Mirror, Mirror: The Latino/a as the"Other" in the Fine Arts

Delilah Montoya; University of Houston, 2005 CAA Panelist


At the first Chicano NationalConference in Denver in 1969, the “Plan de Aztlan” was written. It is theideological framework that formulated the political program of the ChicanoMovement. This manifesto urges Chicanos (La Raza de Bronze) to use ournationalism as a “key” for mobilization and organization to gain economic,cultural and political independence so to bring liberation from oppression,exploitation, and racism. The agenda was to gain control by reaffirming andasserting our cultural citizenship. A call was made to “writers, poets,musicians, and artists to produce literature and art” that both appeals to ourpeople and define the Chicano agenda. The self-inventive spirit of this periodinspired a flowering of creativity and ushered in the Chicano/a Renaissance.


I belong to that generation ofartist/cultural worker who was inspired by the movement. However I am aware thatwe are not totally informed by it. As a Chicana Artist, I understand that toproduce work that articulates my cultural values both an examination of how weunderstand ourselves and how we are understood must be considered. Tounderstand our Chicano citizenship, not only must we look at our personalrealities that form our lived experiences, but we must also consider thoserepresentations that are presented to us by mass media and the educationalsystems. In truth, we remain absent in these latter venues except to serve therole as the palatable token and/ or to reinforce some crude and demeaningstereotypes.


Art Historians and curators havepresented, the Latin American Esthetic and by extension Latino aesthetics asdeviations of the surreal. In the1920’s Andre Breton put forward the notionthat the Americas are surrealist continent; this was later expanded by JaneLivingston. The surrealist’s worldview tangles the subconscious and consciousstate into a dichotomy between the natural and cultural/civilized world. Thissplit enables the “us” and “other” discourse by positioning the “untamed”primitive at the intersection of these separated worlds.


Thisbinary framework answers my question of how we are understood or at least givesus a source from where the notions that inform the outsider’s perception comefrom. My efforts have been directed toward creating an understanding thatbridges the chasm caused by a colonial past; I know well that we are understoodthrough a dichotomy that renders my world as the antithesis or rather thenegative space for the civilized world. My world is looked upon as the untamedreality -- the gateway to the surreal. Ironically, surrealism is not the onlyaesthetic devise that seeks out untamed realities; documentary photography doesthis as well.


I havealways thought that on some level documentary photography and the surrealistactivity were connected. This was verified when I came across a thesisby Ian Walker discussing the connections between documentary photography andsurrealism in France during the 20’s and 30’s. He proposes that surrealism anddocumentary photography share a parallel history at a time when theoriesconcerning truth, veracity and reality were developing. He also demonstrateshow the histories of these two movements intertwined. Walker reviews keyFrench documentary photographers who were also connected with the Surrealistmovement and shaped the documentary esthetic and, by association, a mass mediaperception. Some of their ideas are illustrated in the works of Manuel AlvarezBravo.


It is pointedout that both surrealism and documentary photography share certain key subjectmatter. Those themes consist of street imagery from the prospective of theflaneur – that is the activity of strolling and observing as a creativeprocess. Surrealism and Documentary Photography have an unspoken love forsuspense or mystery like that found in the detective magazine. They exploitthe way the mysterious gets read into an image by juxtaposing text to influencethe visual read. Finally, a great deal of attention is given to subcultures,in particular those found in the “zone.” In France, the zone was a particularplace in the city where prostitutes, gypsies, the outcasts and the lawlessresided. Here, Bravo offers the Mexican comparison.


In addition,Walker describes the photographic medium as the perfect surrealist tool becausethe nature of photography could easily be contrived as a metaphor for theirconcept concerning values. At the core of those values was the unconsciousand conscious state. By using a recording of the visible world, the artistbecomes an observer rather than a creator, who could witness the unraveling ofhis own unconscious or the intricate web of connection in the world around him. The photograph became the union of the “subjective” self to the “objective”world.


This realismconsists more than a reproduction of the facade, it cracks open that surface inthe same manner that the photograph is more than indexical. The surrealistreality like the photographic image goes beyond the typographical likeness. They both reconstruct the visible world by encapsulating time and recordsfleeting moments by freezing the memory.


An importantdiscussion is the surrealist worldview that tangles the subconscious and consciousstate with the dichotomy of the natural and cultural world. The cultural orcivilized state is perceived as being in opposition to the natural one. Thesurrealist attempt is to slip into the crack that divides the two worlds so togaining a synoptic perspective that was informed by both the cultural andnatural world.


By locating “ThePrimitive” at this intersection the “us” and “other” discourse is madepossible. This primitive state, perceived as the gateway to the subconscious,is crucial towards understanding the realm of the surreal. In comparison theChicano interpretation of a place at the intersection of two worlds isdescribed as the sacred space of Napantla, which is based on Nahuatl/Aztecthought. This is a space where one gets caught between worlds with one foot inboth yet entering neither. During “The Conquest” many indigenous peoplebelieved they were in Napantla. Other spaces considered, by the Nauhas, to bein napantla are altar spaces and also the twilight hour that moment when theday changes to night. When in napantla change lies dormant as the latentpossibility.

In retrospect myquestioning of, what is informing “the mass perception,” (that is if one canreally profile this group or any group) is resolved. Both the Chicano and MassMedia perception is based on a kind of navel gazing experience. Yet this iswhere the similarities begin and end. Where the Chicano venture is to bridgethe chasm caused by colonialism through an understanding of our historical,economic, vernacular, and political life; in effect the elements that constructcultural; the mass media perception follows the tradition of fabricating adichotomy that renders other worlds as the antithesis to the presumed“civilized world.” These worlds of otherness are represented as the untamedreality -- the gateway to the surreal.


I propose thatmy work is documentary based. My attempt has always been to represent Raza forRaza eyes – that is Chicano Culture for the Chicano. The aim is to dothis in a manner that would also explore our allegorical impulse.        Probablythe most concise example of this approach is the installation, “ El Guadalupeen Piel. The back panels depict an image that was conceived for aninvitational show in France. The intent was to bring back to Europe theChristian Virgin as an icon that contained the underpinnings of colonialism-that is it's dark side that foregrounds captivity, oppression, and servitude. However the "Guadalupe En Piel", a window installation at the AndrewSmith Gallery (12/2000) in Santa Fe N.M., was my response to a question I wasasked, “Why a tattoo of this particular image on the back?” After consideringthe question I realized it had less to do with where the icon was located andmore to do with the material that she was pressed into – the skin.


The Guadalupe, a bi-cultural icon,denotes not only the international Baroque response immersed in Catholicism butreferences central parameters to Náhuatl[1] thought. The apparition story isseemingly simple. On Saturday, December 9, 1531[2], "Our Lady"first appeared to Juan Diego, a Mexica Indian and recent Catholic convert. Sherequested that a church be built in her honor. The proof that Juan Diego hadspoken to Guadalupe or "Our Lady"/Tonantzin is her graphic appearanceonto his cloak known as a tilma.

The tilma references clothe as asymbolic "magical alteration of reality"[3] and ametaphor for the second skin. The first skin of course is nakedness and thesecond skin conceals that state. In addition, for Náhuatl society the secondskin evokes the memory of the "Xipe Totec's flayed skin garment, which waspresented to this deity following sacrificial rituals in observance of militaryand fertility rites." [4]


The Xipe Totec was considered themale equivalent to the earth and moon goddesses. During the ritual the youthto be flayed wears a mask made of female skin a symbolic representation of theEarth & Moon Goddess/ Tonantzin. Interestingly prior to the sacrificialflaying of the woman, who represented the goddess, she wore a tilma made ofmaguey. This act binds the tilma into the ritual practice associated with the"Xipe Totec." The tilma that Juan Diego was wearing when theGuadalupe's miraculous imprinted her image onto the fabric was made of maguey. Maguey is native to the Americas and is associated with Náhuatl spirituality. The tilma that was worn by Diego hangs to this day in Mexico City at thebasilica that was built at the request of Guadalupe and in her honor.

With all this in mind, thecontemporary tattooing of the Guadalupe onto the backs of Cholos[5] is notan odd coincidence that is, if one trusts the collective consciousness. Thisact in many ways is a ritual practice that is meant to provide protectionagainst harm and also empowers the Cholo during conflicts. In tattooingGuadalupe's images onto their back the ritualistic wearing of "OurLady" is referenced. In following the myth, the tattooed Cholo can bethought of as the Xipe Totec who is the male aspect of Tonantzin. This actbinds together both the male and female energies of "Our Lady” thusempowering the Gudalupano -when he wears the female symbol.


The installation makes indirectreference to these ideas by displaying a Guadalupe tattoo located on the backas a digital collage that resembles a garment or rather the second skin thathas been flayed. Below the "Armijio" image is an additional rolloutwhere a full-bodied female torso is printed on frosted mylar.


The earth-mother is awakened duringdaybreak and twilight when the lights in the window back-light the "EarthMother" and illuminates the image with a warm glow while the ambientdaylight clarifies the front surface. The daybreak expresses the temporalcrack between the worlds.

Pressed, with white vinyl lettering,onto the window is a poem composed by Alurista a chicano poet and author ofPlan de Aztlan, he wrote this specifically for the installation.

It reads:

corazón colonizado

como rosa blooms


guadalupe tonantzin

en la tilma de nuestra


xicana piel


For us, she is our protector, asymbol of empowerment, and "Our Lady" of the Americas.


With this work I understand howwhat is considered by mass media to be part of a surreal zone for me exists asthe sacred space of napantal where the possibility of change is formed. WhenAndre Breton declared Latin America as the surrealist continent, Freda Kahloreminded him that it is just our monstrous reality. In the words of NickStanley, “it is when the empirical observation is undertaken with a surreal mistrustof surface the documentary photograph appears.”





[1] Náhuatl is thelinguistic name of the Aztec Indians

[2] Victor AlejandroSorell; "Her Presence in Her Absence: New Mexican Image of LaGuadalupana"

[3] George Kubler; TheArt and Architecture of Ancient America; Kingsport Press, Inc., Kingsport,Tennessee; pg. 105

[4] IBID pg.13

[5] Cholo refers to youth from the workingclass Mexican communities that dominant culture believes to havetaken on the gang life style.