|Galería de la Raza: A Study in Cultural Transformation|
by Dr. Amalia Mesa-Bains Ph.D.
Cultural work has been a significant part of the empowerment process in communities of color. Cultural presentation has served to signify the shared experience of the community and to resist the oppression of the larger society, and art has held up a mirror to that larger society that both indicts and defies. Within this tradition of cultural resistance, community art spaces have provided a context for social change.
Founded in 1970, San Francisco’s Galería de la Raza (Gallery of the People) is one of the many centros born out of the Chicano movement, a period of intense cultural reclamation in the 1960s and 1970s. A key aspect of the aesthetics of “el movimiento” was the emphasis on everyday lived reality. Motivated by a sense of collectivity and the community’s need for educational and political survival, emerging centros sought to provide an art that would inform and a presentation strategy that was anti-elitist and publicly accessible.
Over the years, under the leadership of René Yañez and Ralph Maradiaga, the Galería was actively involved in the cultural life of the Mission District’s Chicano/Latino community; organizing collective poster brigades, neighborhood mural projects, street spectacles, and cultural heritage celebrations. The Galería billboard provides information for the neighborhood, while Galería-sponsored traditional celebrations such as Día de los Muertos, 16th of September, Cinco de Mayo, and the Bazaar Navideño have become annual community events. This kind of community-rooted cultural ceremony, which brings members together in shared aesthetic expression, gives authenticity to the Galería’s mission.
But any institution’s attempt to provide an organic response to its community must include openness to change. The Galería has always seen its community as reaching beyond the local Chicano/Latino population to encompass the greater Chicano/Latino population of the Southwest, Bay Area art activists, tourists, and others. Because we have relied on definitions from the national and international cultural communities, the growing cohesiveness of the national Chicano imperative has joined our concerns with other Latino and multicultural audiences.
Increasingly, demographic shifts and cultural transformations are redefining the Galería’s community and the community’s needs. The community has grown to include a mix of scholars, artists, political activists, and cultural leaders from diverse places: California, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Seattle, Chicago, New York, Mexico, Latin America, and Europe. Increased immigration, inter-American telecommunications, and cultural transmigration have been major influences in redefining the range of cultural services we provide for the community as well as modes of presentation. Blends of new performance, folk art forms, and mixed media have expanded the artistic scope while blurring the distinctions of categories from fine to folk. Galería presentations by former directors Ralph Maradiaga and René Yañez have ranged from an exhibit of traditional New Mexican “Santo” wood carvings, to “Stages,” a multimedia performance art collaboration including multicultural artists such as Gronk/ASCO.
Throughout this transformation the Galería has looked to scholars as well as artists as a source in providing direction. The result of the Chicano struggle for higher education have provided a visible scholarship that examines questions of cultural identity and change, and the work of scholars like Tomas Ybarra-Frausto has influenced the content of exhibitions and activities at the Galería. The responsibility for authentic cultural presentation has grown to include publications and round tables that expand the aesthetic field. Galería artists’ monographs have provided new writers a context for Chicano and Latino art; they are also a response to the misinterpretation of Latino art within mainstream institutions.
In the larger area of the Americas, the concerns of Central American solidarity and Latin American expression have also affected both the form and content of work presented at Galería de la Raza. During periods of media disinformation that affected communities in the Bay Area, exhibits that focus on presenting cultural information take on great importance. The Border Workshop exhibition, a multimedia performance critique aimed at the realization of this north-south relationship, epitomizes the expanded notion of audience and authenticity. Artist such as Gómez-Peña, Emily Hicks, and David Avalos used theater and installation to look at the exploitation of the undocumented, the immigration journey of newcomers, and media misrepresentation of these situations. In a time when new immigration policies have increased the tension for our communities these exhibits are very important.
A long-standing concern with farmworkers’ rights has recently been reasserted with new and intensified focus. Ester Hernandez’s exhibit, “The Defiant Eye,” provided the aesthetic aperture for both the artist’s personal farmworker history and the national concern with toxic pesticides. An exhibit of artwork by imprisoned Puerto Rican freedom fighters touchingly presented the art of the incarcerated. Perhaps one of the most powerful examples of the art of social commentary was Yolanda M. Lopez’s “Cactus Hearts, Barbed Wire Dreams,” a provocative multimedia installation, which exposed the everyday commercial stereotypes of Mexicano/as.
Under the leadership of current directors, Enrique Chagoya and Humberto Cintron, the relationship with Mexican and Latin American cultural communities in these countries has intensified to include collaborations and exchanges. The transmigration phenomenon has introduced influences in both directions. Latino and Mexicano immigration into San Francisco has reaffirmed indigenous aesthetic influences in traditional folk crafts, community ethics, and family practices. But ironic reversals have also occurred, such as the celebration of Dia de los Muertos at the Galería (which uses urban pageantry and folk expressiveness), which has now become an example to Mexico, with its declining tradition of Muertos celebrations.
Demands for cultural identity and economic rights have changed in the urban arena. As neighborhoods shift and change, alternative spaces are placed in new positions of leadership. Studio 24, the Galería’s store, imports and sells Mexican and Latin American folk and popular arts and crafts, books, and Chicano artists’ products. The support for Chicano artists who develop new product lines such as contemporary jewelry and t-shirts is part of the Galería’s program of economic empowerment for the community. As both a commercial venture and through demonstrations and exhibitions, the store serves as a cultural bridge for newcomers, as well as an inspiration to contemporary artists in the community. The folk ethos—the cultural world view, spirituality, and sustaining beliefs of the people—has been strengthened by presentation of family folk artists. The formal residencies of established folk artisans like the Linares of Mexico have been essential to the development of the contemporary idiom.
In the ongoing exchange with self and other, the artist finds new language. In an extended fashion the community institution must also find its language in the dialogue with its audience. Through the lived experience of their artists, the collaboration with neighborhood groups, their pursuit of critical scholarship, and experimentation with presentation strategies, the community cultural centros aim at an authentic service. For almost twenty years the Galería has evolved a contemporary idiom in which memory, popular barrio syntax, ceremonial satire, personal family narrative, social activism, bilingual performance, feminist imagery, new media, and Latin American literature, theater, and spirituality have blended and fused, in a profusion of forms and meanings.
This kind of spontaneous discourse can only occur when institutional life is open to change. For the Galería de la Raza this has meant affiliation with diverse elements such as African Caribbean expression, anti-apartheid movements, and Pan-Asian sensibilities. The relationship between Latino and Black communities has been a long-standing one. In particular, both communities have struggled to provide service, guide artists, and resist appropriation by the mainstream. The strong Caribbean connection offers the Latino and Black communities a connection because of its African presence and the Galería looks to play a part in this continued connection. Addressing the expanding and changing communities of color in an ongoing struggle for cultural empowerment is the challenge that must be met by urban centros. Galería de la Raza aims to maintain its cultural core and invigorate new expression and new presentation within this transforming social context.
Dr. Amalia Mesa-Bains Ph.D.
“Reimagining America, The Arts of Social Change”
Mark O’Brian & Craig Little, 1990 pgs. 144-147