Targeting Chicano

Hey man, heavy shit, man . . . are we drivin' OK man?
-- from the film "Up in Smoke," written by, and starring, Cheech Marin and produced by Lou Adler, 1978.

More than 40 years after César Chavez began organizing farm workers in California, the word depicting that struggle for justice has been sold for a million dollars.

In the Beginning

"Chicano" is a word that evokes the radicalization of Mexican American politics during the civil rights movement. Until recently, the average José despised it, preferring more neutered, poeticized labels -- Hispanic, Latino, Mexicano, Tejano, Hispano, Mexican American. Chicano in the '60s meant anti-war protests, long hair, MECHA, the Brown Berets, Corky Gonzalez, and La Raza Unida.

While the word defended a culture, it was a political act to be one. I embraced this word, "Chicana," in my college days in Texas, because it was imbued with the me that was hated: my brown face, my clumsy English and broken Spanish, my farm worker traditions.

To me, this word became as sacred as my abuelita's embroidered tablecloth as I shaped the word into my own reflection.

With this heirloom, I could begin the difficult journey to loving myself for exactly who I was. A proud word, it conveyed history, defiance, and, finally, soul -- evolving over time into something deeper than tribe or belonging or even loyalty to the family that sacrificed for me.

In my own way, I discovered that "Chicano" means true love of self, so that I could love you and all, so that I would not do to others what had been done so brutally to me.

"Chicano": In our best moments, a new conciencia for America.

But ay, the glitter of a rhinestone necklace is seductive. And so we have sold the only property we have left -- our word for struggle, justice, hope.

I think we sold ourselves too cheaply.

I think the price we will pay is too high.

The Sale

Now on a lavish five-year, fifteen-city museum tour, "Chicano" is going mainstream. It's a two-pronged, for-profit exhibit consisting of the multimedia "Chicano Now: American Expressions" and "Chicano Visions: American Painters on the Verge." Impelled and created by the entertainer Cheech Marin's private collection of Chicano art, presented by Target Stores, and sponsored by Hewlett-Packard Company and DaimlerChrysler, organized and produced by Clear Channel Entertainment, legitimized by the Smithsonian, and applauded by cultural leaders and many of the artists in the exhibit, "Chicano" is coming to a city near you.

The exhibit debuted in San Antonio, where it was greeted with gente decente gratitude from the city's leaders and robust articles in the San Antonio Express-News. "Chicano" was lavished with freeway billboards and bilingual media spots.

On opening night in San Antonio, pachangas gushed with the music of Los Lobos, accordionist Flaco Jimenez, a parade of low-riders, cowboy boots, and invited taggers (who were reprimanded for spraying on the corporate logo).

Cheech Marin is best known for his drug-laced Brownploitation comedy in the Cheech and Chong series, one of which, "Up in Smoke," became the highest grossing comedy of 1978, topping $100 million. He recently co-starred with Don Johnson in the CBS one-hour "Nash Bridges."

Highlights from the Interactive "Chicano Now!"

The political comedy troupe Culture Clash, in a video tour de force, guides visitors through the exhibit. Members of Culture Clash dress as the Brown Men, funny illegal aliens in spacesuits.

The exhibit consists of many items: "Border," with an eye-catching quote from poet and writer Gloria Anzaldúa; "Family," which includes a tender clip of Cheech Marin's own familia; "Food," with an interactive stove that lights up a pan of refried beans as comedian Paul Rodriguez narrates the story of Mexican cuisine ("You can make a taco out of anything"); an altar; a family album of Vietnam hero Roy Benavides; "Work," featuring muralist Judy Baca and noteworthy people who would probably squirm if you called them Chicanos (Astronaut Ellen Ochoa, boxer Oscar de la Hoya); "Música," a wide-screen video with how-to instructions on an actual dance floor of couples dancing the polkita ad infinitum; a "What-Is-Rasquache?" video installation featuring jokes by Paul Rodriguez and George Lopez juxtaposed with cultural scholar Tomás Ybarra-Frausto's quote, "To be rasquache is to be down but not out."

There is one free-standing pillar to the Chicano Movement and a glass-encased display of Chicano literature. Nearby, a video installation with monitors features the work of MacArthur fellow Guillermo Gómez Peña alongside director Robert Rodriguez's film clips, notably "From Dust till Dawn" with a half-naked Salma Hayek writhing with a python. In the next room are poetical short films by Gustavo Vasquez and Lourdes Portillo.

Cheech himself had a large role in the thematic scheme, which is a mishmash of scholarly quotes, comedy, videos, high-tech energy and sound, dioramas, murals, and the pedazo de resistencia, a lowrider simulator, where you can climb on and cruise as Cheech's voice takes you through the barrio. ¡Orale!

"What's next, the world's largest burrito? Chicanismo is over the day this happened."
-- Estéban Zul, Chicano writer and filmmaker, who owns the trademark to the word "pocho."

"This looks like a Chicano Disneyland."
-- George Cisneros, San Antonio video artist and brother of you-know-who.

The Artist

"Baby, you don't understand." "Chicano Visions!" artist Adan Hernández challenges my criticisms one morning over tacos at the Blanco Cafe in San Antonio. He explains how hard he has worked in the barrio he comes from, how Chicano artists have been marginalized, excluded, how the museums "have kept us out . . . with our own tax money."

And he's right. While Chicano public and nonpublic art has been included in cultural centers, university libraries, and other regional museums, national tours have been few and far between. The most notable exhibit, CARA (Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation, 1965-1985), ironically closed in San Antonio in 1993 after a tour of ten cities. That exhibit was the first major national art show organized and represented by Chicanos and Chicanas in collaboration with a mainstream institution. As defined by scholar Alicia Gaspar de Alba in "Chicano Art: Inside Outside the Master's House,"

"It constituted a historic, cultural, and political event. . . . Politically, CARA countered the aesthetic traditions of the mainstream art world, challenging institutional structures of exclusion, ethnocentrism, and homogenization."

Cheech has asked Hernández to talk to me about my questioning. "I'm not happy," he says, "but what choice do we have? When we get through, the arte will be there, the arte will be intact and pure with its idealism."

Highlights from the "Chicano Visions!" Painting Exhibit

No catalog, little text, no audio-cassettes or curriculum guide was available in San Antonio. Gypsy Kings muzak accompanied my viewing. Brassy, startling, and at times overwhelming, the exhibit included many renowned artists: Carlos Almaraz, David Botello, Vincent Valdez, George Yepes, John Valadez, Alex Rubio, Eloy Torres, Jesse Treviño, César Martinez, Frank Romero, Leo Limón, Gilbert "Magu" Lujan, Glugio Gronk Nicandro, Wayne Alaniz Healy, Adan Hernandez, Raul Guerrero, Rupert Garcia, Charles "Chaz" Bojorquez, Melesio Casas, and Gaspar Enriquez.

The women in "Visions!" included Marta Sanchez, Ester Hernandez, Carmen Lomas Garza, Diane Gamboa, Margaret Garcia, and Patssi Valdez. Queer artists are not identified.

René Yañez, founder and artistic director of San Francisco's Galería de la Raza, is the curator. "When I've gone to foundations, and you want to do a Chicano exhibit that has content, they want smiling faces," says Yañez.

"Fuck the people."
-- "Chicano Visions!" artist César Martinez, when I asked him if he owed anything to the community whose faces he paints in return for his ascendant fame.

"I probably know more about the Chicano movement than most Hispanics."
-- George W. Neubert, Director, San Antonio Museum of Art (which hosted "Chicano Visions!").

The Conquest

A few years ago, Stacy King had dinner with her old friend Cheech Marin. King is the founder and chief executive officer of BBH, Inc., a "premier provider of traveling museum exhibits," such as "The Robot Zoo," "Microbes," and "Masters of the Night: The True Story of Bats." (BBH was recently bought by Clear Channel.) King had noticed that the demographics for her science/entertainment/educational exhibits were changing. More people of color and their families were coming. BBH develops its content-rich, multisensory exhibits for a profit to museums around the world, and she noted that one exhibit she organized, entitled "Africa: One Continent. Many Worlds," had a "dramatic impact" on attendance at Chicago's Field Museum. "This is what museums are supposed to do," King remembers thinking.

So she listened as Cheech talked excitedly about his Chicano "School of Art." King told him that she wanted her children to understand the context of his collection.

"Can I get naked here? What I don't support is a pop star having a Faustian deal with corporate America."
-- off-the-record comment by an artist in "Chicano."

Cheech's wealth has enabled him to amass the world's largest private collection of Chicano art, if you believe the press releases. He is gregarious and accessible to the Chicano community, receiving widespread recognition, including the 1999 National Council of La Raza/Kraft Foods ALMA Community Service Award.

Now you see why Cheech and King agreed to keep talking.

The Chicano blockbuster is underwritten by a class of corporations decades away from the beer companies that have hovered around our civic organizations (LULAC, MALDEF, National Council of La Raza, G.I. Forum), supporting justice with one hand and alcoholism with the other.

It's a horrible situation, agrees Laura Esparza, the former director of the Smithsonian-affiliated Museo Americano in San Antonio, who was a chief negotiator for the "Chicano Now!" exhibit. Her meetings with the sponsors and Cheech began in April of 2001, an unusually rushed timetable to assemble a show by the sponsorship projections of December in the same year. Museum exhibits generally take at least several years to design. "The Target bullseye had to be on every piece of collateral that was in the show," she says.

"Go to any Target and you will not see a white person [in San Antonio]."
-- off-the-record comment by a Chicana filmmaker who knows her way around San Antonio.

According to Target's latest annual report, the company's pre-tax profit from $30 billion in gross revenues was a little more than $2 billion. It is committed to giving 5 percent of its federally taxable income to nonprofit organizations. It also is committed to delivering a "superior return" to its shareholders, and over the past five years it has generated a return of 44 percent, well above the industry standard. When I asked Douglas Kline, a Target spokesperson, how much the company planned to spend on "Chicano," he said this wasn't public information. "So what percentage of your customers are U.S. Latinos?" Same answer. When I told him that in my past life I worked for an oil company and I understood the twining of public relations and marketing, he interrupted me, saying he had a conference call to get to. End of conversation.

"I know they're stinkers. When push came to shove, I felt for the artists who had been working so long in the community. Do I have a million dollars to mount an exhibit?"
-- off-the-record anger by a key player in the Chicano museum scene.

The problem is that museums need money. This past January, almost 200 of the nation's most prominent scholars signed a letter addressed to William H. Rehnquist, chancellor of the Smithsonian's Board of Regents, taking issue with the growing commercial influence at the nation's "most important cultural institution. . . . Members of the public may now legitimately question whether the Smithsonian's exhibits are an even-handed portrayal of American culture or are shaped to fit the imperatives of corporate sponsorship," said the letter-writers.

They challenged several collaborations: the institution's partnership with Fujifilm and the National Zoo, which featured a stuffed panda holding a big Fujifilm sign; a mobile museum called "Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music," with giant red Kmart signs on each side; the National Museum of History's proposal to General Motors to create a "General Motors Hall of Transportation" in exchange for $10 million; and especially the entrance of McDonald's in the National Air and Space Museum, which "assures the Big Mac a place next to some of our nation's most treasured relics."

The Rebels

"Nobody's going to take it seriously." Ruben Ortíz-Torres, professor of art at U.C.-San Diego, explains why "Chicano Visions!" isn't visionary at all. It's problematic on many levels, he sighs, because the definition of a Chicano School of Art as defined by Cheech Marin "is very simplistic." While he is impressed with many of the artists represented in the painting exhibit, the preponderance of clichés and archetypes are a "narrow cultural expression, art at a moment of the 1980s."

And Chicano art is much more expansive than that. This is not an exhibition of contemporary art, he says, but a frozen moment -- a capricho of Cheech Marin. Chicano art, he adds, is good enough to be exhibited in the major museums of New York and California, not because of someone's personal whim.

Why wasn't it called "Cheech Marin's Private Collection?" he asks. The why is left unanswered.

Ortíz-Torres, who has been called "one of the most exciting artists in the Americas" by the Seattle Times, and is a curator in his own right, doesn't believe that the artists' careers will be better served by their inclusion in this show. They don't need it, he says. Unless they want to be on bank checks or corporate promotional posters.

"Who is it aimed for? Are we a cartoon for the gringos to look at?"
-- Niño Acuña, University of Texas at San Antonio student, responding to both "Chicano" exhibits.

"Where are [the] dykes and the jotos of the Chicano movement?"
-- David Zamora Casas, queer artista and activista from San Antonio.

The Defeat

"I love that Cheech wouldn't waver," says the navaja-tongued Richard Montoya, one of the Culture Clash comics. "In the big picture, I love that the word "Chicano" is out there. . . . Target and Clear Channel would have loved it if it [was] called Hispanic . . . We're being subversive."

Montoya defends his participation in "Chicano!" "My hands feel a little soiled, but they're not bloodied," he says.

Look, says the handsome emblem and comedic voice of resistance to a generation of Chicanos, "we are in the ghost-dance days of Chicanismo. There's only a few of us holding the banner." The movement, he says, "is grinding to a halt."

"I told them about the misspellings."
-- security guard Richard Ramirez, responding to my criticism of the Spanish-language typos at the San Antonio Museum of Art.

Writing about the Chicano movement and its intimacy with art in 1980, Montoya's uncle, artist Malaquías Montoya, described Chicano art as developing out of "this social and political movement." The movement in the late '60s, he explained, "made it possible for Chicanos to look . . . away from the required assimilation process that was to have enabled them to become 'something better.'"

Artists were seen as important to the movement, he said, and it began to have a powerful impact.

"Chicanos cannot claim to be oppressed by a system and yet want validation by its critics as well as by the communities," wrote the older Montoya. It will be a victory, he challenged, "when Chicano communities find Chicano artists a success because they are viewed as spokespersons, citizens of humanity, and their visual expressions viewed as an extension of themselves." He warned of "a system that feeds with one hand and strangles with the other."

Corporate co-optation? Richard, the comedian and heir to the Montoya dynasty, laughs. "You know what concerns me," he repartees faster than Zorro himself, "thirty Palestinians killed, twenty-two Israelis."

The Last Days

"Baby." Adan Hernández, the gangster-painter with the Kool-Aid-green eyes listens to my arguments patiently while he smokes a cigarette. "The other alternative is nothing. . . . I want my share of the American dream."

Maybe that's the nightmare in all of this. After all the marching and shouting and rejections, did we just want to be included in a dream that someone else dreamed for us?

Or is it possible that we have forgotten how to dream at all?

"We have to take the devil's money to do God's work."
-- off-the-record "Chicano" museum executive.

"If artists are corrupted by money, then I would like a chance at getting corrupted."
-- artist César Martinez, in a public discussion of "Chicano Visions!"

"I have now arrived -- Target is behind me."
-- Michael Marinez, a queer activist and artist from San Antonio who lives in New York.

Bárbara Renaud González is a writer based in San Antonio, Texas.

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