Daring to Navigate Treacherous Waters

by Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

MACLA has never favored the superficial and decorative nor been shy in presenting art that is loaded with content and controversy. The power and importance of artists speaking clearly in a visual language is demonstrated remarkably in this exhibition. Shifting Dreams, Migrating Realities provides an opportunity for a community under attack to speak through its art about the struggle for economic survival, cultural identity, respect and hope for the future. We are reminded of the political and social history of both the United States and Latin America. We are asked, in the context of this exhibition, to overcome a wave of national paranoia, and sensibly revisit our relationship with humanity at large. In our shrinking global village, this seems so urgent. Perhaps you as a viewer will engage the simple realities presented in this exhibition about international migration, and be moved to speak out about our national priorities.

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Consuelo Jimenez Underwood provides a light moment with her oversize Flower Tortillas (with leaves and flower petals woven into the fabric).

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Underwood’s Frontera Basket, made of barbed wire and perfectly sized for her tortillas, acknowledges the difficult struggle to preserve traditions in a new country

A few years ago, the subject of migration and immigration as sociological phenomena could be considered dispassionately and discussed without rancor in the United States. With the growing maturity of our society and the hindsight afforded by having lived through great tragedies in the 20th Century, we felt compassion for peoples made homeless through disaster or war, or impoverished or persecuted. And after all, we had discovered that previous generations of immigrants — the Italians, the Irish, and countless others from Europe — enriched our culture, put down permanent roots and embraced the American dream.

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Backbreaking stoop labor is documented in Almudena Oritz’ Wetback

In the late 20th Century, in large cities, many in California, we began to see that immigrants from non-European stock were doing the same thing. At first they clustered in immigrant communities with friends and family, where language, culture and economic necessities were similar. And with education of the younger generations and growing economic stability, these communities too began to assimilate and seem to be as much the same, yet different, as any other immigrant group. The documentary photographs of Almudena Ortiz beautifully articulate the beginnings of this journey. We can feel the backbreaking stoop labor of the farm worker as seen in the photograph Wetback, enjoy rites of passage such as a “quincea√±eras” in At Fifteen, and the music and religious festivals of the Latin Community in Big Dreams and The Trumpets.

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Rites of Passage in At Fifteen, by Almudena Ortiz

Indeed we have embraced the tired and hungry from foreign shores without really faring the worse for it. It has been part of the healthy process of renewal, struggle, and growth to maturity that the populations of all overlapping epochs of history experience, whether they are homogeneous or diverse. Indeed, the complex and moving painting by Eugene Rodriguez, Policing of Dreams, speaks to the rarely acknowledged truth that ethnic communities are as diverse in character as the larger population. The exquisitely rendered figures in Rodriguez’s inner city latino community are professionals and working class, male and female, gay and straight, yet they all express pride, yearning and fear. This somber painting, executed on military aviation skin has carvings into the metal skin that glint coldly, and couple with images of the latinos that serve in Iraq or Afghanistan, reminding that this community also serves and gives its life for the country. Rodriguez’ community is as affected as the rest of the nation by the complex challenges of loss in war, economic uncertainty, healthcare, addictions, and preservation of dignity and cultural traditions.

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Policing of Dreams by Eugene Rodriguez

Somehow, since 9-11, our national debate has rambled shamefully toward xenophobic and even racist sentiments as we scapegoat and strike out, often blindly, at new problems that face the nation. We can ask if the current backlash against immigrants is simply a manifestation of the same resistance to change and uncertainty that earlier generations have experienced. Perhaps this is a just another little blip of protest that later will seem to have been a tempest in a teapot. After all, we have collectively learned so much about tolerance and the need to coexist peacefully that we will surely silence these hollow protests, won’t we?

Rick Godinez’s remarkably personal and straightforward painting, Sino Kami? (Who Am I?) like the work of Eugene Rodriguez, is consummate figurative painting, with all the loaded meaning that makes this genre effective and historically so important. Godinez addresses the long history of mixed heritage resulting from both migration and colonization in the Latin and Philippine community. He presents honest and neutral depictions of his roots alongside the derisive and insulting portrayals that mixed race generations have endured through language and visual references.

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Rick Godinez’ Sino Kami? (Who am I?)

Is resistance to change is more predictable when it appears to be happening at an ever-increasing rate? I would argue that we tend to assume things never will and never should change when the rate of change in our lives is imperceptibly slow. It may be healthier to know just how temporal our conditions are. A curious sculptural installation by Carlos Cartagena reminds us that migration is a natural biological drive in many species, and that we humans have migrated voluntarily and involuntarily to survive many times in history. A small dresser is mounted horizontally, with its top against the wall. In Sueños en Vuelo, we peek in through the base of this symbol of domesticity and see endless birds (suspended in front of a mirror mounted at the end of the interior tunnel) floating into space. I think of the magical excape into another world for children entering the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I also think of the annual migration of certain birds and even the historic Native American tribes, and then, of the permanent displacement of whole populations from a once fertile Sahara or across a land bridge linking Asia and North America.

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In Carlos Cartagena’s Sue√±os en Vuelo, a small bureau turned on its side allows us to escape mundane life, follow our dreams and migrate to better worlds.

I reject the notion that we cannot afford to embrace most would-be immigrants to the USA. We cannot afford not to, just as we cannot afford not to inoculate all children, rich and poor, against disease. As a teacher, I insist that education is part of the inoculation of our own children and even those of the global village, against poverty, disease and the dictators of fundamentalism. Instead of delusional self-defense through foolish wars of preemption and the waste of lives and billions of dollars in military hardware, we could and should educate a thoughtful world population that can reason, negotiate, compromise and share. At this time in history, education, health, safety and justice for all people are the measures of an insightful foreign policy and immigration policy.

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Carlos Cartagena’s cutout figures, Silhouettes, have lost their individuality and are awash in paperwork and reduced to statistics and files

Somehow, the United States has lost a moral compass of compassion, generosity, farsightedness, and fairness. As we face the challenges of 21st Century terrorism, ecological disaster, new technologies, new economics and a cycle of belt-tightening we seem to be wobbling. Higher education has become formidably expensive for lower middle class and working class students. The capitalistic system, marketplace greed and consumerism have infected the idealism that once brought young college students into the service professions. Most students now have little awareness of the history of university education as a preparation to lead and serve. This is particularly so among the first-generation-to-college students who see, (as do their parents) their college education as job training. And, in the vicious cycle that now prevails, they damn well better get a well paying job to pay off those college loans. We must reprioritize education in the USA and the world. Without a solid education, will we ever learn that our strength is truly in our diversity?

Finally, we must pay attention to what is happening in the world of the “press”. The press as it once applied to the printed word and attempts at factual reporting of the news is in dire straits. Newspapers are no longer an economically thriving venture and may surrender their once-proud and honest profession to the Wild West of journalism: the internet. In the kingdom of Internet News, unsubstantiated reports, superficial celebrity watching, rabid opinions, editorial anonymity and outright falsehoods reign. TV news, in its brief life, has lost its once respected stature by turning honorable reporters into opinion vendors and vicious xenophobes like Lou Dobbs.

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Favianna Rodriguez, trained in the tradition of Chicano political activism by such historic figures as Malaquias Montoya, exhorts us to get involved through issue posters.

Democracy does demand constant vigilance. Our democracy has thrived on two fundamentals: public education and a free press. As conservative forces have driven the news into camps that are beholden to corporate interests (and reporters world-wide face assassination for truthful reporting), we lose one cornerstone of a successful democracy.

Without an educated populace that is willing to seek the truth, and rationally question and evaluate our society and government’s actions, another support for our democracy is lost. We become the stressed, suspicious and superstitious fundamentalists who want the world divided into absolutes, black and white, them and us, right and wrong. Yet even within our nuclear families, we must acknowledge the normalcy of diversity: the families of George Bush and Dick Cheney are not good enough examples?

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