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The Chicano movement

From the political activism and cultural energy of the 1960s an astonishing artistic movement blossomed, exploring the culture, identity and history of the Mexican American community.

Georgina Campbell

Initially a derogatory label for descendants of Mexican migrants in the US, Chicano, became in the 1960’s an accepted symbol of self-determination and ethnic pride.

Socially, the Chicano Movement addressed the negative ethnic stereotype of Mexicans in the American consciousness and mass media. Through the creation of literary works and visual arts that validated the Mexican American ethnicity and culture, many came to adopt the principles intrinsic in the concept of Chicanismo.

After WWII the movement gained momentum, with the formation of groups such as the American G.I. Forum (AGIF), which consisted of returning Mexican American veterans.

The AGIF received national exposure due to Felix Longoria, a Mexican American serviceman who was denied funeral services in his hometown in Texas after being killed during WWII.

In the following decades Mexican American civil rights activists achieved numerous legal victories, particularly the 1947 ruling which declared that segregating children of Mexican and Latin descent was unconstitutional. The 1954 ruling which declared that Mexican Americans were entitled to equal protection under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was another triumph for the movement.

The late 1960s saw student movements develop worldwide and the Chicano Movement inspired its own organised protests, including mass walkouts of high school students.

Most significantly the heightened political activism and energised cultural pride saw the burgeoning of Chicano art in the 1960s. A wealth of cultural expression was developed through the different media of painting, drawing, sculpture and printmaking, as artists began to actively participate in the efforts to redress the plight of Mexicans in the US.

A new iconography and symbolic language began to emerge which not only articulated the political movement, but also became the core of a Chicano cultural Renaissance.

This flourishing Renaissance was the birth of a Chicano aesthetic, known today as the Chicano Art Movement, which played a vital role in creating the ideology of the entire political Chicano movement. Art provided a venue to challenge xenophobic stereotypes of Mexican Americans, simultaneously politicising and mobilising its audience to take action.

Primarily Chicano art was distinguished by the expression through public art forms, as artists created a bi-cultural style that included US and Mexican influences.

“The Great Wall of LA” is a beautiful example of a Chicano mural by Judy Baca, with its strong regionalist imagery emulating strength and cultural harmony. 20 years later political priorities and societal values began to emerge in the work of Chicano artists and by the late 1970s women became extremely prominent in the artistic world.

The concept of Chicanismo (as mentioned above) was also one of the unifying principles of the artistic movement. Art historian, Marcos Sanchez- Tranquilino, in his study on Chicano murals, explains that Chicanismo was a complex of nationalist strategies by which Chicano origins and histories, including present and future identities, were constructed and legitimised. Chicanismo provided a context for historical reclamation of the self through the affirmation of Chicano cultural narratives and resistance to Anglo models of assimilation.

Even after the Chicano movement dissolved, Chicano art continued as an activist endeavour which challenged the social constructions of racial/ ethnic discrimination, citizenship and nationality and traditional gender roles in an attempt to create social change.

Chicano arts has become a form of popular education in its ability to create a dialogue surrounding issues Mexican Americans faced, whilst empowering them to construct their own solutions.

A primary focus of many Chicano artists is the militarisation of the Mexican and US border. Images of barbed wire act as a direct metaphorical representation of the painful and contradictory experiences of Chicanos caught between two cultures.

La Virgin de Guadalupe, who is an important figure in Mexican culture, demonstrates the importance of religious iconography in the movement, because within a socio-political context she becomes a symbol of hope in times of suffering and of empowerment, particularly when embodying an average woman or portrayed in an act of resistance.

Mexican and indigenous culture is celebrated through the practices of their ancestors. As new generations come to pass, art plays a role in educating Chicano youth about essential histories, traditions and values of their identity.

Chicanos are able to affirm their cultural, ethnic and religious identities through daily life, and artists draw upon these traditions, experiences and images, such as sugar skulls and La Virgen de Guadalupe, in their artwork to reflect the importance of self-determination and cultural difference to Chicanos.

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