Chicanx Artists Mobilize Community in Age of Trump
"We Dream of Ways to Break These Iron Bars," by Long Beach artist Eric Almanza. "My goal, the intention of my work," he says, "is to put a face to these people, so that you can no longer say hey, let’s treat em all the same and kick em out." (Photo: Courtesy of Eric Almanza)
At any number of anti-authoritarian protests around the world, you’ll see people carrying posters printed off the Internet, designed by or distributed by Melanie Cervantes and her partner Jesus Barraza. Together, Cervantes and Barraza operate the arts collective Dignidad Rebelde. Their West Oakland studio is tightly packed with the materials of their trade -- screen printing.
The collective licenses its work under a creative commons license to make the amplification of their work easy. "What we’re doing is amplifying the voices of people in our communities," Cervantes says. "Part of what’s powerful about the reproducible work is that you have a message that’s consistently being mobilized."
The California native says she's following in a long line of graphic collectives whose work has existed as much to educate people and fight colonialism as it has to produce art.
Cervantes cites outfits like Self Help Graphics, active in Los Angeles since the early 1970s, and Taller de Gráfica Popular, a Mexico City group that fought fascism in the 1930s. Cervantes finds this group's efforts particularly relevant today, given the current divisive political climate.
In her view, the Trump Administration is not really a political outlier "You know, the Obama Administration built a very effective deportation machine," she says. "We’ve been fighting colonialism for, what, 520 some odd years."
But if Cervantes doesn't see herself as doing anything new, it's also true that her talents as an art and history educator are heavily in demand right now. So much so, that you'd be hard-pressed to find her at her studio.
Cervantes' calendar is packed with screen-printing workshops, which she teaches all over the country. She's busy growing the Chicano art movement (or "Chicanx" as it's commonly called these days in an effort to de-gender the masculine "Chicano") with the mass distribution of her art and the know-how to produce art like it.
Chicanx art covers a wide range of political issues. These include immigration and labor rights, the militarization of the police force, mass incarceration, and environmental injustice.
"This is a conversation that was happening when I was a child," says Joey Reyes, who along with Cervantes co-curated the last Chicano/a Biennial at San Jose’s Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana (MACLA.) "This is a conversation that happens right now. The tension is real."
The tension is also growing, as the Trump Administration makes good on promises to peel back civil rights enforcement and crackdown on illegal immigration.
"You know, it’s easy to say, 'let’s kick out 11 million people,' but that is 11 million fathers, mothers, and children," says Eric Almanza, one of the artists featured in MACLA's Chicana/o Biennial. "My goal is to put a face to these people, so that you can no longer say, 'hey, let’s treat them all the same and kick them out."'
Almanza says he and fellow Chicanx artists are hoping their work can cultivate a stronger sense of compassion for the people being evicted from the U.S.
Art of Resistance
For a number of years, Almanza has included a logo in his work that he imagines will prove handy in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s a circular dream catcher with a triangle in the center that looks like the "triforce" from Legend of Zelda. "It's for the resistance, because every great resistance needs some kind of logo," he says.
At the time he first developed the logo, Almanza thought it was a piece of apocalyptic science fiction. Now, he says, some kind of political apocalypse seems imminent under the Trump Administration. "Wow, these guys are for real," Almanza says. "They have their agenda, and they’re going through with it. I always imagined it would take place 50 years from now, but it almost seems like time has fast-forwarded, and we’re just about to enter this post apocalyptic society that I’ve been painting and writing about."
Almanza is organizing an exhibition titled Art of Resistance: Paintingsin Protest to a Trump Presidency. Featuring 17 artists, including himself, the show is scheduled to open next month in Los Angeles. "I’ve started on a piece that takes a section of the border wall and it’s being set on fire," Almanza says of his contribution. The logo of resistance is emblazoned on that wall.
"Art of Resistance: Paintings in Protest to a Trump Presidency" opens Saturday, May 13th at Ave 50 Studios in Highland Park, Los Angeles. More information here.