Muralist Art and Activism in Washington's Latino Community

  • By Oscar Rosales Castaneda
  • Posted 8/08/2006
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 7879
In the Pacific Northwest, the arts have been instrumental in expressing the history, culture, and issues pertinent to communities of color, and this is especially true of the Chicano/Latino community. The Muralist Art Movement was the vibrant reflection of a community wishing to create positive social change during a time marred by racism and conflict. Activity in the American Southwest during the late 1960s inspired the Mexican American community, especially youth, to begin organizing around issues of social justice. The Chicano civil rights movement brought forth a cultural awakening in Mexican American communities of Eastern Washington. The struggle for educational equity bolstered its development, with many students attending the University of Washington (UW) and settling in Seattle. In this way, education became central to the linking of political activism and art. Many artworks were generated in Seattle, with murals at cultural centers, at the UW, and at El Centro de La Raza. The art articulated the struggles faced by many people of Latin American descent, with the imagery helping to visually tell the history that emerged as scholars rooted in the Latino community started writing about the Latin American experience within the United States.

Roots: the Mexican Muralist Movement

The concept of art used to educate can be seen in the emergence of the Mexican Muralist Movement during the post-revolutionary cultural renaissance that took place in Mexico from the 1920s to the 1940s. This movement made it possible to portray Mexican history through the painting of murals in public space, and also to depict other issues pertinent to Mexican society at that time. This form of art, known as social realism, adapted a critique of society and was made popular by Diego Rivera (1886-1957), Jose Clemente Orozco (1883-1949), David Alfaro Siqueiros (1896-1974), and other artists who used public space as a canvass for showcasing the human condition as it existed for the vast majority of the Mexican population. This art form made a distinct imprint as it placed itself outside the dominant artistic paradigm of the time by putting peasants, workers, and everyday people at the center of the work.

The Mexican Muralist Movement left an indelible mark in Latin America, and also served as inspiration for the Chicano Art movement that emerged during the latter part of the 1960s. As in Latin America, this art form was instrumental in expressing the history and culture of the people, and in critiquing the conditions Latino communities encountered here in the United States. Tied to this were the issues many people of color faced, such as racism, segregation, lack of access to institutions of power, social mobility, assimilation, and inferior schools, among many others. In the United States, the emergence of the arts and literature were especially important within the Chicano community, as there had been very little written about this history.

As the movement made its way to the Pacific Northwest, there was an increase in the production of art and graphics. Artists incorporated many of the aesthetics brought from the southwest -- such as images of pre-columbian glyphs from Aztec, Mayan, and Inca civilizations and revolutionary icons such as Che Guevara and Emiliano Zapata -- and infused them with elements that are uniquely part of the geography of the Northwest -- such as agricultural scenes in Eastern Washington. This movement allowed for an examination of the cultural traits of Latino communities that are detached from the Southwest, and yet retain their cultural identity.

Chicano Civil Rights

The Chicano movement that emerged at the national level in the late 1960s was influenced to a large extent by the civil rights movement that had been active since the mid-1950s. The experience for many in the Chicano/Latino community in the United States was quite distinct from that of people who had grown up in Latin America. They were in a precarious situation in which they were positioned within the dominant culture, yet still made to feel inferior. There appears to be no definitive point at which the movement itself started.

But it is important to mention that it was under the conditions present during the late 1960s that the movement coalesced as it did and created something that at the time gave the impression that it was new. As art historian Eva Cockroft wrote, "From their earliest days Chicanos/Latinos were subjected to an all-encompassing racism in the schools, in advertising, and in television, which urged them to reject their language and culture and become American yet constantly made them aware of their ‘otherness’ " (Cockcroft). The movement was one that directly addressed the issue of racism, but also had a distinct quality to it as it also touched on the issue of labor with the farmworker struggle that began in the mid-1960s.

Chicanismo infused the student movement and radicalized politics. In a shift of ideas from generations past, this social movement rejected assimilation and advocated ethnic pride, self-worth, cultural regeneration, and the idea of cultural nationalism. At the time, the latter was especially important because it transcended class, regional, and generational lines. As in the post-revolutionary (1920s) renaissance in Mexico, this movement sought to reclaim the indigenous roots of the Chicano as a means of asserting one’s place and identity.

There was a strong religious, spiritual, and mystical component infused into the literature, theater, visual arts, and poetry that appeared during this time. Working-class Chicanos looked to the sacred texts, social customs, and artistic forms of the ancient Mayas, Aztecs, and Toltecs to distinguish themselves as a new, conscious society, with aims at reclaiming a history that had long been neglected.

Chicano Student Activism and Art

Though detached historically from a lot of the activity in the Southwest, the farmworker’s movement would eventually make its way to the Northwest, two years after the inauguration of the Table Grape Boycott of 1965 initiated by the United Farmworkers Organizing Committee (UFWOC). Founded in Washington in 1967 by two students from Yakima Valley College, the United Farm Worker’s Co-operative was the first Chicano activist organization in the state of Washington. The large concentration of Mexican Americans in Eastern Washington made rural issues central to the activist movement that would soon emerge. The youth movement that surfaced a year later would help create a cultural renaissance.

Beyond the birth of performing groups, the late 1960s also saw the development of cultural centers. Unlike regions of the Southwest where centros culturales were often catalysts for the production of art, in the Northwest, centros functioned primarily as community social-service agencies.

Arguably, the activist youth movement arose in 1968 as young Chicanos, recruited by the Black Student Union (BSU), made their way to the University of Washington. In October of that year, a group of 30 students formed the United Mexican American Students (UMAS), modeled after the group at the University of Southern California, making it the first UMAS chapter in the Pacific Northwest. The organizing done by this group, to become in the fall of 1969 the Movimiento Estudiantiþl Chicano de Aztlaþn (M.E.Ch.A), was essential in the creation of El Centro de Estudios Chicanos at the University of Washington, along with many other initiatives that included a budding art movement, the emergence of literature, and the eventual publication of Metamorfosis, -- one of the most influential magazines on Chicano/Latino art and literature in the Northwest.

With Seattle the hub of much of the activity that would surface through the establishment of the arts and the humanities, it is not surprising that some of the groundbreaking work would happen on the UW campus. This is seen with some of the young Chicano talent that emerged out of the University. Though lacking the immediate cultural base of cities in the Southwest, two artists, Emilio Aguayo (b. 1939) and Daniel DeSiga (b. 1949), became two of the most notable Chicano artists through their connections to artist collectives in the Southwest. In the words of Sid White and Pat Matheny-White, "The Rebel Chicano Art Front (RCAF), a Sacramento-based artists’ collective, served as a major link between Movimiento art in California and the Pacific Northwest. Members from this group of seasoned artists served as mentors for the young Northwest Chicano art students while also producing three Pacific Northwest murals." (White)

Daniel DeSiga

This inspiration, infused with a distinct style centered in the Northwest, would be essential in the work done by Daniel DeSiga. The only Chicano artist of this period who was native to the area (he was born in Walla Walla), his work was symbolic of the Chicano experience in the Eastern Washington. DeSiga’s personal history as a person of farmworker background is reflected in his imagery -- in his portrayals of male and female workers in rural Eastern Washington.

His notable works include the painting of murals at El Centro de La Raza in Seattle, as well as his mural depicting Mexican farmworkers in a work painted in Toppenish, Washington in the 1990s. His style, distinct from his contemporaries, passionately engages the viewer in examining the socio-political context of Chicano life in the Northwest. He, along with Aguayo, is perhaps the most influential Chicano muralist of the period.

Emilio Aguayo

Originally from Denver, Emilio Aguayo made his way to the Pacific Northwest in the early 1960s. "In 1971, while a student at the University of Washington, [Aguayo] painted Aztlán, the first Chicano mural in the region. This large work and a series of wall graphics of his design are prominently displayed at the University of Washington’s Ethnic Cultural Center" (White). Upon completion of the mural, Aguayo wrote the following description of the piece, explaining the imagery and the color scheme used in producing the final piece:

"This mural embodies the dawning of a new era for all the Spanish speaking people known as 'LA RAZA.' It is a cultural blend of past and present, of Indian heritage, of man struggling alongside women in the human conflict which is our drive for self-identity and self-determination. This painting is visual testimony that as part of this society, we are part of its past, its present and its future, something which as a people we will not be denied.

"We are also a people with ideas in heart, mind, soul, and spirit who have lived a history of social oppression, yet ... . we have hopes for our future.

We are products of mankind -- a composite of all races, all colors, yet more the blend of Spaniard and Indian which forms the mestizo precursor of the American Spanish-speaking, here 100 years and more before Columbus. We had a civilization which predates Christ.

"Present and past symbols of our cultural history comprise this visual reality of early la raza art. Serpent and sun are symbols worshipped by our ancestors a gods of life and earth. Earth now is symbolic only of the nation within a nation we wish to build. The sun also symbolizes the dawn of our self-awareness, the revolution in the mind we so desperately need. The united farm workers flag is symbolic of first manifestations in 1965 of our current social movement. Man and woman symbolize the core of any society, the family unit. In this case, the Raza family is what kept us together in adversity.

"Society is seen as a four-head monster of apocalypse, oppression and universal troubles of mankind. It is seen as we see it and live it. Society is thus a personification of oppressive evil now confront by social change which is good.

"Aztlan is an Indian term for the land of the southwest, land of Spanish grants, area of our first beginnings, land of our greatest population concentration in five states.

Colors of this mural represents the five human races and the colors of earth in the southwest."

-- Emilio Aguayo, 1972 (UW Ethnic Cultural Center)

Pablo O'Higgins

The art movement of the 1970s produced the vast majority of Chicano muralist imagery that is still around today. However, one key exception is a work done in 1945 by world-renowned artist Pablo O’Higgins (1904-1983) entitled, The Struggle Against Racial Discrimination,. The piece would almost be forgotten until news of its existence resurfaced in the mid-1970s.

O'Higgins, had moved to Mexico at the age of 20 and studied under the guidance of Diego Rivera. By the time he was commissioned to do the painting in Seattle, he had already achieved status as one of the great muralists of the period. Currently housed at the University of Washington, the O’Higgins mural would remain in storage for nearly two decades from 1955 until 1975, according to art historian Lauro Flores, "first because of the pressures of the infamous McCarthy era and then out of mere institutional negligence, until the impetus of the Chicano movement forced its restoration and vindication." (Flores)

The mural itself was commissioned by the Shipscalers, Drydock and Miscellaneous Workers Union in Seattle. According to a writer for the UW Daily, "The shipscalers were deeply involved in civil rights work. While they met with O’Higgins to plan the mural which now hangs in Kane Hall, the union also was protesting the police shooting of Eugene Mozee, a black service station owner. They also were organizing support for a proposed state fair-employment practices law which would ban discrimination by race, creed or national origin" (UW Daily). Needless to say, this activism was ahead of its time as the civil rights discourse would take a while longer to come to the forefront after the painting of this mural in 1945.

The UW Daily reporter continues, "The shipscalers who filled the shipyards of Seattle during World War II did more than assemble the weapons of war. Many of them were militant -- drawing on the labor movements of the 1930s. Seattle was a little more than 20 years away from its 1919 general strike and less than a dozen years away from a popular description of Washington state: ‘The 47 states and the Soviet Socialist Republic of Washington’" (UW Daily).

Drawing upon this unique activity, O’Higgins coalesced both militant labor with issues of civil rights. In staying true to his politics, he also incorporated progressive social imagery, much like his mentors did in the Mexican Muralist Movement of the decade before. The painting is unique in that it addresses the issue of social justice within rights discourse and points at ideas that were before their time in the 1940s. The mural is arguably the first of its kind in the Northwest, considering that few of the Mexican Muralists ventured to this area during that period.

As was the case with works by Siqueiros and Rivera in Los Angeles and New York, political pressure by the powerful elite led the O’Higgins painting to be neglected and forgotten. Not until 1975 did pressure from El Centro de La Raza and UW MEChA push the University of Washington to restore the mural. The politics of public art were evident as subject material deemed controversial was set aside for a prolonged period until the Chicano activist movement forced the mural back out.

New Horizons

O'Higgins's mural, now installed at Kane Hall, is invaluable not only as a part of the collective history of Washington state, but also of the Chicano community of this area. After the Chicano movement subsided during the 1980s, the main contributions to the arts are still very much evident as they live through in the imagery of the muralist movement.

Despite the geographic isolation from Latino cultural hubs in the Southwest, the Chicano/Latino community in Washington has forged an identity uniquely its own that incorporates the geography of the Northwest into its art. The "acute sense of isolation and dislocation is tempered with a striving to generate new horizons and new mythologies with an aim to reflect through literature diverse aspects of Chicano life in the region" (Ybarra-Frausto).

As more Latinos settle in the Northwest, they bring with them the culture that helps regenerate and enhance the presence that has been here for many years. As in Mexico during the 1920s, the arts help reflect a population that had long been silent.


Sources: Eva S. Cockcroft, Signs from the Heart: California Chicano Murals (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1993); Lauro Flores, "A Two Hundred Year Presence: Chicano and Other Latin American Artists in the Pacific Northwest," and Sid White and Pat Matheny-White, "Recent Developments: Chicano and Latino Artists in the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s and 1980s," and Tomas Ybarra-Frausto, "Chicano Culture: Everyday Life in the Pacific Northwest" in Chicano and Latino Artists in the Pacific Northwest Exhibit Catalog Reformatted for Use on the Chicano Latino Web Site at the Evergreen State College, 1984, Chicano / Latino Archive, The Everygreen State College Library website accessed August 3, 2006 (http://www.evergreen.edu/library/chicanolatino/); Bruce Johansen, "Mural Still Controversial 30 Years Later," University of Washington Daily, December 2, 1977, p. 12; 2004.

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