In 1932, David Siqueiros was asked to paint a romantic vision of Mexico on a wall in Los Angeles. He instead flipped the metaphorical bird at American imperialism and its history of subjugating indigenous peoples. That ultimately got him deported, and his mural was whitewashed from public view - until recently. The reemergence of América Tropical, and Siqueiros' work more generally, offers observers a chance to consider alternative narratives that challenge the official history. And while some murals today still draw controversy or get covered up, public murals remain powerful platforms for offering passersby different ways of seeing the world.
Ross Chambless: Sometimes a wall is not just a wall. Sometimes a wall with a painted mural tells a story. Public murals can transmit stories about official history, or alternative histories. About identity, or alternative identities. About mainstream culture, or subjugated culture. Murals on public walls can be powerful. But they can also make those with power, feel threatened. When people see a mural with a message that they don’t understand or don’t like, they will sometimes try to deface it or paint over it. Some people want a wall to be silent. To just be a wall.
América Tropical, painted by David Siqueiros on this rooftop wall above Olvera Street near downtown Los Angeles, 1932.
Luis López: We talked about history and the murals in this country. We treat our murals like we treat our history. We whitewash it, try to cover it up. But with time, we’re peeling back those layers and finding out what generations before us tried to cover up.
Ross: That’s Luis López. If you’ve already been listening, you’ll know he speaks for the Chicano viewpoint for the purposes of this podcast. We’re going to dig deeper into this discussion of why murals can be so controversial… but before we get there, let’s remind ourselves of where we’ve been.
This podcast is Nuevas Voces – Episode 15 by the way – a podcast by Artes de Mexico en Utah. In the past several episodes as we’ve been discussing the Mexican Muralist movement. By now we’ve discussed how the Muralist Movement was a response to the Mexican Revolution. Artists like Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and others were hired by the Mexican government to paint compelling murals on public walls to teach people the values of the Revolution. They were charged with nothing less than forging a new national identity for Mexican people.
David Alfaro Siqueiros
Ross: In this episode, we’re talking about David Alfaro Siqueiros. He was – along with Rivera and Orozco – considered one of the “Tres Grandes” or the “Big 3” Mexican muralists. We’ll touch on a few of his notable works – but mostly we’re going to talk about a mural he painted in the U.S. that continues to have a profound influence on the Chicano Muralist Movement in Los Angeles. It was a mural that was completely whitewashed shortly after he unveiled it in the 1930s. But many decades later, the whitewash was peeled back, and his mural was revealed again just a few years ago.
David Alfaro Siqueiros' mural ‘The Torment of Cuauhtémoc’ (Tormento de Cuauhtémoc) in the Palace of Bellas Arts, in Mexico City, 1951.
Ross: So, who was David Siqueiros? Well, compared to his muralist comrades, was very political.
Susan Vogel: He was in jail a lot. Of all of them, Orozco was not political. Rivera just blew with the wind. But I would say Siqueiros is the most consistently political, devoted to Communism "Stalinista" of the group. He was always protesting and getting put in jail. He was involved in the first assassination attempt of Trotsky, Leon Trotsky in 1937, on behalf of Stalin.
Ross: But he was also known for his artistic innovation.
Susan: He worked in Los Angeles and New York. Jackson Pollock studied under him. He was the first to use the airbrush and use car paint. If you look at his paintings, you can’t help but marvel over their texture. There are layers and layers of paint.
Ross: Siqueiros wasn’t afraid to challenge people or old ideas. Many of his values and relationships were formed while he was in prison. Here’s Fanny Blauer.
Fanny Blauer: At this political time, many of those who were in jail had been fighting in the Revolution, or they were telegraphists. Apparently, there was a big movement in Mexico for the telegraphist movement. The railroad movement, the teacher movement. He spent so much time with these people in jail, learning their stories. That was his inspiration. He was dedicated to the principles of the Mexican Revolution. This is something you can see in his painting.
Mural "Del Porfirismo a la Revolución (1957 - 1966) by David Alfaro Siqueiros. The main wall is divided into 5 blocks: (Fifth) The people in arms, appears accompanied by Francisco I. Madero, José María Pino Suárez, Venustiano Carranza, Emiliano and Eufemio Zapata, Francisco Villa, Felipe Angeles, Álvaro Obregón and Plutarco Elías Calles, among others. The woman on the right side represents the nation in flames.
Ross: In 1957, Siqueiros would paint his own interpretation of the Revolution for Mexico City’s National Museum of History in Chapultepec Castle. It’s titled "From the Dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz to the Revolution".
Fanny: What is famous about this mural, is you have to walk as you see it. It is famous for being a mural in movement.
Ross: Siqueiros's mural twists and turns with animated action. And many of the key figures from the Revolution, like Porfirio Díaz, Emiliano Zapata, Francisco Madero, Álvaro Obregón, can be seen. As a veteran of the Revolution, Siqueiros wasn’t necessarily trying to glorify the conflict.
Fanny: He was a fighter in the Revolution. He was part of the army defending Venustiano Carranza… There’s always this feeling of leaving you… not too happy about it. He was an idealist to glorify the Mexican Revolution, but he was able to demonstrate the pain and social justice people wanted to have.
Siqueiros's portrayal of the dictator Porfirio Diaz.
Ross: In one scene, Siqueiros paints Porfirio Díaz, the dictator who ignited the Revolution by refusing to give up office, is surrounded by his científicos – technocratic bureaucrats, and dancing female entertainers twirling around him. If you look closely, Porfirio is stepping on Mexico’s Constitution of 1857. Siqueiros then moves our eyes to the Cananea Strike where government troops try to suppress rioting workers protesting unfair conditions, and two men wrestle over control of the Mexican flag.
Fanny: Something I read about this mural, is that when you see it there are no straight lines. Everything is in an angle. As you walk, you move with the mural. There’s a lot of shapes. It’s an active mural.
Susan: His work is the most… sometimes he does ceilings and walls, and everything is covered and it would just probably give you vertigo because there is so much movement. it's always humanity. One of his works is called the March of Humanity. It seems to me, more than the other muralists, his shows huge movements of people.
Dead bodies and the horseman
Ross: Siquerios’ characters in this mural are almost 3-dimensional.
Susan: You’re definitely a part of it. You’re not a spectator watching from afar.
Ross: In another scene, Siquerios shows us a row of dead bodies, but to the right of them a Revolutionary riding a white horse abruptly reins in his horse from a gallop.
Luis: This is painted on a corner. It gives me the impression that that horse is whipping around something and coming at you.
Fanny: Siqueiros was famous for painting on corners. He was actually the first to introduce the 3-dimensional aspect of muralism.
Ross: Fanny says Siquerios aimed to show Mexico as a country of contrasts. As a culture of haves and have nots. A country in perpetual revolution.
Fanny: He does a fantastic job of showing this dramatic aspect of what it is to fight for what you believe.
The people square off with the elite, struggling for control of the Mexican flag.
Ross: Let’s go back, to this fascinating moment in 1932. When Siqueiros was 36 he left Mexico to escape government scrutiny of his Communist activities and went to Los Angeles. While there, he was commissioned to paint a blank wall on a rooftop plaza on Olvera Street near downtown L.A. According to Fanny, Siqueiros was invited…
Fanny: … to paint a romantic vision of what Mexico was. And I guess, when the government saw what he painted, they were extremely shocked… they asked him, well, you can paint a Mexican woman with flowers on a balcony, and there is a ranchero coming and singing music. Something that shows the romantic side of Mexico. But instead…
Ross: Instead, with América Tropical, Siqueiros had another idea. Here’s Luis.
David Alfaro Siqueiros painted 3 murals while in CA in 1932. This mural was moved from Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, building and all, to a new location at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. Innovative techniques and amazing process.
Luis: Being the political force he was, he was trying to stir discussion. It was an honest reflection of how many Latin Americans felt. You have this pyramid. At the bottom there is rubble. You have these trees on the sides with branches going all over. In the middle is a pyramid, an in front of that is a crucifix with an indigenous person. And on top is an Eagle.
Ross: Specifically, a bald Eagle – the symbol of the United States. The Mayan pyramid in the background is overrun by vegetation, and an armed Peruvian peasant and a Mexican campesino crouch on a wall in the upper right corner, readying to defend themselves. Siqueiros painted the concrete wall mostly at night using an airbrush, with the design outlined for him with a projector. The L.A. neighborhood around him was largely Hispanic.
Video: Olvera Street: Graffiti and América Tropical, the Legacy of David Alfaro Siqueiros
Luis: It’s important to consider the history of La Plaza Olvera. A historical part of L.A. It was meant to recreate what a Mexican market would be. It still is in a way. They wanted him to contribute it that feeling. And in true art activist form, he took that money and painted what he wanted to anyway. And in this piece really criticizing… the U.S. in a sense. There's an American bald Eagle at the center, on top of a crucifix that has an indigenous person tied up. His thinking was, if this will be in a Mexican part of town, I will paint about our pain. He did that and of course, that was not received well.
Ross: After Siqueiros unveiled América Tropical on October 9, 1932, his critique of United States' imperialism in Latin America received generally favorable criticism. But others viewed it as "Communist propaganda." Subsequently, after a 7-month residency in the U.S., Siqueiros’s visa wasn’t renewed. And as for the mural…
Luis: Covered it in white paint.
Staff with the Getty Conservation Institute worked to restore the mural. (Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Times, Carolina A. Miranda)
Ross: The mural was partially covered by 1934, and totally whitewashed in 1938.
Luis: The interesting thing, this is on a rooftop outside. So, ironically, that white paint helped protect the mural. And it has since been restored.
Ross: After over 50 years of being whitewashed, the Getty Conservation Institute began a collaborative process to restore the America Tropical mural. With no color photographs of the fresco, conservators used scientific analysis and best practices to recapture Siqueiros’ vision of his piece.
Fanny: There was a group of curators who came from Mexico and all over to work little by little on each part of the mural, they asked for grants from everywhere to protect the mural and now it's open to the public.
Luis: I mean, I just imagine the impact this mural has on Mexicanos from L.A., given the history of that city prior to it being the U.S. and the Mexican presence. It just speaks to our souls. Even though I’m from Santa Ana south of L.A., I see myself in this and the shared history. It means a lot to me, and we’re just grateful it’s back.
A man identified as Robert Bredecio, an assistant to muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros, stands in front of the completed "América Tropical" mural. (Photo courtesy of the Getty Conservation Institute)
Ross: Let’s stop and go back to something Luis said before: [rewind]
Luis: "We treat our murals like we treat our history. We whitewash it, try to cover it up. But with time, we’re peeling back those layers and finding out what generations before us tried to cover up.”
Ross: Ironically, there are many other stories of murals that were destroyed or nearly destroyed. The story of Chicano Park near San Diego is another example. In the early 1970s, a predominantly Mexican-American neighborhood rallied to protect a swath of land under some freeway bridges known as Barrio Logan outside San Diego. Gradually the bridge pylons towering over the park became canvasses for Chicano street muralists celebrating their Mexican-American culture. By 1980 the park was known as Chicano Park and declared a historical site, hosting the largest collection of outdoor murals in the country. But the murals have occasionally been threatened by development, vandalism, and most recently, Far Right political groups.
Chicano Park murals
Ross: Still, Chicano Park remains a place for free expression and provocative muralism – recently in 2017 a mural was painted criticizing President Trump’s proposed border wall. This is clip from a video produced by the San Diego Union Tribune. The person speaking is a local Californian artist, Salvador, “Sal” Barajas.
Chicano Park murals
Ross: Utah is not immune to similar political battles over public murals.
Susan: There was a mural in Salt Lake City painted of Joe Hill by some members of a union. And the next day, it was painted over with the image of a U.S. flag. That was in the last few years.
The Joe Hill mural – before and after. Photos courtesy of Steve Griffin and Jeremy Harmon, The Salt Lake Tribune.
Ross: Joe Hill, in case you don’t know, was a famous labor activist and songwriter, whom many see as a martyr. We have links to articles about this 2015 vandalism incident. I should mention a new mural was painted on the side of Salt Lake City’s Ken Sanders’ bookstore sometime after.
Susan: And there was the mural in West Jordan of Caesar Chávez and Dolores Huerta that the City Council said it was a sign and it’s not permitted.
Mural of Caesar Chávez and Dolores Huerta in West Jordan, Utah.
Ross: This incident also happened in 2015. You can also see photos of this local Utah mural on their website.
Susan: It was a Facebook flash protest. This went up. It was done by an artist with students. As soon as it went up, the City council of West Jordan said that’s a sign and it can’t be more than this size, and you have to take it down. There was a big protest and a lot of the folks from the artistic communities, political communities, and Latino communities went out there. I believe it’s still there. But this is constant. People paint on walls people can see, it angers people, and they destroy it… it’s a beautiful mural.
Luis: And it’s the one mural they have in West Jordan, and it’s too many.
Susan: If you go there and stand on that corner in West Jordan and every other visual you see is a corporate logo. You see Sinclair, and Pizza Hut, all big chain corporate logos. No art. That’s the only local, original work of art and that's the one that is offensive.
Luis: And it’s on a Mexican restaurant.
Susan: It's a beautiful picture of Caesar Chávez and Dolores Huerta. A beautiful mural. There’s nothing radical about it…
Luis: It’s the misconception. It does have the flag of the Chicano rights movement. Some confuse that with communism. But people see the black and white, not the gray areas. Some people are quick to write it off as extremist. It makes people uncomfortable. Yeah, exactly.
David Siqueiros taking a selfie?
Ross: If there’s just one thing I hope you take away from this conversation, it’s that when walls become more than walls – when walls become public murals, and especially when they become political murals – they can sometimes make people feel uncomfortable. But still today, murals should be seen as a unique form of expression and art. David Siqueiros – and the other Mexican Muralists like Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco – have had a significant impact on how artists have since painted murals, and how Mexican American communities continue to celebrate their culture, celebrate their heroes, or agitate for change.
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Thanks to our commentators Susan Vogel; Fanny Guadalupe Blauer; Luis López; Episode produced and edited by Ross Chambless; Thanks to KCPW 88.3 FM for the studio space; The music you heard in this episode comes from Calexico, Al Caiola, Gustavo Santaolalla, Augustin Lara, Elliot Goldenthal, Latin Playboys, Paco De Lucia, and Charanga Cakewalk.
Engage with Us:
What do you think of América Tropical? How does his critique of American imperialism make you feel?
Do you have any stories to share about any controversial public murals you know about being threatened or destroyed? Can you tell us about a mural you appreciate, that may rankle other people because of the ideas it portrays?