in Los Angeles in 1932. Siqueiros was hired to illustrate and decorate socialite preservationist Christine Sterling’s theme park-esque vision of a colorful “Mexican” market in the Placita Olvera (known in English as Olvera Street) to attract tourist consumers to a supposedly historical center. He had other plans. The crucifixion was revealed without warning to the patrons, having been added at the last minute to the otherwise acceptably “exotic” landscape. Arthur Millier, the art critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote that when the mural was unveiled, “onlookers gasped.”1

The mural was partially covered in 1934, and by 1938 it was totally whitewashed, as Siqueiros knew would happen. After all, his version of history clashed with the Californian mythology of a harmonious missionary past, a revisionist account that amounts to the total erasure of history. Beyond simply painting a mural, Siqueiros constructed a countermyth. The mural was designed to be photographed, made for easy and effective distribution as a reproduction. It was more an idea, or a concept, than a painting. Its media-driven impact anticipated Banksy's street art interventions and provocations. This figurative, literal, and arguably propagandizing work yielded a monochromatic, minimalist, and iconoclastic abstraction. All the while, Siqueiros’s mural waited to be rediscovered and restored, becoming an archeological ruin like the one it attempted to represent in a city of dreams. It simultaneously became the first important modernist art piece produced in the city and its distinctive pre-Columbian archaeological ruin: evidence of the Mexican past and present as well as the future of a Greater Mexico.

This story is evoked in some of my recent work, including American Graffiti (2020, fig. 1): a speculative, defaced, graffitied version of the mural that includes marks from my teacher Mario Rangel and his colleagues from Grupo Suma, as well as many others (Banksy, Chaz Bojorquez, MS 13, Echo Park Lokos graffiti from my house, feminist graffiti, Paris 68 slogans, Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Retna, Chaka …). In the words of Chavela Vargas, the famous queer ranchera singer born in Costa Rica, “los mexicanos nacemos donde se nos da la rechingada gana” (Mexicans are born wherever the fuck we want): culture is not something bound to arbitrary political boundaries.

Figure 1.

Rubén Ortiz-Torres, American Graffiti, 2020, digital drawing (photograph provided by the artist)

Figure 1.

Rubén Ortiz-Torres, American Graffiti, 2020, digital drawing (photograph provided by the artist)

The Discovery of the Invention of America

Ever since Europeans realized they had not landed in Asia, who belongs here and who these lands belong to have been matters of violent dispute. Different empires fought for them using different models of colonization to exploit their domains. At some point, colonists reckoned they should keep the spoils of these lands for themselves and sought their independence from their monarchies. They decided to redefine themselves as “Americans” to distinguish themselves from the continent they were separating from. However, there were already people here whose lands were brutally taken; others were forced to come here from Africa to work against their will.

Why do we talk about “Americas,” but not “Africas,” “Europes,” or “Asias”? Different models of colonization and interactions with Native societies and enslaved peoples led to different racial hierarchies and realities. The Spanish model of military conquest and Catholic evangelization resulted in more racial mixing and a complicated caste system. The English model of Puritan colonization involved expelling Indigenous peoples and maintaining slavery after independence. In the first model, the idea of being “American” depends on its relation to mestizaje (racial commingling or miscegenation) and therefore on the incorporation of Indigenous, European, African, and Asian ancestry. In the second it does not. The English colonies were geographically concentrated and managed to become “United States of America.” The Spanish colonies were geographically distant and divided by deserts, rainforests, and high mountain ranges, becoming the “divided states” of America. We are reminded of these models and histories every time we cross the border, when immigration agents racially profile us to determine if we look “American”—paradoxically whiter and more European, or “alien”—browner and therefore Native American. No surprise that a white woman in Arizona was recorded recently telling a Native American woman to “go back to Mexico,” or that Native American protesters in South Dakota were told to “go home” by Trump supporters.2

It is absurd when Spanish speakers are ordered to speak English in “America,” when that word itself has Spanish and Latin origins. It comes from the name of Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian explorer working for the Spanish crown who figured out that Brazil was a land mass distinct from Europe or Asia. Ironically, such demands to use English often happen in places far from where Vespucci was navigating, places that have Spanish names like California, Texas, Santa Fe, Colorado, Nevada, San Diego, Laredo, San Antonio, San Francisco, Las Vegas, et cetera. Is it even possible to not speak Spanish in America? I also wonder how so many people can deny the reality of being culturally mixed, regardless of the arbitrary skin color that no one decides.

Because the United States claimed the name “America,” Mexico and other former Spanish colonies had to differentiate themselves or else become part of the United States. Making them part of the United States would imply incorporating mixed and racially diverse free citizens, thus creating conflicts that would challenge the white supremacist conception of Native Americans as outsiders to American lands or the fractional personhood allotted to enslaved people of African descent.3 These disputes and identity crises have Puerto Rico in a limbo where it is neither a sovereign entity nor one of the “united” states.

Since the Mexican-American War of 1846–48, the relationship between “the Americas” has evolved from overt cycles of imperialist interventionism and manifest destiny to supposedly more benign strategies, such as US President Franklin D. Roosevelt's “Good Neighbor” policy of 1933, a diplomatic effort toward Latin America in the lead-up to World War II. President Woodrow Wilson had previously followed a similar approach to foreign policy relations with Mexico (that is, until dramatically changing course with the invasion and occupation of Veracruz in 1914). Based on the premise of not intervening in domestic affairs, such a policy would supposedly create new economic opportunities in the form of trade agreements, instead of the customary military interventions in search of access to natural resources or the protection of trade interests.

Thus, the US Marines ended their occupation of Nicaragua in 1933 and of Haiti in 1934, and negotiations were made for compensation from the Mexican government for their nationalization of the oil industry. In 1940, Roosevelt established the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, with Nelson Rockefeller as the coordinator. This organization was charged with creating propaganda in an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the Latin American people and at the same time to convince people in the United States of the benefits of Pan-American friendship during World War II. In order to achieve this, it was necessary to counteract the negative stereotypes that had historically represented Latino men as both unmotivated and threatening, either always dozing off or always making trouble—savages in sombreros who, left unchecked, would rape white women.

Out of this landscape of cultural stereotypes, Carmen Miranda emerged, dancing among tropical fruits, and Walt Disney, among others, took advantage of the opportunity to travel and attempt to transform himself by “going Native” on a number of occasions, dressing up as a charro, a gaucho, or as an Inca at the least provocation. These travels generated an infinite number of drawings, barbecues, paintings, photographs, 16 mm films, public events, and eventually the film Saludos Amigos (1942) and the even more hallucinatory and surreal Los Tres Caballeros (1944). Latin American artists have responded to Disney movies and characters, creating a rich and complex intercultural dialog and exchange of representations, appropriations, misinterpretations, and transformations.4

From the 1960s onward, the Cold War and the Cuban Revolution resulted in the resumption of US interventionist policies and support of military dictatorships in Latin America. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and subsequent end of the Cold War, there was no more justification to keep invading Caribbean islands like Grenada or Dominican Republic, Central American countries like Panama, or to keep propping up regimes practicing torture and despotism in South America, paramilitaries in Colombia and Nicaragua, student massacres in Mexico, and so on. Once again, a “Good Neighbor” policy was possible.

This is not Kreutzberg, Montmartre, or the Lower East Side

In the 1980s, art scenes across Mexico and their systems of validation were highly localized, for better or worse. The only artist with gallery representation and some recognition abroad was Julio Galán, who was living and showing in New York at Annina Nosei Gallery. There was no blueprint for becoming an “international” artist, or even a clear idea of what that meant. The artists of the so-called Generación de la Ruptura (Rupture Generation), who favored abstraction and a supposedly international language in the 1950s and 1960s, had a mostly local impact, in contrast to the well-known nationalist Mexican School, which they opposed. The persistent debate between a Mexican (and/or American) art defined by its resistance to and difference from Europe, and a parallel international one, has existed since the Spanish conquest. Postmodernism, in the 1980s, seemed to be an opportunity to accept, combine, and exist somewhere in between the contradictions of particular histories and Indigenous cultures and an international, globalized world.

After more than thirty years of ruptures, abstractions, and conceptualisms, it was possible to openly deal with and question identity again: not just in terms of national identity, but sexual and class-based identities as well. With a sense of irony, Galán and artists like Javier de la Garza and Nahum B. Zenil dealt with their homosexuality, playing with Mexican nationalist iconography in what Teresa del Conde (art critic and former director of Mexico City’s Museo de Arte Moderno [MAM]) called neomexicanismo. The slippery term was applied to other artists who used similar iconography with different intentions, from more costumbrista painters like Dulce María Nuñez to more conceptual artists like Adolfo Patiño and Melquiades Herrera, to the more material and abstract experimentation of Eloy Tarcisio.

When I was studying art at the Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas (part of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México) in the 1980s, none of the teachers or artists I knew had a presence abroad. There was, however, one curator who had been abroad and had a unique story. His name was Rubén Bautista. Originally from a working-class family in San Miguel Allende, he met an expat art collector gay couple who supported his interest in art. Aspiring to be an artist, Bautista sought out MAM’s director, the influential Fernando Gamboa, who helped him get a grant to study museology in England. He worked with Nicholas Serota while at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, and also spent time at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. He returned to Mexico to work as a curator at MAM, where he organized the first exhibitions of Mexican Neo-Expressionism and other contemporary art movements. These included experimental shows of installations, performance, and sculpture at the alternative space “La Quiñonera” in the south of the city, where artists like Francis Alÿs showed for the first time. Unfortunately, Bautista died prematurely from AIDS-related illness, like some of the most interesting thinkers and makers of the time.

Prior to his death, Bautista curated the 1988 exhibition México hoy: una uista nueva/Mexico Today: A New View, which toured the southwestern United States and was presented at Diverse Works Artspace in Houston, Blue Star Art Space in San Antonio, and Dinnerware Artists Cooperative Gallery in Tucson.5 This was the first attempt in decades to bring contemporary Mexican art to the United States. It included artists like Galán, Eloy Tarcisio, Estela Hussong, Patiño, and me. I was able to go to the openings of the show at a few venues: in one case I took a bus to Houston, and in another I drove for three days to Tucson from Mexico City. After the opening in Houston, an important board member of Diverse Works, who employed Bautista’s sister as a housekeeper and her husband as a gardener, hosted a dinner in her home. That day they were guests at the dinner, revealing a kind of social mobility that would have been very difficult to achieve in Mexico.

Carlos Salinas de Gortari became Mexico’s president in 1988 as a result of electoral fraud, despite losing the election. An economist, he pursued neoliberal, free trade policies and mass privatizations of state-run companies that led to the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1992, and eventually to the Zapatista uprising, reactionary state violence, and economic crisis. Around this time, an accident of destiny led me to meet the filmmaker Catherine Hardwicke, who invited me Los Angeles. The trip resulted in my applying to the master’s program in art at CalArts. I was accepted but didn't have the money for tuition, so I had to defer and figure out how to pay. The only viable option seemed to get a Fulbright-García Robles grant from the US Department of State. At the time, the arts were not an eligible course of study for this award. I had to pitch myself as part of a cultural and diplomatic effort to improve relations between Mexico and the United States, complementing the trade agreement that promised to bring them together. People from the US Embassy came to see a solo show I was having at Mexico City’s Galería de Arte Contemporáneo, and somehow the argument worked on them.

When I arrived in California in 1990, I had a chance to participate in the exhibition Aquí y allá (fig. 2). Organized by the artist and printer Francesco Siqueiros, it included Chicano artists from Los Angeles, including John Valadez, Patssi Valdez, and Victor Estrada, alongside artists from Mexico City such as Mario Rangel Faz, Tarcisio, Mónica Castillo, and me. Like Francesco himself, this exhibition complicated (or clarified) the overlapping notions of “Mexico” and “America.”6 Later, he founded El Nopal Press, publishing lithographs of artists on both sides of the border to further encourage the relationships explored in the exhibition.

Figure 2.

Cover of Francesco Siqueiros et al., Aquí y allá (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, 1990); design by Vicente Rojo Cámara (photograph in the public domain)

Figure 2.

Cover of Francesco Siqueiros et al., Aquí y allá (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, 1990); design by Vicente Rojo Cámara (photograph in the public domain)

A year later, the blockbuster exhibition Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It would later travel to the San Antonio Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) before returning to Mexico. It included masterpieces dating from pre-Columbian times until the modern era, ending with Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, and the Mexican School around World War II, avoiding the postwar crisis of modernity. This cultural spectacle was the diplomatic event that would signal the dawning of a new “Good Neighbor” policy, this time in the form of NAFTA.

A series of related shows of contemporary art was organized to take advantage of the political context and related media attention. Some exhibitions, like those organized by “The Parallel Project” (an organization of art dealers) in New York, or El corazón sangrante/The Bleeding Heart, presented at the ICA Boston and curated by Olivier Debroise, Elizabeth Sussman, and Matthew Teitelbaum, included artists associated with neomexicanismo. El corazón sangrante also included Chicano artists like David Avalos and Valadez, as well as Mexico City–born, self-declared Chicano Guillermo Gómez-Peña. In murals, graphic work, and more, some Chicano artists were constructing and negotiating identity and culture within and beyond the elusive notions of “America” and “Mexico,” thus sharing some iconographic similarities with neomexicanismo. However, in Mexico this was often done with a sense of irony in response to the use of the iconography as government or commercial propaganda.

Other shows, such as 1991’s The Perennial Illusion of a Vulnerable Principle: Another Mexican Art, attempted to do something else. This exhibition, curated by the Mexico City–based Guillermo Santamarina and the late María Guerra, was presented at Art Center College of Art and Design in Los Angeles, concurrent (and in critical dialog) with Mexico: Splendors of Thirty Centuries at LACMA. Los Angeles Times critic Christopher Knight wrote that Santamarina and Guerra’s “exhibition of conceptually based art casts a skeptical eye on the idea of national character—the central idea ‘Splendors’ means to celebrate.”7 Certainly the curators sought, within a celebration of national culture, to present a show of “international” art.

I was already working in Los Angeles with a different idea of what that meant: more in relation to questioning clashing ideas of culture, language, and nation than concerned with “universal” Neo-Conceptualism. In that vein, I exhibited a series of paintings and the 1991 video How to Read Macho Mouse, produced in collaboration with Aaron Anish, a colleague from school. Knight wrote that the latter was “unusually engaging because it blurs artificial borders. It doesn’t simply try to replace one autonomous image of Mexico (or of the United States) with another. And that, in effect, is what the huge Splendors show tries to do.”8 In relation to those paintings and videos, I produced a series of cartoons and/or illustrations for Art Issues Magazine and the LA Weekly, where I was culture-jamming and commenting on the propaganda of Splendors (figs. 3, 4). The curios sold at the border often portrayed “Mexicanized” versions of US characters; these were consumed as Mexican handcrafts by the tourists and likewise produced by Mexicans as American products, and I integrated this ironic duality into my own work. The plaster “Bart Sanchez” figurine visible in figure 3 is one such example. Pop culture imagery from the border inspired a faux-cubist oil painting, and also made its way into some of the collages (fig. 4).

Figure 3.

Rubén Ortiz-Torres, Bart de México, illustration for Art Issues Magazine, no. 29, 1991, ink, xerox, collage (photograph provided by the artist)

Figure 3.

Rubén Ortiz-Torres, Bart de México, illustration for Art Issues Magazine, no. 29, 1991, ink, xerox, collage (photograph provided by the artist)

Figure 4.

Rubén Ortiz-Torres, Trío Cubista: Nuevo Paisaje Zapatista, illustration for Art Issues Magazine, no. 29, 1991, xerox collage (photograph provided by the artist)

Figure 4.

Rubén Ortiz-Torres, Trío Cubista: Nuevo Paisaje Zapatista, illustration for Art Issues Magazine, no. 29, 1991, xerox collage (photograph provided by the artist)

The Ascent of Neoliberal Modernism and the Oblivion of the Ruptura

In 1992, the city of Los Angeles burned and protests raged after multiple LAPD officers were caught on video beating Rodney King, a defenseless African American. Police brutality against Black Americans was broadcast to the masses on color television. This was a moment when the idea of who and what is truly “American,” and how to define “American art,” really came into question. The 1993 Whitney Biennial, curated by Thelma Golden, John G. Hanhardt, Lisa Phillips, and Elizabeth Sussman (of El corazón sangrante), provocatively included women and artists of color such as Daniel Joseph Martinez, Jimmie Durham, Sadie Benning, Pat Ward Williams, and Pepón Osorio, who were making political and identity-based art. The broadcast video of the King beating was presented as one of the main works in the museum’s storefront window, making a video artist of George Holliday, who had documented the incident with his camcorder.

That same year, facing pressure to be more inclusive and less Eurocentric, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York staged a solo exhibition of a Mexican artist for the first time in over twenty years.9 However, in trying to avoid the polemics of the Whitney Biennial, MoMA presented a more palatable notion of international, aseptic, and formal Neo-Conceptualism through the work of Gabriel Orozco. Orozco’s immediate New York canonization thus happened without him having done much in Mexico. Ignoring or denying the last forty years of abstraction, conceptualism, and the Ruptura’s break with the Mexican School, curator Lynn Zelevansky wrote of Orozco: “He has rejected his nation’s powerful muralist tradition, applied in the aftermath of the Mexican revolution to spread its message. In an environment where, for almost a century, painting derived from this movement has predominated, both aesthetically and institutionally, Orozco’s modest objects adamantly resist both grandiosity and the overtly political.”10

Even though neomexicanismo was often accused of being folkloric art made for export by its internationalist detractors, in fact this Neo-Conceptualism was art that could be more successfully marketed and accepted abroad. Splendors and its nationalist framework were criticized as being propagandistic marketing tools, when in reality it was Orozco’s brand of Neo-Conceptualism and “poor nation,” arte povera–style aesthetic that were propaganda in times of globalization and neoliberalism. This farcical return to Duchampian modernism became the official art in Mexico when Marta Sahagún de Fox, the wife of then President Vicente Fox of the conservative PAN party, played Ping-Pong on Orozco’s 1998 Ping Pond Table at a Madrid opening in 2005. Such endorsement endures in the current government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador—originally a populist and now a Trump appeaser—who has selected Orozco as the urban planner to redesign Chapultepec Park and therefore the landscape of Mexico City.

The Impermanence of Monuments

Ideas of what Mexican and American art are have been negotiated in a different and more complicated way in California than in Mexico City or in other parts of the United States. Exhibitions like La Frontera/The Border: Art About the Mexico/United States Border Experience and Ultra Baroque: Aspects of Post Latin American Art, presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD) in 1993 and 2000, respectively, acknowledged art that was not homogeneously “universal” or “international” and yet could not conform to artificially clean cultural constructions or nation-states. Exiling himself from the region, Guillermo Gómez-Peña complained that border art was dead, because it was being recognized by the museum and coopted, in his eyes.11 Obviously, given the vast area’s rich and evolving culture, reports of its death were greatly exaggerated. Meanwhile, the 2000 exhibition Ultra Baroque, curated by Victor Zamudio-Taylor and Elizabeth Armstrong at MCASD, argued for a notion of Latin American art that was not merely geographical, cultural, or ethnic, but aesthetic. It claimed a genealogy that started with sixteenth-century Latin American art, with its precocious use of pastiche, simulacrum, appropriation, and nascent multicultural politics that anticipated a contemporary, postmodern zeitgeist.12

The political and economic conditions that led to a boom of binational cultural and artistic exchanges in the 1990s did not last long. On January 1, 1994, when NAFTA went into effect, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) declared war on the Mexican government. On March 23, Luis Donaldo Colosio, the presidential candidate of the ruling Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), was shot to death in the Tijuana neighborhood of Lomas Taurinas. In December of that year, the Mexican government devalued the peso against the US dollar, bringing to Mexico the first of several international financial crises ignited by capital flight.

In California, Republicans including then Governor Pete Wilson, who were afraid of demographic changes jeopardizing a vanishing white majority, supported the passing of Proposition 187 on November 8, 1994, which prohibited undocumented immigrants from accessing basic services and public education. The law was challenged in a legal suit the day after its passage and found unconstitutional. This led to the politicization of California's Latino population and the contemporary dominance of the Democratic Party in the state. Nevertheless, this fear extended to other states and led to the passing of legislation SB 1070 in Arizona, which, at the time of its enactment in 2010, was the broadest and strictest anti-undocumented immigration measure ever approved in the United States.

The attacks of September 11, 2001, further challenged the NAFTA-era promises of globalization and free trade, resulting in the closing of borders, xenophobic nationalism, and the return of United States–led interventionist politics. Donald Trump debuted as a presidential candidate in 2015, accusing Mexicans of being rapists and promoting a platform of fear, racism, and ethnonationalism. He accused Judge Gonzalo Curiel of being biased against him as a “Mexican,” understanding this as ethnicity and not national citizenship, since Curiel was born in Indiana to Mexican immigrants. Note that during the Cold War, the Berlin Wall had been seen as a shameful barrier and symbol against freedom, and the people that dared to cross it were considered heroes by most in the United States. Paradoxically, Trump’s biggest campaign promise was to build a similar but much larger wall across the US-Mexico border, claiming—against all logic—that Mexico would pay for it. Clearly the times of rapprochement and “Good Neighbor” policies are gone.

In 2011, the Los Angeles–based Getty Foundation supported a series of exhibitions under the umbrella of an initiative called “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–1980.” I was invited to co-curate a show of Mexican artists working in Los Angeles at the Museum of Latin American Art (MOLAA) in Long Beach. The museum joined the initiative late, thus missing the opportunity to apply for a curatorial research grant. The main curator left the project and I had to take charge with little time. What initially seemed like a difficult proposition was actually a great opportunity, as it allowed me the most important thing: freedom. Once again, the definitions of “Mexico” and “America” were blurry and problematic. For starters, the widespread notion that the significance of Los Angeles art began with the postwar era was clearly politicized amnesia. It was, after all, in the thirties that José Clemente Orozco and David Alfaro Siqueiros produced their murals here, stirring major controversies and impacting the course of American art writ large. Los Angeles has always been an important center for the production of transnational Mexican art and culture, produced by Mexicans, immigrants, and people of Mexican descent, as well as people from all sorts of other backgrounds. It became clear as I was doing research for the MOLAA show that most Los Angeles artists had done work related to or influenced by Mexico or Mexican culture in some form, and that working or living here made them part of that somehow.

Until the Getty’s 2011 initiative, MOLAA had excluded Latino/a artists (or others) from the United States, considering Latin America to be separate and distinct from America. The show I curated, MEX/L.A.: “Mexican” Modernism(s) in Los Angeles, 1930–1985, was not an exhibition of “Mexican” art imported into “America,” but one that proved that these constructions are intrinsically connected and interdependent, and that Los Angeles has long been a center of transnational and transcultural art production (fig. 5). Of the exhibition, Roberta Smith wrote for the New York Times, “Its wide net includes all kinds of artists influenced by Mexican culture (Frank Lloyd Wright, the Eameses, Walt Disney), and encompasses the photographer Graciela Iturbide, the great outsider Martín Ramírez and recent Conceptualists like Guillermo Gómez-Peña. One telling resurrection is Alfredo Ramos Martínez (1871–1946), whose politically pointed paintings from the late ’30s of rope-bound Mexicans were executed on pages taken from newspapers, a strategy that presages similar works by Adrian Piper 30 years later. Among the most exciting, open-ended achievements of ‘Pacific Standard Time,’ this rambunctious show should inspire a larger, even more omnivorous one.”13

Figure 5.

Installation view from MEX/L.A., Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach, 2011–12, featuring Alfredo Ramos Martínez, The Family/La familia, 1932, tempera, charcoal, and pastel on newspaper (Los Angeles Times), 21⅛ x 15¾ in. (53.7 x 40 cm); Alfredo Ramos Martínez, La reunión/The Meeting, 1932, tempera, charcoal, and pastel on newspaper (Hollywood Citizen News), 21 x 16 in. (53.3 x 40.6 cm); Speedy Gonzalez in Cannery Woe, 1961, dir. Robert McKimson, Warner Bros. (photograph by Patrick Miller)

Figure 5.

Installation view from MEX/L.A., Museum of Latin American Art, Long Beach, 2011–12, featuring Alfredo Ramos Martínez, The Family/La familia, 1932, tempera, charcoal, and pastel on newspaper (Los Angeles Times), 21⅛ x 15¾ in. (53.7 x 40 cm); Alfredo Ramos Martínez, La reunión/The Meeting, 1932, tempera, charcoal, and pastel on newspaper (Hollywood Citizen News), 21 x 16 in. (53.3 x 40.6 cm); Speedy Gonzalez in Cannery Woe, 1961, dir. Robert McKimson, Warner Bros. (photograph by Patrick Miller)

Smith was right: this effort did inspire a larger one. The introduction to the catalog was titled “Does LA Stand for Los Angeles or Latin America?” The next major Getty initiative, which opened in 2017, was titled “Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA” (PST: LA/LA), and was described by the Getty as “a far-reaching and ambitious exploration of Latin American and Latino art in dialogue with Los Angeles.”14 PST: LA/LA was an acknowledgement that Los Angeles is not only part of the United States, but also part of Latin America. In 2017 when PST: LA/LA launched, the initiative served as a provocative act highlighting Los Angeles as a center of resistance and independence from the Latinophobia and general racism and xenophobia of the Trump administration. The PST initiatives are unique and relevant in that by giving funding and opportunities to a diverse range of institutions, not just mainstream museums, they have increased representation for a wide range of voices and histories instead of reinforcing a centralized canonical echo chamber.

The “Latin Americanization” of the United States is happening in unexpected and problematic ways, though not exactly in the way political scientist Samuel Huntington feared when advancing his single-minded Anglo Protestant vision of “America.”15 Now the United States is the country behaving like a banana republic, with a corrupt, nepotistic president elected with fewer votes than his opponent, aided by the intervention of a foreign government. The elite border patrol unit known as the Border Patrol Tactical Unit (BORTAC) was recently sent to Portland and other US cities, where they apprehended mostly white US citizens who were protesting racial injustice and whisked them away in unmarked vans—all while wearing no identifiable insignia and without providing legal justification for the detentions.

Figure 6.

Rubén Ortiz-Torres, América blanqueada/Whitewashed America, 2014, urethane and chromaluscent pearl on resin, 41 x 192 x 2 in. (104.1 x 487.7 x 5.1 cm). Collection of Ellen Goldsmith-Vein and Jon F. Vein, Los Angeles (photograph provided by the artist)

Figure 6.

Rubén Ortiz-Torres, América blanqueada/Whitewashed America, 2014, urethane and chromaluscent pearl on resin, 41 x 192 x 2 in. (104.1 x 487.7 x 5.1 cm). Collection of Ellen Goldsmith-Vein and Jon F. Vein, Los Angeles (photograph provided by the artist)

The image of the crucified Native American in David Alfaro Siqueiros’s mural América tropical and the critique it represented was deemed unacceptable in the 1930s. Today, in 2020, after the Getty and the city of Los Angeles have spent millions of dollars on the mural’s restoration, sculptures of Junípero Serra, Christopher Columbus, Juan de Oñate, and other Spanish conquistadores, missionaries, and colonists are being removed, decapitated, amputated, painted, and destroyed. So, too, is consciousness being raised about the structural relationship between monuments to the US Confederacy and slave-owning founding fathers, as well as African American people being choked to death by the police, shot for jogging in the “wrong” neighborhood, or accused of sexual harassment for watching birds in a park. Siqueiros, on the other hand, was not particularly tolerant either, as stated in his phrase and book title, “No hay mas ruta que la nuestra” (there is no other route than ours), rejecting any art without his notions of a social purpose.16 Since we live in one big America that includes both the United States and Mexico amid the legacies of different models of colonialism, the discussion should not be about how to frame or present national constructions of art resulting from them in a dichotomy of identity assertiveness or its negation (resistance or assimilation), but about how to allow for and create models where freedom, inclusion, and reconciliation are possible.

Notes

1.

Quoted in Daniel Hernandez, “The Big Stink: Exposing América Tropical and the Painful Truths of a Whitewashed City,” LA Weekly, August 10, 2006.

3.

The US Constitution, art. I, § 2, cl. 3, stipulated that when counting population numbers to determine representation in Congress, enslaved people would be counted as 3/5 of a person. This had no effect other than allowing slaveholding states to inflate their number of congressional seats, as enslaved people had no recourse to voting rights. The so-called “Three-Fifths Compromise” was repealed by the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, but voter disenfranchisement continues to the present day in many parts of the United States.

4.

With Jesse Lerner, I had the opportunity to do the exhibition and book How to Read el Pato Pascual, which deals with these issues, as part of the Getty Foundation’s Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative in 2017. Rubén Ortiz Torres and Jesse Lerner, How to Read el Pato Pascual: Disney’s Latin America & Latin America’s Disney (Los Angeles: Mak Center for Art and Architecture at the Schindler House; Luckman Fine Arts Complex, California State University, Los Angeles; and Black Dog Publishing, with the assistance of the Getty Foundation, 2017).

5.

Rubén Bautista, Michael Peranteau, and Teresa del Conde, Mexico hoy: una vista nueva/Mexico Today: A New View (Houston: Diverse Works Artspace, 1988).

6.

See Francesco Siqueiros et al., Aquí y allá (Los Angeles: Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery, 1990).

7.

Christopher Knight, “‘Perennial Illusion’ Fills In Some Modern Gaps Left by ‘Splendors,’” Los Angeles Times, September 29, 1991.

8.

Knight, “‘Perennial Illusion.’”

9.

MoMA hosted a retrospective of Manuel Álvarez Bravo in 1971. Prior to that show, MoMA had not held a solo exhibition for a Mexican artist since their 1931 Diego Rivera retrospective.

10.

Lynn Zelevansky, Projects 41: Gabriel Orozco, exhibition brochure (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1993).

11.

Guillermo Gómez-Peña, “Death on the Border: A Eulogy to Border Art,” High Performance 14, no. 1 (Spring 1991): 8–9.

12.

Another important effort to be mentioned was inSite, in which ephemeral site-specific installations and events presented at the divided urban area of Tijuana–San Diego were commissioned to Mexican, American, and international artists beginning in 1992. At some point inSite decided to move to Mexico City, getting lost within the wider cultural offerings of the city and losing the particular meaning of the project related to a unique contested region.

13.

Roberta Smith, “A New Pin on the Art Map,” New York Times, November 13, 2011. On the exhibition, see Rubén Ortiz-Torres and Jesse Lerner, eds., MEX/L.A.: “Mexican” Modernism(s) in Los Angeles, 1930–1985 (Long Beach, CA: Museum of Latin American Art, 2011).

14.

Getty Foundation, “Image Gallery: Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA (Getty Foundation),” www.getty.edu/foundation/initiatives/imagegallery1.html.

15.

Samuel P. Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004).

16.

David Alfaro Siqueiros, No hay mas ruta que la nuestra: importancia nacional e internacional de la pintura mexicana moderna (Mexico City: Talleres Gráficas no. 1 de la Secretaria de la Educación Pública, 1945). For a discussion of Siqueiros’s Stalinism and related acts of censorship, see Rubén Ortiz-Torres, “The Present-Day Pachuco Refused to Die!,” in MEX/L.A., 25.